OCEAN Style Executive Lounge Interview with Thalia Lyn, CEO Island Grill
Name: Thalia Lyn Occupation:
CEO and Managing Director of Island Grill restaurant chain
Residence: Jamaica and Florida
Family: Husband Michael, sons Michael 44 and Craig 43
Thalia Lyn was born in Jamaica into a large family including 9 sisters and 3 brothers. Her father was a first generation Jamaican born to parents who emigrated from China to build a better life and find new opportunities. Her parents stressed the value of education and insisted that all of the children receive tertiary educations including the girls at a time when many women were not expected to receive advanced educations. Coming from a family that stressed accomplishment, today Mrs. Lyn not only heads up Island Grill but also serves on the Boards of numerous other Jamaican companies, including the National Commercial Bank, Trustee of the NCB Pension Funds, Jamaica Macaroni Factory, Consolidated Bakeries Ltd, JAMPRO, the Consular Corps of Jamaica and Mustard Seed Communities, among others. She was a past Chair of the Jamaica British Business Association, is Chairperson of the NCB Foundation, Committee Member of the PSOJ YUTE Program and the Fund-raising Committee of the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Her numerous awards include the FIU Business Woman of the Year in 2002 and 2007, Finalist in the Jamaica Observer Business Leader of the Year 1999 and Finalist in the Ernst & Young Caribbean Entrepreneur of the Year 2001. Mrs. Lyn holds a BA from Manhattanville College and was a licensed Stock Broker during her sojourn in Canada. She was appointed Honorary Consul General to the Kingdom of Thailand in 2004, and later bestowed with the honour of Commander, 3rd Class, of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand. She haslet a Trade Mission to Thailand and actively promotes trade between Jamaica and Thailand.
Executive Lounge: Thalia is an unusual but very pretty name. Is it a family name? Thalia: No, it is a Greek word which means muse of comedy and laughter and everyone says it is appropriate to my personality. I think you will notice that Jamaicans have very unusual names. I think my parents just picked it out of nowhere.
Executive Lounge: Please tell us about your family history. When did your family come to Jamaica and how did that come about?
Thalia: My grandparents were looking for a better life coming from China. My grandfather was a cook. That is how he started out in life. My parents are no longer alive, but my father was very keen on educating all 12 of his children, including his 9 daughters because he never had the benefit of a full education. My grandfather kept taking him out of school to help him run the family business because by that time he had started his own little business. The Jesuits kept begging him to keep sending my father back to school because he was a bright person but because of that my father was very keen on education. He insisted that all of us have a college education. My brother Dr G. Raymond Chang is Chancellor of Ryerson University in Toronto and has carried on that tradition. He has named a building after my parents in honor of their commitment to education.
Executive Lounge: You once lived in Canada, is that correct?
Thalia: I lived in Canada when my husband was learning to fly. We immigrated to Canada because he wanted to learn to fly, qualify to be a pilot and fly for Air Jamaica. So, we moved to Canada I was doing work at home for a small mutual fund. Eventually when I came back to Jamaica my brother got involved and it is now like the fourth largest mutual fund in Canada. I was working for that mutual fund when we attained a million dollars in assets it was like a big celebration and now I don’t know the figure but I think they are like I don’t know the figure, but I think they are about 100 billion in assets.
Executive Lounge: Are your brothers and sisters still living?
Thalia: They are all alive. My brother lives in Toronto as are three of my sisters. The rest are scattered all over; Napa Valley, Virginia, London, Florida – all over.
Executive Lounge: So you have all sorts of great places to stay when you travel?
Thalia: That’s correct.
Executive Lounge: What motivates you?Thalia: (laughing) Sometimes I don’t know because I just keep going and going and going. Different things motivate me. Sometimes I get up and I think I want to take my business to another level. Since I started this particular business, I’ve wanted to have it succeed. I’ve always wanted to have it at the same level as an international business. When we started it was very difficult to compete with KFC and Burger King. Jamaicans favor anything that is foreign. On the other hand, sometimes when I start my day I say to myself, “I wish I could spend my day at one of the charities that I am involved with. It depends on my mood as to what is going to motivate me for the day. But I think really and truly my father did instill in the daughters as well as the sons that we should that we have this entrepreneurial spirit. We want to own our own business – we want to be independent. So it is the thought of being independent that motivates me to keep on going.
Executive Lounge: What was the business that your parents were involved with?
Thalia: My father started a little bakery that is still going today. None of his children are involved in the bakery. But my father was primarily an owner of what turned out to be one of the largest bakeries in Jamaica (Consolidated Bakeries).
Executive Lounge: Do you consider yourself successful?
Thalia: Oh yes. But I still have much further to go. Island Grill has become successful in that we have been able to compete with KFC and Burger King. One of our best restaurants is in the same plaza with Burger King and KFC and we really hold our own beautifully in there. But, I think until – you know – when your children grow up and they start out so well that they are successful, now I want to see my grandchildren grow up and be successful. I can see they are on the right path. But my second son had his children late. His son is two years old and his daughter is about 3 months old. So, until I see how my grand children turn out I won’t feel as if I’ve really been successful.
Executive Lounge: Can you identify the primary reasons why you think you have been successful?
Thalia: The first thing is because I think I am positive. I have a good outlook on life. If I have a disappointment I can pick myself back up, look to see if I made a mistake and see how I can fix it and then I move on. The other thing is I just want to achieve. Whatever I am doing I need to to do it well. I stay focused on a project until that project is done. I think I am fairly organized and that helps me. I am a fairly good administrator because I am organized.
Executive Lounge: What are the biggest challenges to doing business in Jamaica?
Thalia: Oh wow. (laughs) Do you have more than an hour? I guess maybe worrying about my inputs such as my electricity. The costs have gone out of whack. I am in a business where it is high volume and low margin. When I don’t have price stability -not just in my raw materials but in utilities – I can’t pass that on to my customer, because my customer is very, very, price conscious. So, the biggest challenge I would say is the instability of costs. The economy would also be part of my problem because my market is the working middle class. My customers tell me that when they come to me it is because they want a treat. They can’t come to my restaurants as often as they would like to. My main customer would come sometimes three times a week. However, if my price comes up just a little bit then they will start looking at less expensive options. If their disposable income is affected, then my income is affected. Then if I see big electrical price increases so do they. They still have to pay their bills. So, as my customer’s costs go up they have less to spend on other things like eating out. So, we are always innovating. We will say, “OK, you can’t come and buy chicken today, but maybe you can buy soup and festival, which is something like a fried donut. We try to come up with value meals, so that if they can’t have the core item which is the chicken and rice, then they can still buy something that is less expensive but is still filling and as nourishing.
Executive Lounge: Do you think it is possible to get utility prices to stabilize in Jamaica?
Thalia: I think that electricity prices will always affect us. Everything is related to the cost of petroleum because electricity is based on that and public transportation is based on that. I would think the price stability of oil is one of the big things that would help us.
Executive Lounge: What was the inspiration for the Island Grill and how did that come about?
Thalia: It kind of evolved. My husband and my business partner both being pilots – we used to travel a lot. I wanted to do something. I thought at first when I came back to Jamaica that I just wanted to have my own business. So, we opened a soft serve ice cream parlor because there was not soft serve ice cream in Jamaica and my husband loved soft serve. We were doing quite well with it. Then I thought that I wasn’t going to get very far just selling ice cream. So, we opened another restaurant as well that had chicken. But then we decided that fried chicken wasn’t going to distinguish us in the market and we decided that we wanted to do grilled chicken. We just kept on going and going and changing. We got someone from America to help us open this chicken restaurant and he brought all of these bland American spices like Oregano, so we just decided that we were doing OK but maybe we should rebrand as a Jamaican brand. We were called Chicken Supreme but we changed to Island Grill and put jerk seasoning on the chicken and the sales just doubled. At that point we decided we weren’t going to look American anymore – we’re going Jamaican. We just changed our whole concept and from there we started to do very well. We have 16 restaurants now; one in Barbados and we are opening three more restaurants this year. We kind of slowed down last year because of the economy, but what we did do was invest 200 million Jamaican dollars in purchasing the land and building where we sit and also putting in a brand new commissary which will allow us to expand and open new stores and go into catering.
Executive Lounge: Is opening up the commissary a quality control effort on your part?
Thalia: Yes, we have all of the chicken coming in here and it is marinated here and we send it out. We have gone further and we are now buying vegetables direct from small farmers and processing it here and sending it out for cole slaw. We bring in the fish here as well and marinate it here. We just opened this in late December so we are still transitioning.
Executive Lounge: It sounds like you are now controlling more of the variables in your business?
Thalia: Yes, that is a big thing with us. Because our chicken is cooked on a grill it is not like KFC where they can put their chicken in a fryer and push a button. With grilling there is room for human error so we want to control as many aspects of quality as we can. We are very conscious of quality control. We want to make sure that provide as much of a consistent experience for our customers as possible. We don’t get a lot of complaints on quality because we are so conscious of it and this move to the commissary system is just another way to improve even further on that.
Executive Lounge: How many employees do you currently have with Island Grill?
Thalia: We have a little over 500 employees
Executive Lounge: Could you tell us a little more about your expansion plans?
Thalia: We are opening three more stores. A great thing is that we are opening at the University of Technology. What is so good about it is that their officials came to us and told us that their students were demanding that they get an Island Grill. They already have a Burger King. As I was walking through the campus with the Dean he told the students, “See, I have Mrs. Lyn here and we are opening an Island Grill”! It made me feel good that we are in demand.
Executive Lounge: Will that be on the main campus?
Thalia: This is at the main campus almost right next door to the University of the West Indies. The University of the West Indies – having heard that UTech was courting us – asked us to come take a look. They already have a KFC and Burger King over there. So what I have to look at is even though I know we could compete, sometimes the pie isn’t all that big. So, you just have to be careful.
Executive Lounge: What do you see as your key success factors for Island Grill?
Thalia: We have a lot of good will. People like the fact that this is an upstart restaurant and we have come along to compete with the international companies. The fact that we are a Jamaican company and have developed our own processes has helped us develop a lot of good will. We haven’t been able to expand that fast because we don’t have the strength of capital of a KFC; or, when we got started – the credibility. When I went to get my first bank loan they insisted that my husband cosign but I refused and he refused as well. Those are some of the things that we have overcome over the years. I think it has been our perseverance – the fact that we knew we could do it. It is not just me; I have a fabulous team. I really do. They are committed to the brand. Every time we reach a certain target or a goal we keep raising the bar.
Executive Lounge: Do you recall your first key business transaction?
Thalia: I guess this is what kind of gave us a push start. KFC was moving out of a location that has turned out to be our flagship location. The owner was a close friend who was also an Air Jamaica pilot like my husband and my business partner. He said the reason they were moving out was because they didn’t have a drive through and a drive through is very important to a KFC location. He asked if we would like to take over the location and told us he would prefer to ‘keep it in the family’. I said “sure”. I never would have thought that we could have succeeded in a location like that. At the time I was thinking small. We had always had these small stores and this was a 4,000 square foot two story building. I thought, “Can we manage this location and afford to pay the rent?” Just making that decision and telling ourselves that we could do it really got us started down this whole road to building out this restaurant chain.
Executive Lounge: So that gave you the confidence and validation that your concept could grow and become much bigger?
