Noble: How Lok Jack ‘pulled a Kanye’ and hijacked national discussion on Sandals

In a move that beats US rapper Kanye West’s 2009 snatching of Taylor Swift’s mic at the VMA, Arthur Lok Jack—the surprise discussant at last Wednesday’s UWI’s event—hijacked what ought to have been a significant national conversation about foreign direct investment.

Taking more than thirty minutes, Lok Jack berated the audience and spun tales that stretched and sought to establish himself as the prime mover and shaker of Trinidad business. The discussion never recovered. At the end, the public—including thought-leaders like Dr Winford James and Lloyd Taylor—had to beg for time to contribute.

Photo: Guardian Holdings Limited (GHL) and Associated Brands Group of Companies (ABIL) chairman Arthur Lok Jack.

Lost in the fray was Dr Bhoe Tewarie’s significant point that, in the social media age, communication is key to assuaging public expectations. His point that democracy now has been radically transformed because of the ability of many to voice their opinion was waylaid.

Ignored were Dr Vanus James’ valiant efforts to show that disclosure, due diligence and institutional frameworks are critical, should we seek to engage in public-private partnerships. His fate reemphasised that Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s sacrifice in the ‘Point Fortin highway fiasco’ has been in vain.

We do not care about this unless it is not our party in power. Minister Stuart Young’s advice that the deal was dead and that we needed to look ahead was dismissed.

Instead, we lapped up easily researched hotel data as though Lok Jack was giving ‘inside scores’. He regaled us with stories about impressive linkages that the Sandals deal could have brought.

Nobody seemed aware of the Caribbean Hotel Association’s report detailing that 90% of guests in all-inclusive hotels never leave the property and that more than four fifths of the fish, fresh fruit and eggs used in hotels are imported from outside the region.

We made no link between that level of importation and the dominant role of a regional company called Rainforest Seafoods headquartered in Jamaica, which is owned by Brian Jardim—Butch Stewart’s eldest son.

Photo: A farmer looks after his crop.
(Courtesy News.Co.TT)

While the food bill of a large hotel is considerable in the context of the local economy, we did not identify the challenges of shifting food sourcing to local farmers.

Sandals has a Farmers’ programme that does this in Jamaica, but it requires a strategic alliance with the Ministry of Agriculture and a distribution infrastructure. But we had no time to discuss this.

We apparently did not know—in the mind of the rambling Lok Jack—that the Government’s tax take on hotel revenues is 18%. How gullible we were in the premier place of higher education.

And Minister Young could not get us to understand what a MOU—a non-binding initial written agreement that defines the roles and responsibilities—is. We refused to appreciate that this is the first step in any negotiation, without which no serious person would begin talks.

Instead we wanted all the raw data without understanding the protection of trade secrets, confidential business information, processes and profit and loss applicable under commercial law.

Lok Jack’s breath-taking claim of the origins of the deal—he claimed it happened at his dinner table—which bore the appearance of privileged access, went unchallenged. The closest we got were the queries about whether Sandals was the best or only option.

Photo: Sandals hotel magnate Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.

Nobody questioned him, we accepted it as though it is the normal way to do business with public money. This is the heart of transparency in procurement and goes diametrically against Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s version.

Somebody is being economical with the truth. Is it acceptable because it is Sandals and our ‘premier’ deal-maker?

Lok Jack spun a tale of future deal-making and capital allocation commitments by public companies which would be used to induce the return of Sandals. If this is true, then it should have caused gasps of disbelief.

Neither CEO nor board ought to be cavalierly throwing our money like that. This is what brings losses to be borne by their shareholders. We chose to forget the disastrous 2014 hotel foray by GHL in Martinique.

Instead, there was a request from the audience for participation in the potential deal that was greeted with applause and some embarrassed laughter. The storytelling did not factor in that Sandals is probably the most disciplined brand in the Caribbean and does not need our money.

At this rate, Peter Permell will have much work to confront many CEOs and Boards as he seeks to rescue those eager ones.

