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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Omroy Theophilus “OT” Mayers

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Omroy Theophilus “OT” Mayers


By Luke Browne Thur, Mar 13, 2014

The man we know as Omroy Theophilus “OT” Mayers is a very unassuming entrepreneur who occupies a place of prominence. He was once called the barefoot man because he chose to walk around without shoes even though he could have more than afforded to do otherwise. This characteristic modesty belies OT’s sterling accomplishments. He has done very well in business as a result of his great skill and industriousness.{{more}}

O. T. Mayers was born on October 12, 1945. He lived in Lowmans Hill and was a member of a large household in which the father didn’t shoulder his responsibilities and the mother was therefore left to bear the full burden of care. This mother was ambitious but very poor. She used the limited means that were at her disposal to make sure that her children never went to bed hungry. She also gave them all the advice, support and encouragement they needed. In particular, she inspired OT’s pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence.

OT spent a short time working in the mountains after a premature departure from the Lowmans Leeward Anglican School. In 1959, he began learning to make furniture at a Government Apprentice Shop in Arnos Vale under the tutelage of Mr. Carlton Cole. The teenaged apprentice functioned with purpose and his main goal at that time was to make life better for his mother. When he received his first paycheck from the Apprentice Shop (for $7.60) he offered his mother $2. She refused to accept the money from her son and told him to keep it to buy clothes and tools for work. She self-sacrificially reinvested in him and lived to reap the rich dividends.

OT left the Apprentice Shop in 1962 and began making furniture on his own. There was a somewhat difficult transition and the young tradesman went through a rough patch. He got job in the construction industry on the back of his carpentry skills in the following year and between 1963 and 1979 he worked in construction during the day and built furniture in a backyard shed by night. OT burnt the candle at both ends.

The caring son was able to built a new 10×16 board house with a galvanise roof for his mother by the time he was 19. This house replaced a trash house or “Bird’s Nest.” The happy mother once exclaimed “God bless my son for allowing me to hear the rain on my roof.” The sound of the rain was previously muted by the thatch. The blessings continue to rain on OT’s life. OT is married to Lenora Mayers née DaSilva and has 10 children in all. He is very proud of the fact that he was also able to help his children own homes debt free. He was resolved to care for them in a way that his father never cared for him.

In 1979, Mr. Mayers hired full time workers to help him build furniture. By then, OT had learnt the ins-and-outs of the construction industry and took the opportunity to establish himself as a full-fledged independent contractor in that sector.

OT preferred the furniture business for two reasons. Firstly, he said that if he was not satisfied with the work of one of his employees in the furniture workshop it was fairly easy for him to work through the night in order to correct the errors and then apply sanctions where necessary. The same thing could not be effectively done at a construction worksite. Secondly, Mr. Mayers had a reputation for building magnificent homes and refused to take on projects that did not conform to his taste or standards.

When OT was about 23 years old, he was asked by a woodcutter to make a living room set. The woodcutter provided the wood, and OT found the glue and other required material and made the furniture for the customer. The client had no money and therefore paid OT in wood.

OT took the wood and used it to build two chairs. He was told by one of his friends that he may be able to sell the finished chairs to Coreas. This turned out to be true and Mr. Mayers received $25 for each chair. Coreas was satisfied with the product and was so sure that they would sell quickly, that the company ordered six more chairs before OT was even able to leave the store. OT used the $50 he received to buy $48 worth of wood and to pay $2 for the transportation of the wood to his workshop. He also had to trust a quarter-gallon of varnish from the same Coreas. OT continued to supply Coreas (even after it was bought out by T. Geddes Grant) and eventually another Kingstown store until he opened his own retail outlet on October 10, 1983.

The decision to open a store in order to meet the customer directly was heavily influenced by OT’s experience as a supplier for a big Kingstown retailer. He once built two dozen sitting chairs for the said retailer. He delivered the chairs one morning and by noon of the same day he saw about six of them on delivery trucks belonging to the company heading past his workshop apparently on their way to the homes of buyers. OT realised that his chairs were already sold and so he returned to town to collect his payment. He saw some of the chairs on display when he entered the store and he said that when he looked at the price tag he almost had a “bowel movement.” The company paid OT $50 per chair and resold them at what was described as a whopping $105 each. He was surprised to discover that he was making a premium product which commanded such a high price in the marketplace.

