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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Gurney Gibson

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Gurney Gibson


By Luke Browne Fri, Apr 25, 2014

Gurney Gibson is one of the best building contractors and businessmen that St. Vincent and the Grenadines has ever known. Mr. Gibson has a very good record in construction and he is the founder and Managing Director of a leading hardware store in this country – Gibsons Building Supplies Ltd. This hardware store was established in the basement of Gurney’s Cane Garden home over 30 years ago and has grown into a large scale commercial entity with two branches in Kingstown. Such growth and expansion speaks volumes of the sound business leadership of its founder and the excellent family management which he employed.{{more}}

Gurney was born in Lowmans Hill on May 2, 1929 but he grew up with his grandmother (Helen Gibson) in Campden Park. He attended primary school at Lowmans Hill and was in class with Yvonne Francis-Gibson. Gurney was a top student but he was denied the chance to go to the prestigious St. Vincent Grammar School by his grandmother who told him that he “didn’t need Grammar School” to succeed in life. She cited the example of his father who was making money from a trade even though he did not have a secondary school education.

Gurney finished primary school when he was around 13 years old and, rather than going on to secondary school, he spent a couple years at home with his grandmother helping her around the house and also helping her to take care of some animals – a cow called Pet (and subsequently a calf), some pigs and some goats. He said that his grandmother was a kind-hearted woman who took good care of him. The young Gibson went to learn a trade in his father’s furniture workshop in his late teens. He subsequently began to help out his father with construction jobs. He made wire chains and clothes hangers after work and sold them to supplement his income.

Gurney always put his best foot forward. He gained valuable insight on the production of furniture and the construction of houses. He vowed to achieve more than his contemporaries who had the benefit of a secondary school education and he set about to do just that. He was pre-occupied with learning and self-improvement. He moved in with his father (at first in Largo Height and then in New Montrose) after his grandmother suddenly died when he was around 20 years old. Gurney’s father was a serious boss who gave his son no gifts nor special treatment – Gurney had to earn his wages like everybody else and he also had to shoulder his responsibilities as big brother in the home.

Mr. Gurney Gibson fell in love with a young woman by the name of Rebecca who was from Gordon Yard in North Leeward. He married her on June 8, 1954 after a short courtship during which he used to ride by bicycle on an unpaved road all the way to her North Leeward home from Montrose on weekends sometimes just to get a glimpse of her under the close supervision of her parents. That was a profound demonstration of love in its purest form.

Mr. Gibson moved out from under his father’s roof and into a modest home (which he built for himself) in Walker Piece New Montrose within a year of his marriage and in time for the arrival of his first child: a son who was named Michael. Three other children followed: Edwin (1957); Vendolle (1959) and Ernie (1962). The new house had a small basement in which he set up a furniture shop. Gurney worked with his father in construction by day and made furniture in his workshop by night with little food and rest. He was sometimes joined by his wife after she put the children to bed. Mrs. Gibson helped with sanding and polishing the furniture. The furniture items were sold at the Hadley Brothers store (which was at the site of Bonadies Supermarket #1) and they were in high demand. Furniture was also shipped by the Geest boat to a client in England.

Gurney began to master the building trade and in 1957 he decided to go it on his own and start an independent construction firm – his first job was to build a house for one of his aunts after she had just returned to St. Vincent from Aruba. He went on to build many houses for Vincentians who came back home from the Dutch Antilles. Mr. Gibson realised that in order for him to become a successful builder and businessman in the modern age he would have to further his education. Accordingly, he went to evening classes as an adult student at Hospital Road at the home of an experienced teacher and then at the Technical Centre in Kingstown which was on the site of the current National Library.

Gurney’s early construction work was concentrated in Montrose (Lover’s Lane and Walker Piece), Kingstown Park and McKie’s Hill. He developed a reputation for the construction of beautiful homes and his scope expanded to envelope almost the entire country. He built, according to his daughter Vendolle, approximately 18 houses at the request of clients between 1957 and 1967. He also carried out property development and great profit: he regularly purchased a vacant plot of land (very often with the help of informal loans from friends and associates), built a house on the plot and then sold it.

Mr. Gibson resisted strong pressure from his wife to migrate to Canada in the 1960s. He did not want to abandon the land of his birth for a foreign lifestyle and firmly established his intention to remain in St. Vincent by building a bigger and much more comfortable house for his family in Cane Garden. The Gibsons moved into that new house in 1967. This house also had a spacious basement which was used at first as a furniture workshop and then much later as a hardware outlet.

Gurney built about 40 houses in Cane Garden alone, including houses that are owned by Reginald Bollers, Michael Findlay, Marcus DeFreitas, Douglas Williams and Ian Veira. He began to take on big projects in 1966 – starting with the construction of the Young Island Resort. He got the nod for this project after he competently built an upscale house for Sir Fredrick Ballantyne in Rose Cottage. The late sixties and early seventies were the busiest times of his construction life.

Mr. Gibson refurbished the Cobblestone Inn and he built the Kingstown Medical College from scratch in a record time of 9 months. He was recommended for Medical College project because of his performance on Young Island. Edwin, Gurney’s son, recalled that when his father was working on the Medical College he (Edwin) built doors in his father’s workshop during the day and then went to put down tiles at the Medical College on afternoons. Eddie was an all-rounder and the only areas in construction that he never liked were the electrical and masonry aspects.

