Business Monday

Q&A with Lascelles Chin: ‘In business, we need to help the poor’

Jamaica businessman Lascelles Chin is one of the Caribbean’s most honored business leaders. He was recently honored in Miami with the American Friends of Jamaica with its Peacock Award for International Achievement.
Jamaica businessman Lascelles Chin is one of the Caribbean’s most honored business leaders. He was recently honored in Miami with the American Friends of Jamaica with its Peacock Award for International Achievement. Courtesy of American Friends of Jamaica

Jamaica businessman Lascelles Chin is one of the Caribbean’s most honored business leaders. And now the founder and chairman of LASCO Affiliated Companies, Jamaica’s second-largest manufacturing firm — whose products can be found on many South Florida shelves — has earned one more accolade.

The American Friends of Jamaica, which held its annual charity fundraiser in Miami last month, presented Chin with its Peacock Award for International Achievement. Chin has not only made LASCO a household name in Jamaican kitchens, but he has distinguished himself as a philanthropist with his dedication to supporting the country’s unsung civil servants.

For 17 years, LASCO has honored teachers, police officers and nurses by recognizing their work to better Jamaica, and supporting training opportunities with grants. That philanthropic commitment is in line with AFJ’s charitable efforts. Founded 34 years ago, the AFJ is one of Jamaica’s leading charity organizations and counts among its board members former U.S. ambassadors assigned to Jamaica. Each spring, the nonprofit awards grants ranging from $500 to $200,000 in the areas of healthcare, education and disaster relief.

Among those who were in attendance to congratulate Chin was former Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. It was a rare South Florida public appearance for Simpson Miller, who now carries the title ‘Leader of the opposition’ after her People’s National Party’s February defeat at the polls.

“Lascelles Chin is one of Jamaica’s prominent sons,” Simpson Miller told the Miami Herald. “He is a very special person . . . one of our outstanding business persons, providing needed employment for people, and is a very excellent corporate citizen.”

The Herald asked Chin, 78, about his corporate responsibility and the renewed confidence in the country’s business climate that many in the private sector are expressing as a result of reforms. The reforms were implemented by the Jamaican government with the support of the International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. These are excerpts from that conversation:

Q: You’ve received a lot of honors recently, including an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Technology in Kingston. Why do you think you’re getting all of this recognition?

A: We have done so much for the Jamaican society. We do a lot for the teachers, the nurses. We’ve been doing that for about 17 years, and they really appreciate it. We spend a lot of money on them, probably more than 250 million Jamaican dollars. We not only give prizes, we support them with their ventures. They might be having summer camps, training. Every year, we send about four teachers to a conference in the [United] States, and they find that to be very successful. We have schools that we sponsor.

Q: What is LASCO’s philosophy?

A: Our philosophy is that in business, we need to help the poor and unfortunate because we’re getting support from them.

Q: Does the private sector have a social responsibility?

A: We have to give back. Personally, I don’t worship money, so I do give back because the government cannot do everything. In a third-world country, if the private sector does not help, then the poor Jamaican population will suffer more. And that is why I do what I do and encourage other businesses to do.

Q: What is the genesis of your philanthropic effort of honoring civil servants with monetary prizes and support for their community and developmental program?

A: We started with the teachers. People were complaining that the teachers were no good, but I knew that when I went to school, they were the ones who were responsible for my education. So when I started about 17 years ago, I found that there were so many teachers who were dedicated. Even though the pay is not sufficient, we still have a lot of dedicated teachers. The first year I did it, many children wanted to go into teaching.

And it was the same thing for the police. They were being lambasted, and the majority were frustrated. They were unmotivated, so when I started with Police Officer of the Year, the police themselves were doubtful because the police were having such a bad name. But it is now so popular, so appreciated; it’s a tremendous motivation for the police force, and the same thing for the nurses. The nurses were never being recognized.

Q: Jamaica’s economy has been in a downturn for quite some time, hobbled by decades of negative or slow growth, high unemployment and high debt. How has that affected manufacturing companies?

A: It’s difficult. That’s why the numbers in manufacturing have really depreciated — because the interest rates were so high. We survived and we managed.

Q: Your business has grown tremendously, and Jamaica isn’t the only place people can find your popular line of products.

A: We’re definitely expanding our export reach. We’re now exporting to the United States, Canada, England, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Q: What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

A: You have to have the desire; you have to have the passion; and you have to learn about the business that you’re going into because it’s very competitive. My mantra is, ‘Do not spend more than what you earn.’ If you do that, you can be successful.

Q: A number of Jamaican business leaders are reporting that their confidence in the business climate is being renewed thanks to a number of business reforms. Are you one of them?

I used to pay about 38 cents U.S. a kilowatt for electricity. Now I’m paying 14 cents. That’s a big reduction. The government is conscientious about trying to make life easier for us, so we’re getting on the cusp of being competitive. That’s why I see many companies expanding. Red Stripe [beer] is bringing back production to Jamaica using cassava as their base; LASCO has recently pumped $50 million [U.S. dollars] into the factory, and we can’t even produce enough.

Q: Indeed, I see that your iCool non-carbonated beverages are doing well, surprising many as customers choose them over the traditional soda drinks.

A: We are outselling a lot of the drinks, so we might have to expand again.

Q: In recent years, you’ve doubled employment from 450 to 900 employees. Are there any plans to follow some other manufacturers who have built factories outside Jamaica as a hurricane-backup measure?

A: We’re competitive, and we’re staying in Jamaica because we have to provide jobs for Jamaicans. We’re quite excited about what we’re doing; we’re quite confident that we’re going to expand; and although we’ve gotten pretty large in Jamaican terms, we’re just starting. In the next two years, you’re going to be amazed at the growth.

Lascelles Augustus Chin

Position: Founder and executive chairman of LASCO Affiliated Companies. The group manufactures and distributes more than 300 products with the LASCO brand name, including iCool, its first locally manufactured line of non-carbonated beverages. Chin currently serves as chairman for: LASCO Distributors; LASCO Manufacturing; LASCO Financial Services; East West (St Lucia); Summit Development; and Charco.

Also: He is a director of the University of the West Indies School of Nursing Advisory Board and King’s House Foundation.

How he got his start in business: Chin was born in St. Catherine. He had first intended to become an agricultural chemist, and in 1958, was a lab technician in the pharmacy at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Three years later, using his savings, he entered the business sector and began importing black pepper from the Far East and peas from Portugal and the United States, eventually becoming Jamaica’s largest trader of black pepper. He then expanded to partner with the German company Henkel.

Awards: Last month, he was given the American Friends of Jamaica Peacock Award for International Achievement. In November, the University of Technology Jamaica conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In 2004, he received Florida International University Business Leader Award. Chin has also received several other honors over the years for his entrepreneurial efforts, business acumen and local outreach efforts.