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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Gideon Browne

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Gideon Browne

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By Luke Browne Fri, Apr 11, 2014

Mr. Gideon Browne can be principally described as a real estate mogul and property developer. However, he is not at all confined to these business categories. Mr. Browne can lay claim to the title “Industrialist” since he has a galvanise factory and cell phone assembly plant to his credit. Additionally, he is an emerging hotelier who is rolling out what would be known as the Spring Gardens Resorts. Gideon Browne is always adding new dimensions to his entrepreneurial portfolio. He seems to be on a mission to conquer new business frontiers every day and to overcome the challenges or obstacles that he meets along the way.{{more}}

Mr. Browne said that it was not an easy road. He did not lead a charmed existence. Quite far from it. Life was a royal struggle. Gideon Browne was born into poverty and hardship on January 25, 1958. He was raised by his mother (Valcina Browne) and father (Nathaniel Browne) in Kingstown Park. As a boy, Gideon went to the Petersville Primary School during the time when Edna Peters (the school’s founder) was its Headmistress. He then attended the Bishops College in Kingstown in the age of school fees.

Gideon described his father as a hardworking but simple farmer. He said that his mother was his main source of guidance and support. She took sick when her son was about 12 or 13 years old and, even though she continued to guide him, she was no longer able to pay his school fees. The young student had to work his way through school. Gideon Browne recognised from early on that he “didn’t have a future” if he wasn’t prepared to work hard.

Gideon went on to the Technical College (formally known today as the SVGCC Division of Technical Education) after he left Bishops. He enrolled in a mechanics programme which had a drafting component. At this stage, he was still responsible for financing his own education. He could not afford the best of meals but he gave God thanks for whatever he had. Gideon received a Christian foundation from his mother who ensured that he went to Sunday School where he learnt to pray and to put his trust in the Lord.

After finishing the Technical College, he got a job in the Public Works Department (in the drawing office) as a Draughtsman through the instrumentality of Reuben Bailey who was the Chief Engineer in those days. Mr. Browne believes that by the time he got this job he had a maturity that was beyond his years. The recently deceased Jeffrey Cato was a young engineer (who was just back from Humber College in Canada) in the drawing office. Cauldric DeBique was the Public Works Quantity Surveyor. Gideon was a conscientious worker who used any spare time he had at the office to engage in some sort of constructive activity while his co-workers generally wasted time. Mr. Browne’s diligence and professionalism had such an attractive pull that if someone walked into the drawing office in a random search for a Draughtsman that person naturally gravitated to him. He did some private work on the side while he was employed by the state and began to develop a solid reputation.

Mr. Browne spent about two years at Public Works before he was voluntarily laid off in a round of retrenchments. Three months later, he was hired as a Draughtsman by a construction company in Mustique that was owned by Mr. Arne Hasselqvist. This was in 1979 – the year of Vincentian Independence. Gideon Browne lived and worked in Mustique for two years. He started with the company as a Draughtsman and ended up as a Site Supervisor. There came a time when he was required to drive to perform his job functions. Arne handed him the keys for a vehicle one morning but the trouble was that Mr. Browne had no previous experience behind a wheel. Gideon started out by driving in the flat and on the hills alike in only one gear. He had a passenger who kept one foot in and one foot out of the vehicle in order to be able to perform a quick escape if necessary. By the end of the day, Mr. Browne had not only figured out how to change gears, he had more or less mastered the art of driving and his passenger was riding comfortably with both feet inside the vehicle.

Gideon Browne learnt a lot from Arne Hasselqvist. He considered Arne to be a second-to-none architect and building contractor. Mr. Browne also benefited from the wisdom, counsel and ideas of senior foremen who he described as “older heads than him.” Gideon was exposed to cutting edge techniques and modern technology and this helped him to hone his craft. He was motivated and inspired to pursue excellence in construction.