The panel consequently never got the time to discuss the potential impact of a project like Sandals on the foreign exchange rate or the type of political relationships needed to effectively implement policies to promote growth and development.

Photo: Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young (centre) with Sandals deputy chairman Adam Stewart and CEO Gebhard Rainer.

Neither they nor the audience discussed the mechanism to move from the anaemic linkages of our School Feeding programme to feeding a large hotel, thereby building robust synergy within the economy. We never identified our capability gaps nor how they may be bridged.

Dr Vanus James’ point on how to improve oversight mechanisms got short shrift. Not once did we raise the possible multiplier effect arising from the hotel expenditure nor did we do scenarios around the control and domicile of profits and professional fees.

Our self-doubt discounted our internal capacity to build a brand like Butch Stewart has done. We snickered at the Rasta who raised that query—as though Stewart did not also have to start from somewhere.

We were enthralled by ‘Brer Anansi tales’ and it was not even a full moon night. The UWI must pull up its socks. This shameful episode did not help us to become better equipped to transform and diversify our economy.

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About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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  1. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114

    Lasana…breds…line up a TV siddong with Afra and me and Mark Meredith and Watson Duke and Kamla and Bhoe and let we see who really know wah REALLLLY went on there nah jed…
    Cause Noble here talking ah pack ah ping pong.
    [ass…i really mean he’s talking ass…]
    Talmboud fish imports and and fresh fruit imports…
    The only more ludicrous statement than that is when ALJ spoke about the huge potential for local Irish potato farmers to supply the 25,000,000 pounds of spuds for Sandals…
    NOBODY–was Noble in the audience?–fact checked that Dr Rowley stated on numerous occasions that this deal was germinated at a trade conference at Hyatt where he met Butch who was a feature speaker.
    NOBODY fact checked that Doc also mentioned “the new trend for over water bungalows–we had that in there” in his 3 hour address but on TWO occasions Young and Stewart said that those plans were fake and “meen know where allyuh geh dat”.
    NOBODY asked about how a CEC application for a 500-room hotel in 2006 could work as a placekeeper for a 1000-room resort in a different location.
    NOBODY–including Indira Sagewan [she’s a realllly aggressive woman jed…weys sah! Somebody like that should be an MP! We would see real…oh? what’s that? she was? orr…‍♂️] could pelt out all them facts and figures about Hyatt, Radison, Hilton and yest still have zero % relevant data on the Sandals build.
    NOBODY mentioned that Butch was quoted as saying “we’re building a USD$500m hotel in Tobago” and yet the government insists that “there were no numbers attached to the deal…
    yet ALJ could talk bout how much rent…
    Look…not today nah

    • Noble Philip

      Opinions are free but one needs to ground them in some form of fact. Let me explain that the talk about fish and fresh fruit is not incidental since we live in the Caribbean where we should have fish and fresh fruit to be used in a hotel but paradoxically they are imported for the guests who will not leave the compound. Reference the Caribbean Hotel Association report on linkages for the economy. The point? Not even what should be available is taken.

      My comments were confined to the night in question. I am aware of both Afra’s and Mark’s contributions and they are valid but they were not in the audience (I was from start to finish) and yet in spite of what they have said, nobody in the audience raised those points to counter the spiel offered. Your point about the facts and figures is my point: ALJ spouted them as though they were applicable and never sought to contexualise them. We need Sandals but Sandals also needs us.

      To get to a business arrangement of this magnitude and in the competitive situation that exists in the business, there has to be firstly a MOU – which should never have taken the time it took. In my opinion some funny business was afoot and Afra’s intervention most likely was a stumbling block. Dr. Rowley was unwise in discussing the specifics since there was no agreement in place. He should have learnt from the long time BWIA pilots who told you a flight to Barbados was an hour when they knew it was really 45 minutes and then told you ‘we brought you in ahead of schedule’. But we tend to over promise and under deliver. Butch Stewart has something to buy so he could dangle trinkets. He was on his own frolic to make you desire the product he had. Given this outcome, he can return and make more money having left since we will then be more desperate. Look out for the deal where the Government sells the land to private investors and therefore removes the headache we provided. But in the end, the few will win. Until then the sewer will empty into the sea.

