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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Erica McIntosh

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Erica McIntosh

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By Luke Browne Fri, Mar 07, 2014

Erica McIntosh may be a relatively young businesswoman, but she has already stamped her authority in what has traditionally been regarded as a man’s world, and there is no letting up. Ms McIntosh was the first female ever to receive the prestigious and coveted Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. She copped the award from a competitive field in September 1999 and thereby entered the ranks of business heavyweights like Ken Boyea and Kelly Glass. She has since continued with her excellent private sector leadership right up to today.{{more}}

This award winning lady has made Erica’s Country Style a strong local brand with a very good international reputation. Erica came from a solid business background. She was born on July 17, 1954 to O’Neill “Biscuit” McIntosh and Beryl Antrobus-McIntosh. Erica claimed that she got her entrepreneurial spirit, appetite for risk-taking and business acumen from her father and received her social and moral bearing or grounding from her very supportive and encouraging mother. Biscuit McIntosh taught his daughter everything she needed to know about business, and he told her to always “say it as it is” and to take rubbish from no one.

Erica grew up with two sisters, Frances and Marcia, and has fond memories of her childhood. She lived in Kingstown Park at first and then moved to the water’s edge at Indian Bay when she was about 10 years old. Erica had no choice but to learn to swim at an early age and, along with her father, she helped the Girl Guides Association with their swimmer’s badge programme.

Erica was a student of the Kingstown Preparatory School and the Girls High School. She only spent about two years at High School and she completed her course of secondary education at the St. Winnifred’s Girls School in Barbados. Erica was a very active High School student in those two years and she remembers and admired Millicent Byron who was her GHS Head Mistress. Erica also recalled her participation in a major GHS student protest. The student body went on strike in support of a teacher whose name was Elaine Connell and who they felt was being unfairly treated by the government. The radical students shut down the school and marched up to Government House where they sat on the lawns all day eating ice-cream and snow cones.

The young McIntosh participated in bicycle races at school sports meets alongside her elder sister (Marcia) and the likes of Ann Eustace, and she played tennis (her first sporting love) at the Kingstown Tennis Club (which had a court that was not too far from her school) and on the cemetery court. She continued to participate in sports after she moved to Barbados and throughout her life.

Erica McIntosh studied Industrial Microbiology at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada. She majored in Food Processing and has a minor in Photography. Ms. McIntosh played tennis in Collegiate Championships when she was a college student. She abandoned the possibility of a comfortable life in Canada and returned to her homeland in 1974 armed with her degree and took up the job of Produce Chemist at the Agro Lab which was within the Ministry of Agriculture. She also set up the Prospect Racquet Club – a sports, health, fitness and recreation membership club which was essentially open to anyone. She didn’t think that the Kingstown Tennis Club was enough. The Racquet Club was set up on a property with a rich history and on which the old Prospect Estate House can still be found. The property was transmitted to Erica by her father who bought it from the Punnetts. The Club had two tennis courts, a squash court, a gym and other facilities. The grand dining room for the Estate House has been a popular venue for teenager parties over the years. The Racquet Club has turned out some top notch squash and tennis players. Erica herself represented St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the OECS in various tennis and squash tournaments and she served as president of the Squash Racquets Association and Tennis Association.

The Agro Lab with which Erica was first employed was involved in Research and Development of agricultural products from local produce. There was a beneficial transfer of technology and expertise from expatriates to local personnel. Erica left the Agro Lab for a job as a Quality Control Officer at Diamond Dairy in 1980. Shortly after taking up this new position, she was sent to the Tropical Products Institute in the United Kingdom for a one year training course on the Ultra High Temperature (UHT) processing of milk and fruit juices. She then returned to her job at the Dairy but quickly became frustrated with the direction of that statutory corporation. She thought that the Dairy focused too exclusively on the reconstitution of juices. Erica felt boxed in, all the more so since the juice was being put into a box, and she vacated the post.

Erica returned to the Agro Lab in 1982. This time she was at the helm. The Lab was subsequently moved out from the Ministry of Agriculture, placed under the control of the Marketing Corporation and given a mandate to turn out profits. This was obviously an inappropriate mandate for a research and development outfit. Erica tendered her resignation. It was time for her to do her own thing. She knew that she would be able to make a more significant and unrestrained contribution to agro-processing in a private capacity.

