JM | Apr 30, 2022

John Mahfood | ‘We need strong leaders in Jamaica who can set the example’

/ Our Today

John Mahfood, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA). (Photo: Facebook @JMEAlimited)

It is important that leaders develop a vision that is embraced by all but, to sell that vision, strong leadership must be displayed.

So said John Mahfood, president of Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), whilst addressing the Make Your Mark Consultant’s Middle Managers Conference held at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston on April 27.

Below is his full presentation:

“I am happy to have the opportunity to address you today because you are our future leaders. I hope that you recognise this and plan your life with this in mind. My talk today will be primarily about my thoughts on leadership and how it relates to you.

I was fortunate to attend a session recently with the President of Rwanda [Paul Kagame]. During the session, he described a bit on how his country was able to come back from the brink of disaster in 1994.

Mass grave containing the remains of over 250,000 Rwandans who were killed during the 1994 genocide at Kigali Genocide Memorial on April 4, 2019. (Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla)

In 1994, the people of Rwanda turned on one another and killed almost 1 million of its own people, out of a population of 10 million people. It took a Herculean effort to stabilise the country and try to develop it economically. Back in 1994, the per capita income was $30,000 per year or $600 per week. The country is landlocked and has no valuable minerals or oil deposits. Most people lived off the land. So, you can imagine how difficult it would be, given the circumstances, to undertake meaningful changes in the country.

During the last ten (10) years, the country has made huge strides, based on the following:

  1. One of the fastest-growing economies in Africa: 9.5 per cent in 2019
  2. They have doubled per capita income to US$1000
  3. Corruption is the third lowest in Africa
  4. They are [ranked] 29th in the world in “Doing Business”, third in Africa
  5. Their murder rate is very low at three per 100,000 compared to 49 per 100,000 for Jamaica
  6. Literacy has moved to 76 per cent
Prime Minister Andrew Holness and President Paul Kagame smile after the Rwandan leader was introduced to key members of Holness’ Cabinet on the tarmac of the General Aviation Centre of the Norman Manley International Aiport in Kingston. President Kagame arrived in Jamaica on Wednesday afternoon, April 13, to kick start his first three-day state visit to the island. (OUR TODAY PHOTO/GAVIN RILEY)

These are great strides by any measure. A number of the members in the audience present asked how this was achieved. The most important factor highlighted was that the leader developed a vision that was embraced by the country. But, to “sell” the vision, the President had to display strong leadership throughout this period which inspired the people of his country.

The other major global event is the war in Ukraine. This country was invaded by the second most powerful military in the world and their young leader stayed. And through this powerful leadership, the people of Ukraine have sacrificed everything to protect their country.

Contrast this with Afghanistan; they had a military of 200,000 and they surrendered to a few thousand Taliban because their leader fled the country instead of staying with his people. He was a coward, and no one was willing to step forward in his absence.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrives for a meeting with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine April 9, 2022. (Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

I have been inspired by these leaders and it makes me want to be a better person. At the same time, it makes me sad when I consider our own country. We have so much going on for us in terms of natural resources, educated people and proximity to the US etc.

Our productivity level and per capita income have not improved in the past thirty (30) years, and we have a huge section of our population that are very poor. We also have one of the highest murder rates in the world.

We rank 70 out of 180 countries on the perception of corruption index and 71 out of 191 countries in terms of doing business. You may be upset with me for pointing out our problems, but we need to be upset with ourselves for allowing this to happen. We in Jamaica need bold and courageous leaders, both in politics and business, but unfortunately, we have not had that since most of our independence.

How can we win the battle [against] crime without strong and honest leaders? We need leaders who can set the example for the people of Jamaica that we can feel proud of and want to follow.

The current salary of a Member of Parliament is less than J$4 million per year. This is woefully inadequate, yet the Government is afraid of raising their salary to an acceptable level. So, we are left to wonder how they supplement their income?

This ties into our perception that politicians must be corrupt. Our politicians are afraid and unwilling to tackle difficult issues that face us as a country. Think of the fact that one-in-five households steal electricity, but we don’t do anything about it.

Members of the Houses of Parliament bow their heads during a prayer at the Ceremonial Opening of Parliament in mid-February 2021. (Photo: JIS)

As it is now, we have low expectations of ourselves, and this translates into poor performance at all levels. You as a young person, need to look inside of yourself and produce the best for your family, your company, and your country. Do not emulate the negative attitudes around you. We need a new and courageous body of young people that can turn this country around. Just know that the willpower to make a difference is within each of you. Our failures are not just because of our political leaders, but also because of our own acceptance of mediocrity.

This means that you must:

  1. Be involved in politics.
  2. Speak up when you see things that are wrong.
  3. Work harder in your personal capacity.

Our economy can grow with our combined efforts. We have weathered the storm of COVID-19 and our macro-economic situation is stable. We can grow in a number of areas, given the opportunities, including:

a) Export to the Caribbean because of freight rates that favour inter-island trading.
b) Online selling through many websites.
c) BPO and tourism.
d) Agriculture

So, what is holding us back? Yes, I know that there are still problems such as:

  • High cost of security
  • High cost of electricity, gas
  • High levels of corruption and crime
  • Shortage of containers which causes supply chain problems.
Police personnel and a soldier, both attached to the Joint Anti-Gang Task Force (JAGTF)—which comprises the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and Jamaica Defence Force (JDF)—conduct manned patrol operations in an undisclosed location in Jamaica on March 21, 2022. (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaConstabularyForce)

We have to fight our way through these problems and deliver or goods and services on time. One of my distributors tell me that he could do 30 per cent more business with Jamaican exporters. If only he could get the goods. Instead, he gets excuses for non-delivery. I suspect that our failure to excel is not just related to exports but covers all of our business.

What gives me hope? In 2010 the Junior Stock Exchange was born. Forty-four companies have come on board and these companies have been totally transformed. The performance of the management has been lifted. I don’t know if it is because of the additional scrutiny or the pressure to deliver profit to shareholders, that comes from being listed, that lifts the performance. I just know that it happens, and it is in all of us to excel. Today, the Junior Stock Exchange is worth J$200 billion. My own company is worth US$50 million vs US$5 million when we listed. This is the reason I have been encouraging companies to join the Junior Stock Exchange. The JMEA has signed an MOU with the JSE in order to bring more companies on board.

Also, don’t forget our world-class tourism industry. Our home-grown, all-inclusive hotels rank among the best in the world, and we have to compete for international tourists with many countries that offer sun, sea, sand and ganja. The hotels have to compete with foreign-owned hotels right here in Jamaica. This sector has shown the rest of us that we have it within us to be the best.

Tourists soak up the warmth of the Caribbean sun along the famous ‘Seven-Mile Beach’ in Negril, Westmoreland. (Photo: Sheldon Levene)

Finally, just one other piece of advice for you in your approach to business. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine should show us that we must always operate our business and lives on the basis that the unimaginable can happen at any time and we must prepare for this and become self-reliant.

Prior to Covid-19, we had a fairly long run when things were going well for us economically and we were making plans for this to continue forever. Then, all of a sudden, in early 2020, COVID-19 happened and almost brought us to our knees. Be assured that these major events happen every 10 years or so and you must run your business with this in mind. Before this, we had the world financial meltdown in 2008. Before that Jamaica had its financial meltdown in the 90s that destroyed our financial sector and the entrepreneurial middle class. I could go back further in time to show you more examples of major and unexpected events.

I will end by saying Jamaica’s future is in our hands. Be decisive, be bold and remember your actions count as a leader!

Thank you, everyone, for your attention, and I wish you all the best for the future.”


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