Last month, veteran journalist Owen Baptiste, former editor-in-chief of both the T&T Guardian and the Trinidad Express, spent a week in Florida talking with Lawrence Duprey.This is the second of an exclusive five-part series by Baptiste, based on their long, frank discussions of Duprey's past and his vision and hopes for the future.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Wednesday, March 20–Lawrence Duprey was speaking but I was thinking of my son Simon. He was always full of ideas for books I could write to make money. The last time it was about Dole Chadee."Forget any biography of Eric Williams," he told me over breakfast at the Hilton."He was the Father of the Nation and all that, but readers want to be entertained, not to be bored by political anecdotes."
Now I had this notion that a book about the rise and fall of the Colonial Life Insurance Company (Clico) could present valuable lessons for our young entrepreneurs, but Lawrence Duprey had seized instead on an article I had written years ago about Eric Gairy, the one-time flamboyant political leader in Grenada, and his eyes were filled with dollar bills."If you could write a story about Gairy, I could get Denzel Washington to play the lead role. Now that is something I could be interested in!"
I thought I should tell him about Simon.The truth is I was beginning to see Lawrence Duprey as a business junkie and I was beginning to believe that we would leave him the next day without the former chairman of Clico and the CLF Group of Companies agreeing to a book deal. After two years it had been a long shot, but his final agreement to meet with us had bolstered my hope that Duprey Part Two was possible.
However, the days of interviewing him in the lobby of the Comfort Suites at 1800 South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale had diminished some of my original enthusiasm.He was still a smiling giant of a man, very comfortable in ordinary clothes, but I was beginning to understand how hazardous it must have been for his managers, left on their own to grapple with the demographics of a global company, and how it was inevitable for them to abuse his frequent absences from the vineyard.
"Don't misunderstand me," Duprey said cheerily."It is not that I do not believe in Nietzsche's example of the superman."It was not the first time he had surprised me with the wide scope of his reading and indeed his advice to West Indians was that they should read more."All societies must have icons, men and women to be role models for the young, and it is clear, as you say, that we should read more and write more about our experiences and achievements, but I don't feel gung-ho about any book on me.
"However, if you study what we have done, you will see our intention was always to leave the world a better place than we found it. The Buccoo Reef Trust is proof of this and so is the San Juan Jabloteh football team."His secretary for more than 23 years, Cheryl Netto, was wired into this philosophy.
"The East West Coaching School," said Netto, as evidence to his claims of improving the lives of the disadvantaged in Caribbean society, "was responsible for taking many youths off the streets and out of trouble and training them in sports, particularly in football.
The programme had been run successfully for many years and some of the youths had excelled in sports and were able to get scholarships to be educated abroad. And the East West Coaching School was indeed responsible for taking many youths off the streets and out of trouble."
"We hired people from the grassroots and trained them," Duprey said, ignoring a call on his BlackBerry."Claudius Dacon, Ian Garcia and Russell Tesheira were some of the people we hired, trained and they went on to get MBAs while they ran companies.
"Colonial Life had a properly constituted board and professional managers and our mission was to alleviate poverty and help policy-holders plan for their retirement. Identifying the dispossessed in our West Indian societies–it is what Hugo Chavez had done in Venezuela and what Pope Francis did in Argentina.
There is a big question hanging over the head of the new president of Venezuela, in fact. Will he continue the oil policy Chavez had with poor West Indian islands? In another aspect, Chavez's death is a big thing because after Chavez is Castro and that will bring about change in the region.
"You should chat with Colonial Life's caretaker, Rampersad Motilal, when you get back to Trinidad to find out how he is preparing for these events."The more you knew the man the easier it was to see the benefactor in all his roles and the socialist's wish for a well-off if not egalitarian society.
Every day his wife Sylvia would drive him to the Comfort Suites in a black SUV and he would spend three or four hours talking about the people he worked with in the life insurance company his uncle, Cyril Lucius Duprey, had started in 1937 and which, with Cyril Oswald Monsanto, he had made one of the financial success stories in the Caribbean.
It was clear that he had a world view of finance, manufacturing and distribution that were the pillars on which he had constructed the CL Financial Ltd Group of Companies that he saw as "a boundary-less learning organisation engaged in diverse businesses and enhancing the quality of life in the communities in which (they) serve."
The sudden need of Colonial Life for a government bailout had put a stop to his financial wizardry, but had not robbed him of his characteristic optimism. This had happened perhaps once in his life, when, in 2009, he was told that a warrant was being prepared for his arrest. It was not the end he had envisaged for his efforts to build a globally competitive corporation and a better T&T. Clearly he was a man with a vision and desire to promote the Caribbean.
"I was amazed by the lack of goodwill I suddenly came up against. The world financial crisis had made it impossible for us to get help from abroad that had been the source of most of our funding. But all doorswere closed to us in Trinidad as well. Maybe I found out then, as you were asking before, that I had no friends. And I saw this final act as the killing of the phoenix. I knew to protect my family and me I had to leave Trinidad.
"And the deluge of negative reporting in the media since then has proved me right. The fact is, T&T is a uniquely mendacious society, and every day since then I have wondered if it was worthwhile to build a life on the hope of alleviating poverty.""There is no doubt that your uncle believed it was," Rhona said.
"And I doubt that he received the kinds of remuneration that CLF board directors and staff got during your watch. If you examine the lives of your fellow directors and colleagues they don't appear to be the worst off for having faith in the future you offered them."
