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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Sir Philip Henry Veira.

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Sir Philip Henry Veira.

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By Luke Browne Fri, Mar 21, 2014

There is a special place in Vincentian business history for Sir Philip Henry Veira. Sir Philip was almost universally called “PH” with great adoration and he was what you might call The Captain of Industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This man was a transformational business figure who ventured into the uncharted territory of manufacturing in the nineteen-sixties and established himself as the nation’s foremost industrialist. P. H. Veira was the veritable King of a very distinguished crop of businessmen.{{more}}

This King had no hereditary entitlements even though he was the first born child of the marital union between Mr Benedict Veira (a second-generation Portuguese) and Mrs Mary Lyn Veira née Gibson. PH was born “behind God’s back” in Orange Grove on August 14, 1921. The Veira family subsequently moved to Richmond Hill. Philip started his primary school journey at the Dorsetshire Hill Government School and completed it at the St Mary’s Roman Catholic School when he was 13 years old. He did not even contemplate going to secondary school because of a pressing need to augment his household’s income.

PH actually got his first taste of business when he was still in school. He sold chive from his very own home garden on evenings, weekends and during vacations. He became an apprentice tailor at age 15 but very soon afterwards he came to the conclusion that he was not cut out for a career in sewing. He then went to work in his father’s small grocery and liquor store which was located in the vicinity of the Kingstown market (on the corner of Bedford and Bay Street). PH’s father died suddenly on June 25, 1942 and left his 20-year-old son in charge of the market shop with a small amount of cash. P. H. Veira spun this meager inheritance into a large fortune.

PH married Clara Medford on May 11, 1943 when he was 21. The couple had one son (Kenneth) and seven daughters (Monica, Yvette (deceased), Audrey, June, Cheryl, Pamela, and Rosemarie). He wanted more boys, but accepted the fact that “God knows best.”

P. H. Veira was apparently very skilled in the art of inventory management. He ordered merchandise to arrive at times of scarcity and a corresponding high demand so that it would sell quickly at a premium price. One of PH’s favourite expressions was “save the pennies and the pounds will come” and Mr. Veira certainly practised what he preached. He maintained a frugal lifestyle throughout his career and this allowed him to accumulate funds for investment. This prodigious thrift rivaled that of the Jews and may have given him a decisive advantage over other retailers who were in the same line of business. PH acquired adjoining Kingstown properties bit by bit until he came to own an entire block in the city. The little market shop bloomed into a leading full blown supermarket with outlets in Bequia, Arnos Vale, Richland Park and Calliaqua. P. H. Veira and Company Ltd became the local agent for several foreign companies and products. PH established a lumber yard in Paul’s Avenue and daringly, and with good success, took on the Coreas and Hazells corporate juggernauts in the hardware business. Coreas and Hazells were separate companies back then.

Mr P. H. Veira became interested in manufacturing flour in St Vincent in 1966 when his company was in the ascendancy. However, he was not successful in his first attempt to set up a flour mill. The original proposals had support and buy-in from the government. PH partnered with the said government and a foreign investor to create the St Vincent Flour Mills Ltd for the purpose of flour production. This company was granted pioneer status and Mr Veira built the necessary industrial shell on flat land which was leased from the state and which had ready access to ocean corridors. This facility was the first manufacturing plant to be built on the Campden Park Industrial Estate and it was completed in 1971. PH had invested $781,000.

The plans were derailed because Mr Veira got a rotten deal from the foreign partner who supplied machinery which turned out to be junk. The buildings lay idle for several years as a white elephant and this took a toll on PH. To add insult to injury, he was forced to endure scorn and derision from a Vincentian public which was satisfied with the quality of imported flour (and doubted our ability to replicate that quality) and held the view that the St Vincent market could not sustain a flour mill. The critics charged that there were two things that PH would never see: a flour mill in St Vincent and God’s face.

Notwithstanding the prevailing adverse public sentiment and the limited appetite in the private sector for “risky” manufacturing investments, Mr. Veira persevered. He eventually forged a strategic equity partnership with Maple Leaf Mills Ltd (a Canadian Flour Producer), the government of SVG and P. H. Veira and Co Ltd which helped him achieve his goal. These partners registered a company in the name East Caribbean Flour Mills Ltd. in which the government held 20 per cent of the shares. The remaining shares were split equally between Maple Leaf Mills Ltd and P. H. Veira and Company Ltd. Mr Veira’s vision was vindicated and he realised his dream of making flour in the land of his birth when he turned on the switch that set the manufacturing wheels in motion at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, 1977 – over 10 years after the genesis of his flour producing idea.