OT nonetheless thought the price to be a little unconscionable and felt that he could do “his” poor people a better service by splitting the mark-up in two. He was prepared to meet the customer halfway by offering the chairs for $75 each. This is what is known as vertical expansion in the business jargon and it meant in this case lower prices for the customer and more profit (not without some additional risks) for the businessman. This willingness to provide goods on reasonable terms has characterized Mr. Mayers for all his business life. He came out of poverty and has a heart for poor people. He always wants to provide his commodities for as low a price as possible and this caused him to become especially revered by economically disadvantaged Vincentians while he enjoys loyal broad-based patronage.

OT’s store was named Finishing and Furnishing but was rebranded “Arwe Store” by its clients. The original show room (which was set up in 1983) was just 22 feet long and 16 feet wide and could only accommodate a single sample of each item of furniture at a time. This showroom was on Tyrell Street in a building that previously housed the Davis Drug Mart and which was purchased by OT on the advice of a close friend for $90,000. He baulked at the required investment at first but had no regrets in the end. OT moved his showroom to its current location in 1989.

Finishing and Furnishing benefited from a captive market since furniture was designated a protected product under article 56 of the original Treaty of Chaguaramas. The applicable section of the revised Treaty is article 164. There is now a two-tier tariff. The protected status meant that local suppliers had the first call on the OECS market and OT worked closely with the Ministry of Trade to enforce the Treaty’s provisions.

Mr. Mayers augments his substantive furniture business with the sale of other products such as electronic devices and appliances. He does not have the usual business frame of mind – he tries to complement rather than compete with other business houses. Mr. Mayers added new meaning to his initials. He said that O. T. also stands for “Over Time” and “On Time.” That tells a story by itself.

OT went to a momentous furniture conference in North Carolina which opened his eyes. He became a little uneasy at the beginning of the conference when he was asked to state his credentials. The conference participants who spoke before him invariably brandished degrees from top-ranked universities whereas OT didn’t even go to secondary school. Mr. Mayers, after he mustered up all the courage he could find, declared that he was a graduate of the School of Wisdom. The audience was left dumbfounded. The Vincentian manufacturer also left some of his Caribbean counterparts in a state of disbelief when he showed them a picture of one of his homes during a coffee break at the same conference. They openly wondered if a man like OT could really own the “castle-like structure” in the picture and asked him if he meant to say that he worked on the house as a contractor.

Importantly, Mr. Mayers used the conference forum to request technical assistance from the Brussels-based Centre for Overseas Development. A Filipino man was dispatched to his aid and this man spent about 36 weeks teaching OT’s men how to carve and he produced world class carvers in the process. This helped Finishing and Furnishing to achieve international (and not merely local or regional) competitiveness. Finishing and Furnishing therefore had market guarantees and an internationally competitive product. That was a recipe for success.

OT also met a man by the name of Joseph (Joe) Shaw when he was in North Carolina. Joe did not participate in the conference but he was a machinist OT met at a machine show. Joe subsequently came to St. Vincent to install a cutter that OT purchased from his company and asked about the School of Wisdom which he heard about through the grapevine and from the letterhead on OT’s official correspondence. Mr. Mayers told Joe that “The School of Wisdom is universal. It’s all over the world.” Joe still seemed a little puzzled and told OT that he found that strange since he never heard about it. OT then said: “Look Joe, wisdom comes from on high. You’ll go to college and get a lot of knowledge, but wisdom is the ability to use knowledge.”

As if to illustrate his point, OT came up with a practical solution to a problem that Joe encountered during the machine installation. Joe over tightened one of the screws and it broke. He could not find a replacement for the Italian-manufactured screw anywhere in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. OT solved the problem which threatened to stall the installation process with a simple substitution and then Joe said to OT “now I could see that you are really a graduate of that School of Wisdom.” OT usually tells his speech audiences that he may not be grammatically correct or intellectually accepted, but he is practically proven and has down-to-earth experience. He also tells people that he may not be able to read too well but he writes a lot through his furniture and buildings and what he has written is there for everyone to read.

OT’s requests to the government for land to build a factory were ignored until there was a very helpful intervention from the recently deceased Leroy Rose when Mr. Rose was the Executive Director of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Mr. Mayers unbelievably ended up building a full blown factory (with further help from the Centre for Overseas Development) on “squat land” in Diamond around 2002 because he did not agree with the terms of the lease which he was offered.