Arne sold his construction company and Gideon worked for the new owners on contractual terms (and not as a member of staff) for 8 months (at the end of which the company changed hands yet again). He made more money in those eight months than he had made in the previous two years. Mr. Browne then went to Trinidad and Tobago to further his studies in architecture. He aborted that course of study and returned home after the death of one of his brothers. He met the lady who became his wife (Sylma Phillips) on his return to the land of his birth. The couple got married on July 30, 1983 by which time Mr. Browne had already purchased two lots of land from the government in Green Hill. He built his home on one of the lots using his savings and then he built some apartments on the other lot with the help of a loan from RBTT. He also carried on with his work in the construction industry: Mr. Browne had complete contracts for the construction of buildings in Kingstown and homes in Cane Garden and elsewhere.

In about 1985, Mr. Browne became one of the first local contractors to make and sell balusters. The trade in these items gave his business a big boost and helped him to take things to the next level. These balusters were sold by the thousands like hot bread and Mr. Browne received between $15 and $16 for each one. Naturally, he also used some of them on his projects.

Mr. Browne invested in real estate. He bought land in Lodge Hill and at Sharpes Gate (where he built a house into which he subsequently moved and in which he still lives today). He also bought a piece of land in Frenches, built on it and then sold it.

Mr. Browne planned to open a store one day and he took concrete steps towards making this dream a reality. He built a storeroom in the yard of his original Green Hill home and stocked it with material that he imported from the United States. This material was used for his own construction. That storeroom and the original Green Hill home have since been converted into apartments.

Mr. Browne at one stage had his eyes on the Old Association Hall property (the current site of the George McIntosh market) and George’s Plaza for a hardware outlet but he was no match at that time for P. H. Veira and George Moussa who were also interested in the respective properties. He therefore decided to acquire additional property on the outskirts of the city. Accordingly, he bought a building from Cardon Knights in Sharpe’s Gate (next to his home) and opened a hardware outlet (Browne’s Hardware Supplies Ltd.) on December 1, 1990. He had his wife by his side. The company bought a pick-up truck along with the building and Gideon did deliveries himself. He spent some time building up the business before he went back into the fields of construction. He knew that when he went back into construction he would get into development.

That time came. Gideon bought a plot of land in Arnos Vale, built a house on the land and sold it. He did the same thing in Prospect and then bought two lots in Harmony Hall, built two houses and sold them both. Mr. Gideon Browne then embarked upon his flagship property development projects in Spring (near Biabou) and Belvedere.

Gideon Browne learnt that the Spring Estate was up for sale from one of his business associates. The estate had 20 acres of land in all. There was a 3 acre portion and a 17 acre portion. Mr. Browne applied to CIBC for a loan to finance the purchase of the entire estate but he was turned down. He nonetheless told the owner that he would buy all 20 acres. He was more mouth than money! Mr. Browne planned to purchase the property bit by bit using the income he generated from the hardware business. He depleted the reserves from Browne’s Hardware and paid for two lots of land from the 3 acre piece and he, in typical fashion, built two houses on them.

The owner allowed him to build another two houses on two other lots that he had not yet acquired. Mr. Browne sold all four houses and then paid off in full for the 3 acre piece. The total price of these 3 acres was about $390,000. When the bank noted the quick turnaround it all of a sudden became interested in financing the purchase of the 17 acre piece. Gideon Browne obtained a loan from CIBC for $1.3 million (with an overdraft facility of $250,000) for that very purpose. Gideon Browne completed the acquisition of all 20 acres of land in 1997 when he was still in his thirties.

The term of the loan was 5 years but Mr. Browne completed the repayments about one year ahead of schedule. He built 24 houses all told at Spring and kept back a 12 acre piece of land there for hotel development. He resisted the temptation of building additional houses on the land just to earn a quick buck.

Mr. Browne learnt about 10 acres of land in Belvedere when he was making arrangements to purchase the Spring Estate. After he completed the Spring housing project, the land in Belvedere was still available. He acquired this land in 1999 from the First St. Vincent Bank Ltd. with another CIBC loan. He built 40 houses in this area and sold all of them.