Mr Veira served as Chair of the East Caribbean Flour Mills (ECFM) until his death. He was then replaced by his widow until her retirement. One of his daughters, Mrs Audrey Veira-DeFreitas, is now the sitting chairperson. PH attracted excellent management talent and professional expertise to the service of ECFM in his time and the flour mill did very well in a protected OECS market. Meanwhile, Mr Veira also set up P. H. Veira Plastics Ltd. in Calliaqua in 1980. This entity concentrated on manufacturing plastic bags and polyethylene sleeves (which were used to protect banana bunches during growth) for the local and regional market.

Mr Adolph Veira, a relative of PH, managed P. H. Veira Plastics Ltd for a long time before it was eventually closed down. Adolph learnt a lot about plastic bag manufacturing from his experience with this company and subsequent to its closure he was able to set up in conjunction with some business associates a well run plastic manufacturing corporation (St Vincent Packaging Ltd) in Campden Park. Adolph is currently the CEO of St Vincent Packaging Ltd. In a sense, the pioneering work of PH in the field of plastics manufacturing continues through that corporation.

Around 1980, PH had also annexed a bakery to his Kingstown enterprise.

The ECFM became informally known as the Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies (ECGC) after investments in an Animal Feed Mill (1982), a Rice Mill in St Vincent (1987), a Rice Mill in Guyana (1990) and a few other ventures. At one stage, ECFM had a unit which produced the polypropylene bags which are required for the packaging of rice, flour and animal feeds. This component of the business has been subsequently outsourced.

P. H. Veira’s companies shouldered their corporate responsibilities. They sponsored all manner of local and OECS events which were important to the sub-region’s welfare. The sponsorship and philanthropic gestures helped to build brand loyalty for their products. Mr Veira made substantial donations to the Catholic Church (of which he was a member) and the St Mary’s Roman Catholic School (of which he was a past student). He built, and then rebuilt after hurricane damage, a spectator stand at the Arnos Vale Playing Field which bears his name.

P. H. Veira could have been the wealthiest Vincentian businessmen in his heyday and he surely wielded considerable economic and political power. Mr Veira was not involved in politics directly but he was a big political player who no doubt influenced the outcome of several elections. He supported the Labour Party until the early eighties when he fell out with the Milton Cato administration over the contentious three per cent gross turnover tax that was proposed in 1982. Mr Veira changed his political allegiance and threw his weight behind James Mitchell. Mr Mitchell romped home to power in the 1984 general elections on the back of P. H. Veira’s support. James Mitchell and P. H. Veira became close friends and allies.

PH enjoyed playing cricket, fishing and gardening. He was health conscious and exercised on a regular basis. This businessman liked going through Reader’s Digest magazines and listening to his favourite gospel music. Mr. Veira travelled the globe and he was especially fond of Germany and Australia. He went with his wife on many cruises to various parts of the world. They were accompanied by other family members from time to time.

Philip Henry Veira was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen on July 27, 1988 for his invaluable contribution to private sector development in St Vincent and the Grenadines and the OECS by extension. Sir Philip changed the course of our business history and deserves every credit for his courageous and visionary industrialization thrust. He went beyond the private sector comfort zone and found investment ideas that were outside of the box. Mr Veira made the revolutionary transition from a services oriented business approach to the hardcore production of goods.

PH, regrettably, died from cancer on May 17, 1991 at a time when his companies and initiatives were responsible for 400 steady local jobs and 200 equally stable jobs overseas. Ken Boyea delivered the eulogy at his funeral and Mr Boyea predicted that the life work of P. H. Veira would become a longstanding case study for students of business and management. Ken was absolutely right. P. H. Veira was once overheard telling a young man “I wish I had your age with my experience.” If that were only true, St Vincent and the Grenadines would have been so much farther along. The P. H. Veira legacy has been entrusted to the hands of his children. They would have a hard time filling their father’s shoes but are resolved to build on the foundation that he left. East Caribbean Flour Mills recently announced a corporate decision to acquire the Ju-C enterprise. Sir Philip Veira was able to pull off some astounding business feats and he took commercial operations in this country to a whole new level. His name continues to loom large.

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