Thalia: That is correct. And that store continues to do very well for us. We do about a thousand transactions per day there and on a weekend we can go up to two thousand. Right now we are looking again at our policies because we realized that we are losing customers because we are not quick enough. But I think the good thing about us is that we are always innovating. We are always trying to make it better for the customer and it is not just our external customer, it is also our internal customer (employees). If the system is too complex for our staff, there is no way they are going to smile or do anything with ease, grace and joy. That is one of our maxims: we need to do everything with ease, grace and joy. We want them to be able to make it easy on our customers as well so that they can get their food quickly. One of our problems is that our food is fresh. We don’t hold our food for very long. If a customer comes in and wants plantain, which no other quick serve restaurant offers, it has to be fresh. You can’t keep it under a warming light and have it taste right. We know when our busy times are so we know how much of each thing to prepare and that helps. Our system tells us exactly how much of each thing we have sold during different time segments of the day. So during our busy hours that helps us be prepared to get people in and out quicker. During slow times people don’t seem to mind if they have to wait a bit for their food. But during the busy periods they are impatient. I sit on a bank board and I realized that these surveys that external consultants are doing for the bank are the same exact things that we came up with for our business such as asking what are the most important things to our business and what are the most important things to our customers. We decided to just focus on those and not on all of the other things. The other thing we have noticed is that there are too many complexities in the system. We are always looking to see how we can simplify things so that we can do everything with ease, grace and joy. We have a good team of people, we have a good brain pool here and we read a lot. We read the books that tell us how to improve and we put it into practice.
Executive Lounge: Who has influenced you the most in your personal and business life?
Thalia: I always go back to my father. I look back at how well he did in his lifetime and how passionate he was about educating his children and instilling in us this sense of independence and self sufficiency. He particularly wanted his daughters to succeed and be educated because he didn’t have the typical Chinese notion that women should just get married and have children. He thought that if your husband ever left you, you should also be able to be self sufficient and take care of yourself. Just his work ethic: He was always reading and explaining to us. He was always an inspiration to us. When I see any of us succeeding, I think it would be so nice if he was still around to see how important he was in making us successful. My father’s name was Gladstone. He was a true patriarch to his children but also to his siblings and to my cousins. We grew up as children in five houses that were next door to each other. There were about 35 cousins growing up together. We all grew up with the same values, goals and principles to succeed.
Executive Lounge: Have there been any books that you can think of that have had a big impact on you?
Thalia: There have been some books lately that my daughter in law gives to me to read like Good to Great by Jim Collins that teaches you can’t be satisfied with just being good – you want to be great – and how it just takes a little more effort to make that transition. Another is Uncommon Service by Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss.
Executive Lounge: What is the greatest competition right now in the Jamaican quick service food industry?
Thalia: Well, right now there is a new wave of Chinese who have come into Jamaica and they have opened restaurants all over. They are doing well because they serve good portions and they cook well. These are mom and pop operations. They are not only in Jamaica – they are in Trinidad and Barbados. From a food point of view they are very competitive. I also compete against the jerk man on the street. He does the same kind of food that I do and he doesn’t have the overhead. From a Jamaican point of view, the food landscape has become very competitive. I would imagine in the Caribbean, especially in Barbados where we have two stores, the economy has taken a bigger hit so we have that to contend with. The Chinese of course are a factor there as well. They are again mom and pop operations. They have a tremendous work ethic. They will stay open until that last customer is served. The children will help with the business as we did as children at the bakery. The will work on smaller margins and they work very hard. Of course, they have much lower overhead.
Executive Lounge: Do you see the economy improving in Jamaica?
Thalia: I feel as if we have bottomed out. But, the gas prices have started to go back up again and that always hurts. But, because we have a recent change of government, it takes a little bit of a settling in period. We didn’t have a bad year last year and we were looking forward to December. July and August are also always good for us because we have a lot of Jamaicans coming home during those months. The Island Grill is great for them because they didn’t come back to Jamaica to have KFC or Burger King. I feel more optimistic now that the elections are over and we are settling in. I am very optimistic about the future. I had a meeting this morning with the Minister of Education and I like what he said he is going to be doing. I went to him because I am Chairman of the NCB Foundation. They do a lot of education work. He wanted to meet with us to tell us what his plans were and I am very optimistic and willing to support him. So, hopefully Jamaicans are as positive as I am.
Executive Lounge: Did the economic downturn, you were you forced to lay any people off?