I was sure that she was thinking of Andr� Monteil and Gita Sakal, who, it is generally known, were generously compensated for their work in the company. How many other corporate or legal secretaries in T&T have received on retirement a payment of US$5 million and who simply kept this in a drawer? Was it in disbelief or amazement?"I am prepared to say now and at any other time that Ms Sakal earned it," said Duprey.
"She was incredible. There is a lot of talk out there about her role in the company and about her compensation package, but if we had to hire foreign talent to do what she did, we would have had to pay much more.
I am aware that Ms Sakal learnt a lot on the job, where she got the opportunity to work with some of the largest law firms in New York, and she used this knowledge in the development of Colonial Life and our other companies. She was particularly active in the acquisition and success of our methanol companies and in building financial relationships with external bankers.
"That is all I want to say about Ms Sakal for now."
A business junkie
There was something excruciatingly worrying about Lawrence Duprey: it was not possible to swear by promises he made.He would say that he was busy with bankers, lawyers or business associates and that was why he was unable to be with us at the hour he promised to do so."I was up since five o'clock this morning talking with business associates in China," he would say, excusing his latecoming.
I had no problem with the fact that he was working, but couldn't he call to let us know that he would be late for our appointment? Was it the way he did business? I had said to him that he was pissing me off, as he had probably pissed off his team of managers at the St Vincent Street head office in Port-of-Spain during those mad years of extravagance.And the truth is I wasn't surprised when Carlos John told me on my return to Trinidad that, "You know that Lawrence is a zig-zag man."
Clearly he had exasperated Carlos too with his time-keeping.And yet this was the man who, for two decades, was in charge of a multi-billion-dollar operation and whose leadership the Manning government had trusted enough to give Colonial Life a TT$7 billion bailout in 2009.Who, I wondered, understood him, and who could he still call friend?
John's loyalty had never been in question, but it surprised me just a little when Duprey said that he was planning a trip to Africa as soon as he was back from a trip to Central America and that John would be with him. This was to take place the same weekend I began this series for the Sunday Guardian, but, calling John to confirm Duprey's travel arrangements, I learnt that the African trip had been postponed "indefinitely."
But why Carlos John? Obviously I wasn't aware of John's considerable skills as a UNC minister of Infrastructure Development and Local Government and I had no knowledge of his talents to "open doors," as Lawrence described their partnership.But I was wrong too about Karen Nunez-Tesheira, who he said had blamed Colonial Life for the death of her husband."She didn't like my calling him to a meeting at five in the morning!"
I knew how silly and absurd it sounded, but I remembered that Express managers used to be annoyed whenever Ken Gordon insisted that we meet at his beachfront home in Mayaro on a weekend.
Duprey joked about having made her angry at calling her husband to work at ungodly hours in the morning. But surely Ms Nunez-Tesheira should have understood that such meetings were required of a chairman who was always flying to a new rendezvous with prospective clients and that it was not possible for him to keep normal working hours.It was clear that Lawrence Duprey sees possibilities for making a fortune from every new idea that crosses his path.
I remember the first morning we had met in the lobby of the Comfort Suites and he had been mesmerised by the traffic of incoming and departing guests."We could have bought or established hotels like this in every state in the United States," he said morosely, "but I never got the support for such a venture. Look at the traffic in this place! I am sure it is like this every day of the week!"
That was why he could diss the idea for a sequel to the Cyril Lucius Duprey book but would rave about a book about Grenada's Eric Gairy or about the Maroons in Jamaica."If you write me a story about Gairy," he said, "I could get Denzel Washington to play the lead role!"
Morning after morning, as we drank cup after cup of black American coffee, I thought it might have been easier for Rhona to tolerate this waywardness; she had been the one who had dealt with him in the nineties when he had indicated an interest in Caribbean Systems & Services Ltd, and she was the one who had sat many times outside his office with Carlos John waiting for his cheque to send Caribbean Affairs to the printers in the United States.
But after the weekend of interviews I was not sure that he was telling us graphic and irresistible material for any book. Every night when we listened to the recordings I had one comment: "Lawrence," I would say, "is talking a lot but he isn't saying anything." Of course, this was the view of a man who had not been paying any attention to the Colman Commission of Enquiry.It infuriated her. "He couldn't be that silly," she would say, wishing to play over the recordings.
"All he talks about is content, so he must know you cannot be happy after the hours we spend talking together."I was smiling, adding fuel to her fury."And he hasn't made any effort to take us around to see the Green Island Project and other developments made in his name, according to newspaper reports that he denies. I wonder what his witness statement to the commission of enquiry is like.""He promised to let you have a copy tomorrow, didn't he?"
"He did, but frankly I think it will reveal a man who will claim innocence by default. In his case it will be that he was not present when the s--t hit the fan. And that in any event it was up to managers to protect the interests of policyholders and investors. He is going to slight the dictum that the buck stops with him."
"Would you be able to write anything? It seems a great pity that he hasn't committed himself to the sequel to Duprey. He's more informed than many CEOs I have met and I think he is genuine about his desire to help people improve their lives.""Oh, I agree with what you say and I am sure he is pleased with the opportunity we have given him to rehearse his story if he is finally subpoenaed to give evidence in a court of law. But so far it is as the Prince of Denmark said, just words, words, words."
"Dammit! I hate him!""Take a number.""Is it that bad?""I know you could feel sorry for him. And I believe he's serious about wanting to put things right with Colonial Life.
"But you heard him. Even relatives who are shareholders and who were beneficiaries at the smorgasbord and who now have lost their free lunches are angry with him. 'I have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law,' he says, 'but now that the company's fortunes have changed I am seeing how uniquely wicked Trinidadians are. Go back to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. It is a mendacious society.'"