She was a consultant for the OAS on the restructuring of the Orange Hill Processing Plant, and then, in 1989, the confident businesswoman established Erica’s Country Style. Erica actually began drying sorrel independently since 1987 on the Agro Lab premises which were located in Frenches at the back of the University of the West Indies Open Campus. She moved the operation to one of her tennis courts in Prospect when she went official. Erica would spread a tarpaulin over the court and place the sorrel on it to dry. There was always the threat of rain and so Erica built a drying house on wheels.

It dawned on Erica that sorrel was a seasonal crop and that she would need something to do all year round. She therefore decided to take up the production of pepper sauce and green seasoning since there was a big market for these products. Erica invested in a processing plant with industrial equipment. She had the backing of her father and was financed by an NCB loan. She was also granted pioneer status for 10 years with all the related fiscal incentives.

Erica introduced and maintained high industrial standards in relation to the sterilization of bottles, packaging and labeling. She is a former longstanding Chairman of the Bureau of Standards and is a vocal advocate of standardization. Ms. McIntosh also served as a member of the Consumers Association whose purpose was to safeguard customers against price gouging and other evils.

Erica continued to expand her product line to the point where she now produces about 22 different items. These items include: hot pepper sauce, green seasoning, dried sorrel, pepper jellies, mango salsa, several marinades, tamarind sauce, shado beni sauce, spices, plantain chips and eddo chips. The production of multiple products necessitated a higher capital outlay since each product required separate packaging. The packaging material is not made locally and has to be imported.

Erica, however, believes in supporting local farmers and has so organised her affairs to make the maximum possible contribution to the Vincentian economy. The only thing she normally imports is onions. The downside of this approach is that her business has been affected over the years by input supply shortfalls. Farmers have hardly been able to guarantee a constant supply of peppers and if there is too much rain there would barely be any available chive. The shortages have been aggravated by competition for inputs with a recently established state enterprise which Erica said has a strikingly similar product line. This state enterprise tends to swallow up all the raw materials. It exerts upward pressure on input price and downward pressure on the price of finished products. There was a time when Erica’s Country Style had 80 peppers suppliers. That number has been whittled down to less than 20. As a result, Erica recently had to resort to importing pepper mash from Trinidad so that she could fill her orders. She said that this bleeds her heart and defeats her purposes. Erica referred to the many possible products which are listed in old Agro Lab files that are under storage somewhere in the Ministry of Agriculture. Apart from the state enterprise, there are about 22 pepper sauce producers and 17 green seasoning manufacturers by Erica’s count.

The phenomenal businesswoman markets her products overseas through trade shows and other events. She has been on promotional tours of one kind or another in many parts of the world and has worked in close collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Trade. Notably, Erica participated in the 2009 Zest Fest with help from the Centre for Enterprise Development (under the Business Gateway Project) and her pepper sauce was adjudged the second place winner in the table condiment category. This strong brand promotion has generated a great deal of interest in her company, opened up new markets to her (and bolstered demand in existing markets), and had a huge positive impact on her sales. Erica’s Country Style has agents in Barbados, Tortola, New York, Miami, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. However, there are some shipping challenges which may be partially resolved with the advent of an international airport and its air freight options, but not without cost implications.

Erica’s business was affected by the post-2008 world recessionary conditions – local, regional and international buyers cut back on their orders and forced Erica to restructure her operations. This led to a glut in both raw materials and finished products. Things have since leveled off. There have been testing times but the resilient entrepreneur fought her way through the difficult periods and emerged triumphant. She has always had faith in herself and she never gives up. Erica has sustained her agro-processing business for almost 25 years so far and has firmly established herself as an industry leader.

Erica has a state-of-the-art factory that is manned by an all female staff of 7. She invested in ten apartments for medical students with an additional employee to take care of any necessary cleaning and cooking. These apartments currently have a low occupancy and Erica lives in one of them. The businesswoman also rents office space to IKtv. The apartments, the factory, the Racquet Club and IKtv are all on the same compound.

It took a lot of hard work to bring Erica’s Country Style to where it is today, but Erica said that she enjoyed what she was doing and that was “90 percent of the battle won.” She made the point that what you put into life is what you get out of life. She keeps striving to do better and would like to emulate a Jamaican Entrepreneur by the name of Winston Stona – the proprietor of Busha Browne Products.

