Some time after 7 o’clock this evening, the Chamber of Commerce will stage its annual equivalent of the Oscars. Produced by the talented and, some say, expensive, Adrian Augier, the biggest difference between the Hollywood and the Rock of Sages productions is that the nominees for local awards are self-nominated.
Count on seeing no-industry Saint Lucia’s captains of industry and their gym-shy wives, bejeweled jabals, haughty hangers on and friends-with-benefits, all gussied up to impress one another, all hoping to catch the paparazzi eyes of our digitally-loaded ladies and gentlemen of the media, regular and social.
While the audience digs into specially catered carb-loaded goodies, some self-important Chamber peacock will serve the reheated words that had preceded last year’s awards presentation.
Of course, his or her bon mots will be heard only by their trusting spouses, but count on wall-to-wall applause regardless, while the fine ladies and gentlemen in their internet-purchased finery pretend to have no idea whatsoever who was the last winner of the business community’s Oscar, referred to by the Chamber as “the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation,” even though the prime minister’s office would be hard-pressed to say anything useful about it.
In truth, the Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation is strictly a Chamber invention. Which is not to say it hasn’t been particularly valuable to at least one wholly undeserving winner. Acknowledged or not, Cellestial clouds will hang over the 2014 Chamber of Commerce Business Awards ceremony—even as the ghost of George Benson hovers over the glitzy pappyshow!
On Wednesday this newspaper featured a story on the much-advertised white guy who we’ve been told by at least one TV personality is “as Saint Lucian as green fig” and the CEO of the Caribbean’s only mass manufacturer of computers . . . an exporter of “4000 phones, 2000 laptops and 1000 tablets a week.”
The suggestion is that the weekly exports were manufactured with the assistance of just eight or nine ladies, always referred to by their employer in self-promos as “single mothers.” Even more mind-boggling is that the Chamber aided and abetted the mythology reproduced as fact by most of the accommodating local media.
Last week Cellestial’s miracle man, who seems to allow himself to be photographed only against a backdrop that features his Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation, agreed to meet me to discuss his seeming ability to walk on water.
He suggested by e-mail that he might me either on Monday or Tuesday. I chose Monday. But there was no confirmation from George Benson. It turns out he had chosen instead to remove himself to Dominica, according to correspondence bearing his name and addressed to Florida-based Gregg Fous.
The correspondence, details what he describes as “activities while in Dominica,” and yet the report reeks of contempt for the high government officials with whom he had conferred:
“Monday 4.30 pm: Meeting with Minister of Education Peter Saint-Jean. (I know why he was there) and the Minister of the Environment (I don’t know why he was there). They want us to set up and begin production in Dominica in 90 days.
“Tuesday at 11 am: Presentation to Cabinet, 22 people in the room, chaired by the deputy prime minister. The prime minister is in the U.S. raising campaign funds for a suspected July election. By any measure it was a successful meeting with 20 minutes of me talking and 40 minutes of Q&A period. No power point, just very expensive handouts. Prototypes were passed around and this was like a room full of boys and toys.
“Three ministers wanted factory located near their constituency. Lively debate about what the Dominica plant would assemble that would be different than the St. Lucia plant. I promised differentiation of products in the two locations after the school program was finished. The count went up to 14,000 tablets with keyboards with a Sim chip to enable those without WiFi in their homes to connect the Internet through a provider. They already have negotiated that need for free access through Lime (Cable & Wireless).
“Tuesday 4 pm: Meeting with our main advocate, Minister George (Ministry of Information). He asked what it would take to include the factory and training costs into the cost of he [sic] tablets. Everyone, he said, wanted the parents to buy the devises [sic] through a micro-loan scheme which is now funded with $US5,000,000. Not everyone needs micro-loans, he said. I told him we could train up to 50 persons under our plan.
“Wednesday 10 am: Meeting with permanent secretaries of the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Education who are responsible for providing me with their device specifications by the 27th. I can then be more accurate with my quote. They may not need two cameras for example, but the memory may need to be expanded.
“Wednesday 2.30pm: Meeting with Julius Corbett, CEO of the Dominica Agricultural Industrial and Development Bank. He was suppose [sic] to talk about micro-loans and space in the Canefield Industrial Park but the money from the National Investment Fund is the source and the PM and Bennette Thomas have already identified the land next to the Dominica Information Service as ideal . . . so not sure in the end why I met him. Caught flight back to SLU and slept for ten hours.
“Please note that I gave both prototypes and spec sheets to Dr. Bertin (Ministry of Information) and Joshua Vernor (Ministry of Education) here in St. Lucia on the 10th and I asked for their spec feedback, so we could cost out their unit. I know they need 8000 pieces immediately, with balance to follow. In both countries there was much discussion about colours and flag imprints on the devices.”
I was unable to reach the local officials for confirmation at time of writing.”
As earlier indicated, the report was signed “George C. Benson, executive director of Regional Communications Ltd, Castries, St. Lucia.”
The following is a comment from Ms Selma St. Prix of the state-funded NSDC: “As the general manager of the National Skills Development Centre, I can vouch for the fact that we would never encourage unfair exploitation of our single mothers. As for the training the received at Cellestial, NSDC monitored it and witnessed individuals being taught what was described to us as repairing and assembling skills.
“Cellestial accepted our single mothers as permanent staff but when we visited some weeks ago we discovered they were engaged only on call, not consistently. We considered that most irregular and contrary to expectations. The excuse given us was that an expected shipment of chips for assembly had not arrived. Some of the seven ladies we sent to Cellestial stayed on but others moved on to other jobs. They had families to consider.
“Since the recent press focus on Cellestial, NSDC has acquired information that demanded explanation. Mr. George Benson was not forthcoming. He refused to provide the answers we sought. He also refused to call our office as promised. We had asked for modules pertaining to the training of our single mothers. He sent us certificates with no signature, no date, only printed names on the signage lines and an Arizona phone number. We consider Mr. Benson’s behaviour most disrespectful, sinister and unprofessional. “The NSDC is of the view such behaviour should not be encouraged and should not go unreprimanded. We have learned from our regrettable experience. Hopefully we will soon have answers and an appropriate resolution.”
Then there is this, from the former management of Benson’s Castries-based Cellestial, which explains why they walked out en-masse: “Representatives of the company distributed and promoted Cellestial samples in the hope they would eventually be the company’s end product. Orders were solicited from clients using Cellestial product catalogues and samples but could not be filled. Mr. George Benson’s promises that stock would be ordered to facilitate manufacturing never materialized. The company seemed in no position to meet demands or to provide consistent employment to technicians.
“Meanwhile the company continued its self-promotion, flaunting what it passed off as products manufactured at its own factory. After a time it became clear to us that Cellestial was not as it advertised itself on TV and in the print media. Finally the operations manager, the sales manager and the accountant resigned. This is a case where everyone felt unfairly exploited.”
The last line could not be more understated. Still to be revealed: George Benson’s highly publicized “adoption” of at least two local schools; his attempted relationship with a local finance institution, his company Cellucian and his arrangements with Gregg Fous of the Florida-based Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate.