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Jamaican Entrepreneurs

INTERVIEW: THALIA LYN- Small dynamo behind Island brand

Published: Monday | June 26, 2006
Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor

MANY MAY know her for her ability to throw her legendary parties, but gracious hostess aside, businesswoman Thalia Lyn is also passionate about doing good for the less fortunate and ensuring that Jamaica is projected in the best light at all times.

Thalia Lyn

Her origins are typical of Chinese Jamaicans - her parents were business people who ensured she earned her B.Sc. (behind shop counter) degree very early in life. The bakery operated by her father began with partner money and funds from the sale of her mother's barley sugar.

Back then, when her father wanted a loan to start a business, he was too young so he had to do it alone. It was also the custom to educate all children, including girls, but the business was always left to the boys. Girls were educated so they could find a good husband. All 12 children for Mrs. Lyn's deceased parents are alive and her brother, Ray Chang, has also emerged to become a major force in Canada's financial industry.

Mrs. Lyn did not set out to be in business. Having been told by their father to do well in school, get scholarships to university and look out for the younger siblings, she got her degree in record time and returned home to teach at her alma mater Immaculate High School for a year.

But the lure of business was strong, and having started with one venture, she set out to carve a path that has led to Jamaica's premier fast food chain. There have been challenges along the way such as the exit from South Florida shortly after expanding there, but the team has forged a strategic alliance with Goddard Enterprises Limited and is ready to take the plunge again, this time in the Caribbean.

Now in her 39th year of marriage to Captain Michael Lyn, the grandmother of two has expanded on the valuable 'shop sense' from the days at Princess Street where she learnt to make change and offer good customer service.

The Interview

Key: BE : Barbara Ellington | TL: Thalia Lyn

BE: Even though you had a degree and taught for a year, did you know you would end up in business?

TL: I came home armed with a degree and thought I'd join the family business. I wanted to revive the pastry department of Purity Bakery. It had been started by my mother and aunts. I was not really welcomed but I always knew I would go in business. I took the teaching job. Among my students was Cindy Breakspeare.

I went to Canada with my husband who was in flying school, so I worked with what has become CI Funds today. I returned to Jamaica in 1981 and the first business we started was Dairy Queen, a self-serve ice cream shop. The principals were David McRae, my husband and I. We added chicken and expanded to three outlets before buying Patta Kake Bakery. In 1991 we started Chicken Supreme, which later changed to Island Grill in 1998. We evolved from a bland-tasting chicken to Jamaican jerk.

BE: How did Island Grill get its name?

TL: We began with moderate success as Chicken Supreme and started to experiment with seasonings, then we went into jerk. It suddenly hit us that we should align our name with the ambience of an island look and feel. As soon as we changed the name and did all of those adjustments, business began to grow; sales doubled and we grew from four outlets to the 13 we have today and come August, we will put one in the Red Hills Mall.

BE: Why Red Hills Mall at a time when many businesses have moved away from that violence-plagued area?

TL: It has great drive-through potential and even though people are nervous, Red Hills Road has a population that still has to eat. We are a good Jamaican brand with customer loyalty so we want to continue to appeal more to the average Jamaican who live and work in the area.

BE: Do you have locations in all parishes yet, and when will you be making the much-talked-about move to Barbados?

TL: No, we are not yet in all parishes but we continue to explore those options. Barbados is set to come on stream in October or November. We are in partnership with Goddard Enterprises Ltd. who are with 50 companies in 21 countries worldwide and their catering arm is spread over 18 Caribbean countries. They offer airline catering throughut the region and Latin America and are partners with Sky Chef.

So far they are happy with our presence at both Jamaican airports; the locations do very well and we think Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados would be a good launching pad for the Caribbean. Goddard loves the Island Grill product and believes that its Jamaica success can be replicated throughout the Caribbean: it's the food Caribbean people eat - chicken, rice, vegetables. The chicken is grilled fresh and is tasty and healthy, along with a Jamaican flavour. Goddard is comfortable with the partners and myself and finds us passionate about the company. Island Grill is a great fit with the Goddard Catering Group; good joint ventures are all about people. We have been in a joint venture through our Jamaican company Versair for the past four and a half years in both Montego Bay and Norman Manley airports. It is now time to move forward together.

BE: So with the decrease in the quality and quantity of food on international flights, your locations would fill the gap for travelling passengers?

TL: Yes, that's why we do so well in the airports. Many people (and airline crews) even call ahead and order their food to take on board. Breakfast, especially porridge, is popular and we do exceptionally well with returning residents who sometimes buy a whole chicken as they try to get a last taste of home.

BE: What made you decide to expand the menu?

