Support from family and friends is tantamount to the success of any individual and, to that, Ramon George Esper’s life is testament. Ramon, CEO of Blue Waters Saint Lucia, Food Express, and Meat Express has surpassed even his wildest aspirations, starting his journey into entrepreneurship at the age of 17 with his own clothing store (Ramon’s Boutique). He’s never been short of encouragement, inspiration and drive, and this week he spoke with us about just what it takes to stay ahead of the game when doing business in Saint Lucia.
WHERE DOES YOUR FASCINATION WITH BUSINESS COME FROM?
Ramon: I was born in Saint Lucia in 1970. At the age of 17 I decided that school was not for me. Basically I told my father that I would like to open up a clothing shop in town, which I did. He helped me out. That was in 1989. Things took off from there. To tell you the honest truth, I never felt like I was 17. I just wanted to be my own boss. I was never good at taking orders from anybody. Everybody says to me I’m exactly like my grandfather, Abraham George. He was like my father. In terms of business, I can remember one thing he said to me: “A man that doesn’t need anyone is a king.”
WHAT ROLE HAS FAMILY PLAYED IN YOUR SUCCESS?
Ramon: Family has a big part to play. The support is not only from my immediate family but everyone. You learn from them. They are all big business people. Generally, we are very close in terms of family and that’s a big push, honestly. You ask the questions and they lead you in the right direction. It really takes a village.
HOW HAS YOUR PORTFOLIO GROWN OVER THE YEARS?
Ramon: In 1999 we had Food Express. Five years after that I opened Meat Express Limited, which is the frozen food side of the company. Basically, we supply hotels and restaurants. Those are the two businesses I got into when I finished with clothing. Tourism was on the upswing and I said why not go into something that will service the industry, which is food and beverage. That’s how we started off. After that, I started importing Blue Waters from Trinidad. We were the agent here from 2002 when we brought in the first container of Blue Waters. It was part of Food Express at the beginning of distribution and we were just for the hotels, the supermarkets, and restaurants. Then we started to branch out and put on more trucks. We realized there was an opportunity. Blue Waters Trinidad saw the opportunity for us in Saint Lucia because the volume was there. They saw the opportunity in Saint Lucia to establish a plant and we established a partnership. They wanted me as a full partner with them. I partnered with them in Saint Lucia and we started distributing to the OECS.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE WHOLESALE FOOD INDUSTRY IN SAINT LUCIA?
Ramon: Very competitive. You always have to be ahead, and that’s the game. You always have to be thinking of new items and figuring out how best you can serve your customers. It’s important to make sure you have the right people around you, the right managers and, of course, the respect of your workers. You need your workers to feel they are part of your business for that business to grow.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THAT LOCAL INDUSTRY HEADING?
Ramon: In terms of growth, the more hotels and restaurants we have, the more demand there will be. There is a lot more competition than there was five years ago. You have new companies that are coming in, aggressive pricing, so now you have to up your game. At the end of the day you have your workers and your workers have their families to feed. You have that responsibility to make sure their jobs are there and they remain there.
YOUR THOUGHTS ON IMPORTS VERSUS THE LOCAL MARKET?
Ramon: I don’t have the ratios of exports versus imports but one thing I know is that we have beautiful land here in Saint Lucia. I think we could do a lot more for our farmers. They could play a much bigger role. We can’t be importing stuff like tomatoes, and cucumbers. We have some of the best tasting vegetables in the world. We don’t have to import these things. Let us help our farmers: show them the ropes, get them the distribution and get them the connections with the hotels and supermarkets. Let us be competitive. Let us make them be our competitors. As a nation, we have to help them. We have beautiful land and we have rivers. There are people in the Middle East who plant in deserts! You mean to tell me, we have fertile land, and we can’t plant? I don’t want to be political or anything but I think we can do a lot more especially when it comes to the fresh food products.
YOUR MOST RECENT SUCCESS?
Ramon: Blue Waters. We’ve just invested a huge amount of money into our new plant and, basically, it’s to give the best quality. We are very proud of our labs. It’s a nice process. We never thought bottled water would be what it is today. It’s been an exciting journey. I learned a lot and I’m very grateful for the people I’ve met along the way.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE AND HOW DO YOU OVERCOME IT?
Ramon: Traffic. Our trucks have to leave a lot earlier than usual because of traffic. You have to keep all of that in mind. To go deliver something and to come back, it’s always a problem. You have to think one of two things: you put on more trucks or you send them out earlier. Our number one challenge is delivery and that is because of traffic. Five or six years ago one truck would be three trips. Now you’re lucky if it does one.
YOUR OPINION OF THE ECONOMY IN SAINT LUCIA?
Ramon: I can only talk about our business. Thank God we are surviving. I’m keeping my employment, that’s the most important thing. We employ over 150 people. We’re very happy we can keep our staff. You have to work hard to keep what you have. We are fighting for a very small piece of pie. That pie is going to be cut up into smaller and smaller pieces year by year so you really have to be on top of your game.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE “EASE OF DOING BUSINESS” IN SAINT LUCIA?
Ramon: Doing business in Saint Lucia is not difficult. I don’t find it difficult. Regardless of what party was there, we’ve found that both parties were always open to us. We never had an issue. I hope that is everybody else’s experience also but, for me personally, I have never had any issues doing business in Saint Lucia. It’s a lovely island and we want people to come and do more business here.