      I disagree with your assessment of our needs re the profile of a MP and personally was disappointed in her contribution since she was the head of our Competitiveness Centre. She should know better, rabble rousing is not needed at these times.

      In all the business transactions I have been involved with which required a MOU (and of which there were four multi- million ones) there is always a placeholder that bears only passing relevance to the final package. What is put on the table is what we call in TnT ‘for argument sake’, meaning that there is a broad outline but the details are not disclosed until you sign and in some cases pay a premium for seeing the financial documents. It is at this point that the negotiations begin. But TnT took too long to move this forward.

      In my estimation, Dr. Vanus James was the most pertinent contributor- we do not have the institutional framework for dealing with this type of opportunity. When you couple this to Dr. Tewarie’s point about the changed democracy due to social media you get to understand that we will be spinning top in mud until such a day that we resolve that problem. Sandals will not be the last one to slip through our hands.

      I thank you for your contribution.

    • The man has spoken!
      I went to listen, not speak. One only learns when one is willing to open up to fresh ideas and when one is able to discover a sources for those fresh ideas.
      The freshest thing on UWI that day was that SICK! Maybach….

  2. Bullcrap.
    ALJ spoke from his heart and head. As a journalist I welcome those rare opportunities to hear THAT MUCH from one of the elusive billionaires.
    That TEDtalk from ALJ would have been more familiar to a Davos crowd than UWI.
    Plain fact is that the talk never recovered because the audience came in woefully unprepared for dialog.
    The vapidity of the current crop of UWI students–and the professors who lead that shallow flock [widdy zeen Roger Hosein?] spoke more to me than the long, awkward silences that followed each speaker [except Roger Hosein, cause we still waiting for he…].
    An afternoon drive convo between a secondary-schooled radio DJ host and a caller would have got more audience feedback than those 200+ students and faculty were able to generate.

    • Trinidadians doh really know what they want and change for the better is usually accompanied by too much negativity and no meaningful alternatives. When they were widening the highway in chaguanas same nonsense with hulsie and them.

    • Noble Philip

      Thank you for your response. ALJ certainly spoke from his heart and maybe his head but he hogged the time (30 minutes of a planned 120 minute session as the opening contribution? All the other panelists appeared to have kept their allotted time which seemed to have been about 6 minutes) which was designed to have us discuss how we will handle foreign direct investment opportunities. This, in my mind, was not about Sandals as much as it was about how will we resolve the issue of foreign investment other than in the energy industry coming into our market. This is an important issue since our local capital is not invested in such large projects and where will we get employment?

      I am not sure that ALJ’s free flowing, free of facts diatribe would qualify for Davos. You sell Davos short. Please visit their website. They are unrepentant capitalists but at least they argue a straight line. Unfortunately, I do not consider myself such even though I have operated successfully in that environment. My heart and loyalty rest with the people of my country and so I look at both sides and try to apply judgment.

      But I agree with you that the audience was not up to the challenge…this is one of the points I made. They were under-prepared or inarticulate and therefore those who would have wanted to speak were forced to resort to shouting at the moderator to get time. The problem is not just the students it is the entire educational system from Early Childhood Education centers which results in The UWI being a farce. That is then complicated by the presence of some who lecture and who obviously had nothing to offer so that they can give up their time to the surprise discussant. More anon.

      But we press on and hope that with time, the wheel will turn and we will look after ourselves and not expect others to do so for us.

      I hope that this helps to clarify.

    • Again… the man has spoken!
      doh even let me start on ECEC here nah….
      From these two replies–respec for taking the time to clarify and elucidate these vital points–I will retract the diss on the mixtapes.
      Not always do we have room to talk ALLL the talk on a column.

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