TL: Everyone copies us, so the minute we add a menu item, it is copied. We were the first to add ripe and green fried plantain, pumpkin/callaloo rice. As fast as we are copied, we have to add something new but we have managed to maintain such high standard, so usually it's rare that we have quality issues and that's why we have managed to grow and increase customer base. But we have to be one step ahead of everyone because we are the standard for good quality Jamaican fast food. Surveys have positioned us well among international chains, even with only 13 stores. We rank as second favourite for lunch and dinner and for breakfast we are third. This includes the patty chains. We feel good about that. BE: What is the biggest challenge for Island Grill?

TL: The biggest challenge was when we went overseas and had to make the big decision to come back. After September 11, when there was a downtime in the economy, we couldn't afford to remain in Florida and mark time because our big plan was to continue opening restaurants. The market went flat. Our biggest challenge now is the high cost of running a business; with fuel costs rising, electricity is so high it's hard to have the bottom line maintained when margins are completely eroded. We are still a quick-service, volume business so we don't have big mark-ups. To maintain costs is difficult; overheads are high, and you have to be very efficient to stay profitable. Luckily we don't have a lot of debt, but to expand from cash flow is impossible now. The future is challenging. We have a strong team who understands that efficiency is necessary for survival.

BE: What makes you most happy with running Island Grill?

TL: Just seeing the brand out there and seeing how passionate and proud the team is. They want to see it succeed; they love the goodwill and though we are small, we have accomplished. With the strategic partnership with Goddard, the team is thinking that for a big company to see the advantage of partnering with us, it's good; that brings value to the brand.

BE: How many employees do you have now and what are some of the staffing challenges?

TL: Almost 500. The quick-service restaurant industry has a 50 per cent staff turnover and we have been working to bring that down. We have succeeded to some extent; we try to build pride and loyalty and we try to ensure they are happy and there are benefits to be had at Island Grill. We assist with education and health and their career growth. Because we are the standard, others poach on us - both locally and overseas. But it's good for us and them. They earn more but it's a huge cost because we spend a lot on training.

BE: What, in your opinion is the biggest hurdle for Jamaican business owners like yourself?

TL: Violence is the biggest one; we have to close stores earlier out of concern for the safety of staff. We spend more for security costs, We have to pay transport cost to take them home. You have to worry constantly about the environment we live in. Our Spanish Town restaurant is closed so often that you practically want to leave the area, but you have to think about your customers there who need the service.

BE: What do you see as a solution to the crime problem?

TL: We have to get serious about it. I think even though we have put in some measures, we know a lot more than we will admit, but we don't act on the knowledge.

BE: What's been your biggest surprise along the journey to success?

TL: I would not have thought we could take a totally Jamaican line of foods and make it so successful. It's really comfort food. I tried being more North American and found that what people wanted was good Jamaican food in a nice environment, served fresh while creating goodwill.

BE: If you had the chance, would you change anything?

TL: Yes I would. Even going to Florida, I would still have gone there because we had a plan. If we did not have the terrorist attack and suffered the downturn, we would have continued opening restaurants there. What we learnt from the information technology systems in Florida and brought back to Jamaica has proved very useful in moving ahead. That's why we can now expand quickly in new areas.

BE: How would you advise young women who are considering a career as an entrepreneur?

TL: There are many women graduating from university today, but they are not going into business. Banks don't seem to be as favourably disposed to giving women loans for business. It's only recently that banks have stopped asking me to bring my husband in to co-sign loans.

Women are asked for more collateral than men - that is a deterrent for them, but I would say to young women, there is nothing to stop you. I came from a family in business and my father had to co-sign my first loan but - don't be daunted, go with a good business plan and keep trying. Older, more established businesswomen could also mentor younger ones.

BE: How do you see the business landscape in Jamaica now?

TL: The stock market is flat now, but companies are showing fairly good results, I can't understand why. We have to be careful, but there are still opportunities for those who want to start a new business.

BE: What charities are you involved in?

TL: Charities that include children with HIV/AIDS such as Mustard Seed Communities. I work where I can make a difference. I have also taken on the restoration of the North Street Cathedral, which is a National Heritage building. If the Spanish and German embassies are willing to help, we should help ourselves. I also chair the National Commercial Bank Foundation which will ensure that many young people get the opportunity for an education.

The challenge now is to be more proactive to meet more needy Jamaicans so that the country will benefit in the long run. As honorary consul to the Kingdom of Thailand, I have so far led a successful trade mission to Bangkok and I am working to establish stronger ties and links between both countries.

BE: What is your wish for Jamaica?

TL: I do not want to live anywhere else so we all have to make Jamaica better so we can all continue to live here comfortably. We have to get rid of the violence and corruption and work towards a productive society where honest, hard-working people can earn a good living.

Send feedback to barbara.ellington@gleanerjm.com