Thalia: We did have to scale back. In the food industry you have a high turnover. As we had attrition we didn’t replace people. We asked people to multi-task. We did very well with our team. Because we could not give out team a pay increase they were very understanding. This was not last year but the year before. So we could not give an increase during that year. When we found that we did a little better than we thought we would, in December we gave them a bonus. They were appreciative of the bonus because they could see that their efforts had come to a good outcome. We also try to get our people involved in community work so that they can see what is going on around them and that there are people out there that are a lot worse off than we are who have jobs. But I do worry about our employees because sometimes I wonder how much they are able to take home after having to pay bus fare and knowing they have school books to buy for their children. We are trying to build a great culture and it is showing results.
Executive Lounge: What is the closest you have come to business disaster and how did you recover?
Thalia: It was when interest rates were incredibly high. I used to run an overdraft and interest rates had gone so high so that I couldn’t manage my cash flow properly. The penalty rates at the time if you went over your overdraft limit was like %100, and I thought, “This is going to kill me”. We just decided that we were not going to give up. We couldn’t expand. We were really boxed in. Getting a new financial controller who is now my General Manager helped. The first thing he told me was, “We have to manage the cash flow better and we are not going to get overdrawn” – and so we didn’t. We sat down and we figured it out. But for a time I just didn’t see how we were going to survive. But, we did. We also had loans to repay and the interest rates just kept going up. We just had to adapt. It was awful. When I look back a lot of people went out of business. There were people back during that time that committed suicide it got so bad. But now I have moved on and put that behind me. I’ve learned that you can’t fix everything. You just do what you can and move on.
Executive Lounge: What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Thalia: Driven, ambitious and positive
Executive Lounge: How would you like to be remembered as a business person?
Thalia: My friend who owns KFC is known as the Chicken Queen and I am known as the Chicken Princess. I hope someday to be known as the Chicken Queen! I am tired of being the lady in waiting (laughs). Seriously, I would like to be remembered for my brand and for building a Jamaican brand.
Executive Lounge: If you weren’t a businessperson, what do you think you have liked to have been?
Thalia: I’d be working with charities.
Executive Lounge: What are you the most passionate about?
Thalia: My grandchildren first and foremost. Then it would be a toss-up between my brand and my charity work.
Executive Lounge: What time do you typically start work in the morning and when do you quite for the day?
Thalia: (laughs) Don’t call me before 8 o’clock in the morning! I don’t get into the office until about 10 am. and I’ll stay until about 7 pm. But when I get here home, I’m on my computer.
Exeuctive Lounge: How successful do you think you have been between balancing work and home life?
Thalia: I’ve been quite good at it. You know I’ve been married for 45 years so that tells you that I’ve managed to balance my married life. We always make time for our children and grandchildren. They come first. Because I have a good team here, that allows me to be able to spend time away from work and know that everything is being handled well. It enables me to do more of the things that I enjoy like spend time with my family and with my charity work.
Thalia: My garden; I love my orchids.
Executive Lounge: If you could not live in Jamaica, where would you live?
Thalia: Wherever my grandchildren are.
Executive Lounge: Where is your favorite vacation spot?
Thalia: I have never been to the Mediterranean before, and although I can’t name any particular port, it all looks so beautiful. So, I would like to go from one port to another such as Portofino and to Cannes. But really, we could stay right here in Jamaica and go on the north coast and be just as relaxed because Jamaica is such a beautiful country.
Executive Lounge: Are you a collector of anything in particular?
Thalia: I love pearls. But, I would have to say I collect orchids. If I go and see a particular bloom that I don’t have, I have to have it.
Executive Lounge: Describe your perfect day off.
Thalia: Spending time in my garden – if I’m not with my grandchildren.
Top Favorite Things
Airport: Heathrow because of all of the shops. I love to shop. I don’t care about the planes and I don’t care about the delays because I love the shops there.
Travel Accessories: My Channel bag and my Hartman carry on.
iPhone or Blackberry? Blackberry
Hotels: Roundhill and also the Iberostar because it is great for our grandchildren and there is something there for everyone in our family
Favorite Store: Niemen Marcus
Favorite Meal: When my husband cooks a “pig in the box”. It is like a suckling pig and it is put in a box with coals and cooked for hours.
Cocktail: A good wine or champagne
Decadent Indulgence: Pavlova