Mr. Browne had smaller residential development projects in Bridgetown (where he built about 8 houses in 2002) and in another part of Belvedere (where he built 12 houses on 3 acres of land that he acquired from Errol Layne around 2003).

Gideon Browne acquired several Kingstown properties around the dawn of the twenty-first century. First of all, he bought land (on which he subsequently built) that was opposite Phillips Bakery in Middle Street in 2000. He then bought a building on Bay Street (that is next to the Vee-Jays restaurant) that was owned by an Antiguan paint manufacturer (Lee Wind Paints). Browne’s Hardware Supplies Ltd. was the local agent for Lee Wind Paints and representatives from the paint manufacturer approached Mr. Browne while he was at work in Belvedere in 2001 and told him that the property was for sale. They scheduled a follow-up meeting at Basil’s Bar (downstairs Cobblestone) for further discussions. Mr. Browne took his cheque book to that follow-up meeting and immediately made a down payment of $100,000 to seal a purchase deal. He believed that time was of the essence since there were other interested potential buyers. He was not even prepared to wait until the next morning.

CIBC was Mr. Browne’s principal financier up to around 2003. Mr. Browne and this bank fell out for reasons which had nothing to do with the servicing of his loans. He was always in excellent financial standing. The fall out led to liquidity constraints that forced Mr. Browne’s companies to downsize and restructure. Mr. Browne missed out on many opportunities as a result. This matter is now before the court.

Gideon Browne finally decided to move his business to the National Commercial Bank after CIBC refused to finance his purchase of another Kingstown property on which he intended to build a branch of Browne’s Hardware. NCB took over the existing loans and financed the purchase of the property. Gideon Browne built on the land more or less cash in 2003.

Mr. Browne decided to invest in a counter top factory in Stubbs about 7 years ago in anticipation of slowdown in construction and general hardware sales. This slowdown did in fact come in the form of the Great Recession and Mr. Browne’s diversification helped him to weather the financial storms and provide a few jobs. The counter tops were initially made exclusively for the local market but are now being exported (exports began in earnest 2-3 years ago). Mr. Browne had enough foresight to remove his funds from British American before it collapsed on the basis of his suspicions about the interest rates.

Mr. Browne attended a trade show in China in 2007 and he returned to SVG with the idea of building a galvanise factory. He started to build this factory in that same year and completed it three years later. He had the benefit of industrial development concessions from the government. Mr. Browne also has a cell phone assembly plant in St. Lucia.

Gideon Browne is the proprietor of Browne’s Hardware Supplies Ltd, Browne’s Construction and Browne’s Manufacturing. He was nominated by CIBC for a construction sector award in Barbados around 1998 but placed second to C. O. Williams. Mr. Browne received an MBE last year for his performance in business.

At 56 years old, Mr. Browne is still well and truly in his prime. He plans to continue making strides in business as long as he has health and strength. Gideon is now concentrating on developing a fantastic resort at Spring. It has the advantage of close proximity to the international airport that is under construction at Argyle. The facilities on the compound are already a popular venue for cocktails, receptions and other events. It currently has 8 rooms and Mr. Browne is looking to complete another 24 rooms (for which he already has a booking) by the end of the year and ultimately to have a facility with around 58 rooms.

Mr. Browne is married to a woman that he loves dearly and with whom he has an everlasting bond. This gem of a wife has stood by her husband’s side throughout his years in business and he cherishes her. Gideon spends time on his knees in prayer with his wife when they wake up on mornings. They walk by faith and not by sight. The couple has four children (Shanelle, Merlicia, Ayandi and Latesha) who play various roles in the companies.

Gideon Browne would like to see the eradication of unemployment in SVG and he’s making a significant contribution towards that end. He said that youngsters have the potential to do well an achieve the kind of success that he has achieved as long as they find their calling, are trained, and are prepared to put in the long hours of work that are required. Gideon Browne stood out in the crowd from his early days at Public Works because he was diligent while his colleagues were skylarking. He is worthy of emulation.

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