Erica’s social activism was not confined to a solitary GHS protest. She champions the cause of women and was president of the National Council for Women for three years in the early 1980s. Erica sat on the Council in the days of Nora Peacock, Agnes Cato and Sheila Douyon. This group of activists agitated for equal rights for women. The Council won an important victory on behalf of its members when Erica was at the helm – reciprocity in relation to the conferment of citizenship on spouses. Previously, a foreign woman could become a citizen of SVG through marriage to a Vincentian man, but not the other way around. Erica and her colleagues changed that situation. The National Council of Women helped to shatter discrimination and encouraged women to become more outspoken. Erica was also involved in a grassroots association for female farmers from rural areas.

Erica dedicated her 1999 Entrepreneur of the Year Award to all the women who are behind successful companies but receive very little public recognition. Erica said that very often women do the hard work but men get all the credit. She hopes that her achievements would inspire other Vincentian women to rise up to the occasion and get involved in business.

This very industrious woman has been an outstanding ambassador for the agro-industries. She is involved in business mentorship for small agro-processing companies and believes that there is a bright future for agribusiness. Erica is particularly excited about the prospects for the revival of the coconut oil industry, especially since we have coconuts in abundant supply. She said that if we make full use of our mangoes, guavas, and pineapples we would be able to fill a few containers well with products for export. Ms. McIntosh reported that Erica’s Country Style is the subject of numerous SBAs and said that she would like to see Agribusiness become a formal subject in our secondary schools. Erica also highlighted the linkages between agriculture and tourism and said that instead of giving visitors pens and pencils we should give them a taste of SVG.

Erica, who has put St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the map with her top quality products, believes that this country still has a long way to go. She said that Vincentians should completely eliminate the perception that imported goods are better, put an end to divisiveness and buy local (even if it costs a bit more to do so). She made the point that when Erica’s Country Style succeeds, the farmers and many other people succeed by extension. We should therefore support each other.

Erica would like to see the four major players in the agro-industries—the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Trade, farmers and processors—come together to solve their common problems (especially the problems of an unreliable supply of raw materials and of difficult external transportation logistics). She was quite specific about the need for greater engagement and communication between farmers and extension officers on crop rotation, yields per acre and other aspects of farming. Erica advised against a know-it-all approach to things. She said that “too many people know everything without knowing anything at all.”

Erica highlighted some special issues which affect agribusiness development. She said that as far as financing goes, the interest rates for these types of industries are outrageous. Additionally, she would like to see the government provide more incentives for the importation of equipment and packaging material. The entrepreneur said flat out that 15% VAT on products manufactured by local small processors is a killer and would make the goods to which it is applied relatively more expensive than their Trinidad and Tobago equivalents. Erica disclosed that it is cheaper to her from a strictly business standpoint to export everything she makes, but she would never contemplate making such a move since her primary goal is to serve the home market. Finally, the businesswoman expressed the view that the 50¢ environmental levy on imported bottles also has the potential to inhibit the competitiveness of local industries.

Time has not diminished Erica’s love for the sea nor her involvement in sports. She believes that sports helped her to maintain her sanity amidst all the pressures of business and life, and may be the reason why she is still alive today. Erica still enjoys a good old swim and goes on the power boating adventures. These days she is more of a spectator than a player when it comes to tennis and squash.

Erica finds photography to be a relaxing hobby and she has put her training in that area to good use. The versatile business leader took pictures on a semi-professional basis and has produced two coffee table books. The first book was about flowers at the Botanical Gardens and it was done in collaboration with Dr. Earle Kirby when Erica was fresh out of university. The second book, A Journey with Erica to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was produced with the help of Alexandra Paolino and launched in 2010.

Erica loves her homeland and would not trade it for anywhere else in the world. She said that the secret to life on a small island is the right mix of business and pleasure. Family plays an important role in her life. Erica has no children of her own but took a caring interest in the upbringing of her niece and nephew especially after they lost their mother, Marcia (Erica’s sister), at a young age. Frances, Erica’s other sister, is also an independent businesswoman and the owner of the Bayshore Mall in Bequia.

Erica is on the verge of celebrating her sixtieth birthday but does not plan to retire anytime soon. She is contemplating her business future and would like to scale down to about five main products and stick to them. She might also get involved in some new business initiatives. The hallway to Erica’s office is decorated with many plaques and certificates which tell the story of her superlative achievements. Erica was rewarded for the “best entrepreneurial spirit” and for “outstanding effort in reinvestment and expansion” by the Small Enterprise Development Unit. She was recognised as a woman who feeds the world and a pioneer in agro-processing. Erica McIntosh is a tribute to Vincentian women.

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