Gurney Gibson gained insight on the procurement, importation and pricing of building materials from his work in construction and he decided to open a hardware outlet in his basement in 1979. He gave his customers value for money and he frequently drove to construction sites to advertise his products. The hardware business quickly outgrew the basement and Mr. Gibson invested in a property in Kingstown along the Victoria Park Road and opened a hardware store there to better accommodate his rapidly growing clientele. The company started off with 3 employees but it now has close to 100 workers. The move to Kingstown was made in 1981 and was financed by a Barclays bank loan for which Gurney’s first house was used as collateral. Mr. Gibson had a very good relationship with his bankers and they always demonstrated confidence in him. The business was incorporated in the name Gibsons Building Supplies in 1982 and in that same year, Mr. Gibson purchased an adjacent property on the Victoria Park Road and opened a lumber department.

Mr. Gibson’s decision to enter the hardware business did not sit well with a company that previously supplied him with materials for building projects. That company bemoaned the loss of a good client and the arrival of a new competitor with lower prices. The vengeful corporate establishment took some retaliatory measures in an attempt to make life difficult for the entrepreneur but only succeeded in strengthening his resolve to forge ahead. Mr. Gibson said that the 1980s and early 1990s was a difficult period for him but he was always very optimistic. The Christian businessman and prominent member of his church knew that God will make a way for him. He clinged to his faith and this faith did see him through.

Gibsons Building Supplies has a longstanding business relationship with Mitchell’s Hardware in Union Island.

Mr. Gibson closed down his furniture shop in the early 1980s to concentrate on construction and to nurture his fledgling hardware business. He continued with his work in construction for a long time after he got the hardware store up and running. He was the contractor for the Campden Park Housing Scheme – he built 80 houses on this scheme when Milton Cato was the Prime Minister of SVG. O. T. Mayers was a sub-contractor on some of the Campden Park houses. Mr. Gibson started to phase himself out of construction when his son, Michael, returned home from studies in the USA and started a construction company.

Gibsons Building Supplies purchased a property in Grenville Street in 1984 and used it to store cement and other heavy items for a number of years until the building thereon was demolished and replaced by a three-story structure in 1989. A light hardware store was opened on that site in December of the following year for the convenience of customers given its close proximity to the bus terminals. However, the new store caused some traffic problems being located as it was on the corner of a busy main road intersection. This eventually led to the relocation of this store (see below).

Mr. Gibson built a seven unit apartment complex in Indian Bay in 1994 and he followed that up with the purchase of a property on Bay Street (in Kingstown) in 1998. This Bay Street property was rented to Courts for many years before it was transformed into a self-service light hardware store which opened its doors to customers in 2007. This store replaced the Grenville Street branch (which was closed) and the congestion problems at that previous site were therefore done away with. In 2008, the Grenville Street building was renovated for lease to the Bickles restaurant. That lease came to an end and the building now houses a merchandise store at the ground level and there are plans for the utilization of the two upper floors.

Mr. Gibson said that his wife and children had a lot to do with his success and lauds them for their service to the company. He described them as the “backbone” of the business. Gurney recalled that in days gone by his wife drove their pickup and truck to deliver goods to customers. The couple’s four children are all involved in the management of the company: Edwin (Assistant Manager); Vendolle (Accounts Manager); Ernie (a business advisor who resides in the USA); and Michael (construction expert). Some of Gurney’s grandchildren also have corporate functions.

The presence of family members in the business helped Gibsons Building Supplies Ltd. to escape certain types of problems and losses which sometimes plague and stifle the growth of companies in which there is a separation between ownership and management. The company has also been blessed with faithful employees who took their customer service responsibilities seriously. This family enterprise has done well over the years and there are plans for the enhancement of its two Kingstown stores and the establishment of a branch outside the capital.

Gurney Gibson made his name in business and he served this country in many other capacities. He sat on the boards of several statutory corporations: the Housing and Land Development Corporation; the National Insurance Scheme; the St. Vincent Port Authority; and the National Development Foundation. He was also a Board Member of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

Mr. Gibson reached the pinnacle of his profession and he received the OBE award in 2005 for his outstanding contribution to construction and business in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This stalwart businessman was determined to succeed despite that fact that he was deprived of a secondary school education. Mr. Gibson had no inheritance but he reaped the rewards of his labour and enjoyed the fruits of success. He shared these fruits with less fortunate Vincentians through scholarships and by other means during his lifetime.

Mr. Gibson has lived a full life and reached many milestones. He is now on the verge of his eighty-fifth birthday and his fiftieth wedding anniversary. He plans to continue playing a role in the businesses he started for as long as possible.

This man called Gurney Gibson was the son of a furniture maker and building contractor and the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree in the professional sense of the word. He is at this moment the midpoint in a line of building contractors that started with his grandfather (who was the first person to put down an asphalt road in this country) and has continued right down to his grandson Aaron. Mr. Gibson hopes that this tradition would continue for many generations to come. Gurney, like a true builder, has laid a strong foundation on which his children and grandchildren could continue to build.