Naturally, there was a business downturn because of the reduced circulation of money in the economy which was occasioned by the global financial crisis that began in 2008. Mr. Mayers reminisced on the glory days of economic prosperity when banana was king and farmers would buy things from him, settle their bills promptly and probably leave few dasheens or something else for him as a bonus. These days, OT sighed, customers are struggling to pay their bills on time and only leave a bottle of tears. OT, true to form, made special arrangements with customers who fell into economic hardship. We are past the worst.

Finishing and Furnishing only serves the small local market and has no intentions at this time of moving onto the regional or international scene. Mr. Mayers is not daunted by the prospect of the trade liberalisation which is already underway and which means that “all the fishes would be swimming in the same pond.” He said that he’s a small fish that lives around the rocks and that if the big fish come after him in the local market they would end up with sand in their gill. He also noted that all the small fish can band together in a special formation and attack in numbers.

Finishing and Furnishing has been in business for over 30 years and has adopted international standards of professional management. The company now has in the vicinity of 100 employees who Mr. Mayers does not plan to ever leave stranded. He said that they have contributed to his success and he is grateful. Captain OT has handed over ship steering responsibilities to a trio of his sons (Omri, Orbilius and Owen) who now competently manage the company’s affairs. Orbilius also has a thriving tire store in Middle Street.

OT has a younger son, Owren, who graduated from a BMW programme in the United States as the top student in the course. OT encouraged this son to pursue studies in something to do with iron since he believes that the wood of today is not as durable as the wood of yesteryear, and that iron is the new wood. He said that if Noah’s ark were to be built today it would be made from iron.

Mr. Mayers said that the world has changed and he believes that it would change again. OT mentioned that in his time people used to be paid for what they did, but now they are being paid for what they know. He said that now-a-these-days you have to work smart and not so much laboriously. OT therefore believes that students could broaden their career horizons in this day and age by securing solid academic qualifications, complementing these qualifications with technical skills, and marketing themselves across the vast social media landscape. He said that right now a “career” is what counts.

OT also thinks that business partnerships are absolutely indispensible in today’s business environment even though we might have learnt from our boat building traditions that “partnerships are leaky ships.” It is very difficult to go it alone these days. He holds the view that a company would invariably benefit and the workload would be reduced if there are more eyes to look into its business and more hands and feet to help out. However, OT said that too many cooks still spoil the broth.

OT’s success didn’t come overnight. He worked long and hard over a career that has already spanned more than half a century. Mr. Mayers supported many a worthy cause. He accommodated St. Mary’s R. C. classrooms in one of his Kingston buildings free of cost for 15 years. Additionally, he paid the salaries of two preschool teachers connected to the Association for the Advancement of Troumaca for a significant period of time.

OT has strong view on a wide range of issues. Mr. Mayers was happy to see the removal of the $1 Grenadines service charge. He believes that the National Commercial Bank was privatised for strategic political reasons and not purely on the basis of sensible policy. He also prefers to settle disputes without recourse to the judicial system.

He said that two things “mash up” SVG: skettel cars and cell phones. The skettel cars were easy to get but costly to maintain and the cell phones also did plenty damage. He referred to the damning lyrics in the Sulle Calypso on the things people do for cell phones and top-ups. Phone cards are more expensive than food stuff and eat into the break and lunch money of school children. OT wonders if it is best for telecommunications companies to be able to extract so much wealth from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

OT also expressed concerns about the cost of credit from banks and is generally very sceptical about financial institutions. He revealed that he borrowed $3 million from a bank over a 10 year term and ended up repaying a sum that was just shy of $6 million. He knows a woman who accidentally short-paid a bank $27 in one month but otherwise kept up with the payment schedule but was slapped with accumulated late fees which amounted to thousands of dollars even though she was never informed of the initial error. He also chided banks for what he considers to be the inconsistent lending practices. Mr. Mayers, who has amassed a decent fortune over the years, said that money is a funny thing and that a man should not be judged based on the amount of cash he has, but rather on his collateral. This message came home to him after he suffered British American losses.

O. T. Mayers has been one of the most productive citizens of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He showed that business achievement is less dependent on socio-economic background and more dependent on the will to succeed. The fact that Omroy Mayers was born into poverty didn’t prevent him from becoming a nominee for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1996. O. T. Mayers always remained the “Little Man” with the common touch and a heart for disadvantaged Vincentians. Mr. Mayers set a very powerful example.