Grace Kennedy Ltd: The Archetypal Success Story

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“Here’s to the sunshine in you,” reads the can in my hand. A gulp of sweet coconut water swishes around my mouth and bits of jelly float, reminding me of a freshly picked coconut, ripened under the Caribbean sun.

What was it about this canned consumer good that was igniting those memories of satiated thirst, almost as if it was calling me back to the tropics? “Relax, enjoy and refresh your inner self with Grace Coconut water.”

I figured if it tasted good enough to cause that, then it wasn’t worth questioning.

That coconut water is just a tiny fragment of a corporate behemoth that not only changed how you buy Caribbean food, but changed the way you consume it. After years of logistics and multiple test kitchens, she is the true iconography of Caribbean flavour.

Grace Kennedy Ltd is the archetypal success story in which a business rose from the bottom of a disjointed economy to one of the largest institutions in Jamaica and an engine for socioeconomic progression. What started as a small trading company in 1922 gradually erupted into one of the largest commercial bodies in the Caribbean—so large that it’s traded on markets in two different countries—and most likely the company sponsoring your dinner tonight.

Like that tropical sunset, her enterprise stretches across the gleaming waters with a large regalia of subsidiaries sailing on the waves behind her. There’s the branches in Barbados, UK, Belize and Trinidad. Distributors sprinkled across the Caribbean. A long list of customers in the US—and that’s only their food retail sector.

Grace Kennedy dared to step out of the food gamut by offering banking, finance, insurance, money transfer and lumber services. It owns some of the biggest names in this prism. There’s First Global Bank, GraceKennedy Remittance Services Limited, Allied Insurance Brokers Ltd, Hardware and Lumber Ltd and assorted subsidiaries.

Back in the 1970s Grace looked to Canada to find a market it could capitalize on via profitable oriental traders and started exporting to United Foods which operated out of Scarborough, Ontario. After sales plummeted, GraceKennedy purchased United Foods in 1984. At the time only 20 per cent of United Food’s retail goods were Caribbean, the remaining 80 per cent was dominated by oriental, primarily Chinese products. GraceKennedy acquired the Scarborough distribution centre once operated by United Foods and in 1986 moved to its current location in Richmond Hill.

“When we bought it, we started doing the same thing,” said Grace Kennedy (Ontario) Inc.’s Accountant Vic Singh. “We were selling oriental products. But after the first couple of years we could not compete with the Chinese importers because they were bringing in [more] products in larger quantities.” The attention was drawn from oriental products and directed to the Caribbean market. With growing immigration into Canada, GK Ontario had a market that it could rely on—thousands of Caribbean migrants moving into Canada and yearning for a taste of home.

Now, with over half a million Caribbean immigrants, Grace Kennedy Ontario faces a bigger challenge than low sales. How exactly do you capture the essence of Caribbean gastronomy, transport it thousands of miles and lay it on a Canadian table in all its wholesomeness without compromising the integrity of the product?

For starters, you tap into local products that mesh with Caribbean cooking. One of their top sellers is canned salted fish which is locally caught cod fish from Nova Scotia. By having a local staple in its line-up that’s branded under the crowned Grace logo, two palates were satisfied, Caribbean and Canadian. “The brand name speaks for itself,” said Erwin Hughes, employee of 25 years and assistant warehouse supervisor with GK Ontario. “People talk about it and word goes out.”

But non-Caribbeans aren’t interested in Grace only because it offers food they’re familiar with. They gravitate towards it because Grace offers something that reminds them of a trip taken long ago or one returned from just yesterday. “Grace has this aura of being exotic,” said Mr. Singh. “And we try to maintain that—like exotic food coming from the Caribbean.”

“We are a Caribbean company that tries to satisfy the taste of all different Caribbean people as well as mainstream people in Canada,” said Singh. Essentially, Grace is selling nostalgia to its customers, bathed with the sweet remnants of the Caribbean—ackee, johnny cakes, plantain chips, and ready-in-minutes rice and peas. “If anybody goes back to the Caribbean and finds something that they like, a Grace product, we want that when [they] come back here [they] can get it easily,” said Singh.

But there have been products which didn’t quite please the crowd. Hoping to gain the attention of busy households and culinarily naive young adults, Grace Kennedy Ontario whipped up its frozen meals line. In mere minutes you could have a serving of hot curry goat on a bed of rice and peas, the kind that could only be prepared in a family kitchen. Heavy competition with North American food companies that offer freezer solutions left the line limp. “Lots of people in the Caribbean would not eat microwaveable food,” said Singh. “They prefer to prepare their dinner in the afternoon. The focus was on younger people but most of them would cook in the afternoon or go to their parents and eat.”

Luckily this didn’t slow growth and GK Ontario Inc is still introducing new products and experimenting with new tastes, constantly seeking to enhance and expand its menu. “The thing about these new brands, new products with the Grace brand, is they’re never just a phase, they just keep selling,” said Vincent Lai, president of Nicey’s Food Mart, one of GK Ontario’s largest distributors. The brand introduced two new products this year, an aloe vera beverage and Nurishment, a milk-based vitamin and mineral enhanced beverage.

In its 25 years of operation, GK Ontario’s annual sales increased fivefold, topping off at $30 million per year. Figures like that do not come easily. It takes tremendous planning and careful branding to supplement Grace’s reputation for providing quality products. In 2000 GK Ontario secured its first major chain store account when it partnered with Food Basics, opening a wider range of consumers. That would later help to secure other customers including Sobey’s, Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart and Walmart.

To show their appreciation for customers, Grace runs special offers, promotional pricing, prints cook books and supports various charitable causes. “Grace Kennedy Ontario has successfully extended the footprint of Grace in Canada,” said Lucky Lankage, president of Grace Kennedy (Ontario) Inc. since 1998. “Over the years we have celebrated our success by giving back to the community that has given us so much by supporting a number of charities and community initiatives.” Caribana, Carabram, Guyana Independence, Jamaica Independence and the Jamaican Canadian Association are among the events and community initiatives that Grace continues to support.

This year, Grace Kennedy (Ontario) Inc. celebrated its 25th anniversary in a special collaboration with Centennial College. The evening hosted members of the GK family, and numerous executives including the Honorable Douglas Orane, C.D., J.P., Chairman and CEO of Grace Kennedy, and Erwin Burton, Deputy CEO of Grace Kennedy and CEO of GK Foods. “[Grace Kennedy Ontario Incs] sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of Canadian
consumers has led to the development of many of the most innovative food products that Grace Kennedy has earned the mark worldwide,” said Orane in his address to colleagues and friends of GK Ontario.

The evening venerated GK Ontario’s success under the supportive belt of the head company in Jamaica. Special recognition was awarded to employees who have worked with GK Ontario for 10 to 25 years. Warehouse supervisor, Erwin Hughes was among the recipients for his service to Grace Kennedy Ontario Inc since its inception in 1984. GK Ontario is hammering out more new items to expand its already extensive offering and
seeking new markets to share its flair for Caribbean products.

“We are trying to let people know that you don’t have to go to the Caribbean to enjoy Grace products,” said Singh. “You can enjoy it right here and have a feeling of the Caribbean right here by using our products.” According to Singh, hopes are high for tapping into the Hispanic and South Asian market.

In the meanwhile, Grace Kennedy (Ontario) Inc continues to be a driving force in Caribbean gastronomy here in Canada and a link that connects Caribbeans to a taste of home.


Indo-Caribbean World, October 6, 2010


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