REFLECTING on his nearly 56 years as a contractor, Emile Elias is proud both of the enduring structures his company, NH, has built throughout T&T and the region and of creating structures within the company that will ensure its longevity.
The focus on structure sharpened this month when John Connon, the managing director of NH for all of its 25 years, told Elias he wanted to retire at the end of this year at the age of 71. Connon, who owns 20 per cent of NH, is planning to move to another Caribbean island. The Englishman is being retained as a consultant and will liaise with the company from his new home.
“I am staying on as executive chairman, for as long as my health continues to be as good as it is now. But also, I am seeing myself being phased out as part of the strategic plan because you have to plan for that. You cannot assume you are going to be here. I would say for the short term, I am here. For the medium term, I don’t know what will happen,” said Elias, in an interview at his Long Circular Road, St James office with Connon by his side.
NH is run by a seven-member board of directors, comprising Elias and Connon, Michelle Clarke, the company’s head of human resources, George Sheppard, CEO of Sheppard Investment Services, Hugh Schamber, the managing director of roofing company Weathershield Systems Caribbean Ltd, the company’s corporate secretary, John Peters and Elias’s daughter, Charlotte.
His daughter has been the driving force behind the construction company’s transformation, says Elias.
“Charlotte is the one who has been instrumental in seeing the need for a strategic plan, hiring the professional consultants to work on the strategic plan (Ian and Nicole Currie) and in pushing to ensure that the plan gets implemented. While there may have been some initial grumbling from staff about the need for a strategic plan, to Charlotte’s credit, she stuck with it.
“Charlotte’s great skill is her vision for the future and her ability to choose the right people. As the future majority shareholder of NH, it would be up to her to ensure there is a board of directors of professionals who would manage the company successfully over the next ten or 20 years.
“Charlotte Elias is the future of NH.”
Connon said the work on the strategic plan began about two years ago.
“Over the last nine months, we had many sessions with the consultants involving all our staff, where we developed the basis of our plan, which was adopted late last year,” Connon said.
Elias added: “Many people develop strategic plans, but implementing it is a whole different chapter. So what we have done is that we have set up, with the consultants, an implementation plan, which is very far advanced and should be 100 per cent completed by year end.”
The construction executive says the strategic plan is responsible for the company’s shift in focus from constructing buildings to getting into the development of projects that would include the construction of the buildings by NH.
“In recent years, because of our new strategic plan, we have been looking at becoming co-developers. Our first major investment is in the Cayman Islands with two local partners. It’s a major investment with a huge potential project comprising a commercial/residential high-rise development that is in the planning stages now. The development potential of that project could be as much as US$150 million,” said Elias.
The T&T company’s contribution to the 500,000-square-foot project would be its co-ownership of the land in the Cayman it acquired 18 months ago. NH currently owns 42.5 per cent of the equity in the Cayman project.
Another aspect of the NH strategic plan is the introduction of technology throughout the company. That process is being driven by a new IT manager who is navigating the company into 21st century technology in everything it does, including programming, planning, procurement, finance and human resources.
The introduction of new technology is necessary because of the geographic spread of the company.
“If you have an operation, as we do, in Dominica; one in St Vincent about to start, one in Guyana about to start and we are negotiating contracts in St Lucia, where we have worked for a long time—you have to go high-tech in order to maintain communications, quality of work and to understand and control the output.”
As a T&T-based construction company, NH has worked in 12 countries across the Caribbean, from The Bahamas in the north to Guyana in the south.
In the company’s financial year ended March 31, 2020, 54 per cent of its turnover came from the Caribbean and 46 per cent from T&T. In the 2019 financial year, 43 per cent of the company’s turnover was from the region and 57 per cent was from T&T.
Working outside of T&T is not just about constructing a building outside of the country, Elias says. A clear understanding of the local conditions is imperative as is the knowledge that each country is different.
“Some contractors here think that because NH works offshore that they can venture offshore as well. The challenges of working offshore—which we have overcome very successfully—include logistics, communications, technology, taxation, national insurance, labour laws, other legal issues, financing issues, knowing the suppliers and the engagement of the local community.
“This is not an easy exercise. We have mastered it, but it has been 25 years in which there has been a great deal of learning.”
T&T suppliers of construction goods benefit when local companies work offshore, says Elias, because a great deal of procurement for overseas projects is done in T&T. Connon recalls a pipe-laying project that NH did in 1994, just before the establishment of NH in November 1995, in the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, which involved purchasing 150 kilometres of pipe from local PVC manufacturer, Tricon.
One of the benefits of working offshore is that there are less issues about getting paid for work completed than there are in T&T, says Elias.
“There seems to be a better sense offshore that you do not engage in a project if you do not have the money to do it. And I can say that we have no bad debts offshore. In 2018 and 2019, all the jobs we have offshore are current in payments. Going back to the previous and the current administrations, the only place in the last ten years that we have had problems getting paid on time is in T&T.
“There seems to have developed this attitude here that contractors should get on with the job and the government will pay when it can. It is not as disciplined as it is offshore.”
Construction has been very profitable for the NH as the company has been able to grow organically without taking on any debt.
“We believe in Warren Buffet’s statement that you only know who is bathing naked when the tide goes out. And the tide has gone out this year in a dramatic way. But we will survive it because we have preserved our resources,” he says.
Asked about his colleagues in the construction industry, Elias says he does not know their situation, adding, “The problem in our industry is that you see people coming into the industry and leaving almost as rapidly as restaurants.”
Connon expands on the point by saying in the last 25 years, many foreign contractors, such as Wimpey, Keir, Johnson International— have come into T&T and the Caribbean and have disappeared.And the sharp slowdown in the T&T economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the global collapse in energy prices, Elias is confident in the ability of the company to thrive in the current challenging circumstances.
“Just taking a queue from the Express Business lead store (of July 1) quoting Omar Hadeed’s expansion of his business, the message is that we see the future as being extremely optimistic for NH’s growth because of the fact that we have the resources and we are capable of going into all of the islands and the countries of the Caribbean. We see the future as being very bright for us because we have all of the ingredients. We have the quality management, the financial resources as well as the expertise and experience to go into markets, settle in and build efficiently.” said Elias.
He says the company, which has a current staff complement of 141, is the largest building contractor in the English-speaking Caribbean and it is growing very aggressively.
“We are expanding all of our senior management structures to take on turnover in all the islands we are pursuing. So that as and when we get work, we can mobilise to do it.”