|The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 3, 2008
July 3, 2008
Shonalee King Johnson
When Bahamian politician and businessman Sir Asa H Pritchard opened an English-style tobacco shop in 1929, it might not have seemed like the best timing. It was the same year as the US stock market crash, ushering in the beginning of the Great Depression. The Bahamas struggled that year too as it tried to recover from one of the worst hurricanes to hit the islands.
Undaunted, Sir Asa persevered and started a retail legacy that spans four generations. The John Bull Group of Companies now employs more than 450 Bahamians at 28 retail outlets throughout The Bahamas and is the primary luxury retailer in the country.
Sir Asa named his store after a top hat-wearing character from the 1712 British satire Law Is A Bottomless Pit. The sharply dressed Englishman is now synonymous with the luxury retailer and is a symbol of how a local company can flourish despite economic fluctuations.
Once a small family business, John Bull now holds major partnerships with international brands including Gucci, Cartier, Tiffany and Bulgari. For more than 50 years, the local company has been the exclusive distributor for the Rolex watch company in the islands. In 2005, the John Bull Group of Companies subsidiary, Coffee Cay Ltd, brought the Starbucks franchise to The Bahamas, a proud moment for its management team and the crowning jewel in the company’s expansion strategy.
Today, a new generation of top associates refocus John Bull’s overall vision, employing elements from the traditional business model set out by Sir Asa.
The founder’s vision was sharpened under the direction of his daughter Macushla Hazlewood and her husband Frank. Their son, current company president Frederick Hazlewood, represents the third generation of leaders at John Bull raised on a simple leadership philosophy: “A business doesn’t run on autopilot,” Fred says. “It’s a day-to-day thing. You can’t give someone the keys and turn away.”
Under the Hazlewoods’ direction, new facets were added to the old English tobacco house. An office products department evolved into the John Bull Business Centre and in 1955, the Hazlewoods introduced toys, watches and novelty gifts to the store’s lines. Further partnerships with Rolex, Piaget, Yves Saint Laurent and Movado strengthened the existing watch division at the time.
In the 1960s, John Bull expanded its offerings to include jewellery and a camera division. Luggage and designer handbags were also added. Toys were eventually taken out of the line-up and tobacco merchandise downsized significantly.
In 1996, John Bull moved to new headquarters at 284 Bay Street, transforming the space that once housed The Nassau Shop into a true luxury department store.
John Bull’s inner circle
Back in 2001, grim financial forecasts loomed over the holiday season after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. John Bull’s core management team—Andrew Roberts, director of operations, Inga Bowleg, director of business development, CEO Duane Roberts, and Rick Hazlewood, corporate director and Fred’s son—worked under the president’s direction to keep above water during those challenging economic times. Despite a drop in tourism arrivals that year and a sluggish local economy, the retailer brought in record sales for that Christmas holiday season.
Bowleg, an associate with the company for nearly 15 years, attributes this ability to endure to sound business practices. “It has a whole lot to do with the way companies are set up and the persons that are put in place.
“We just happen to be the newest team. We are now going to be put to the test to see if during these new trying times we can continue on that trend of remaining successful despite all of the odds.”
For Rick Hazlewood, the founder’s great grandson, seeing economic challenges as surmountable has helped his family’s company persevere throughout the years.
“It’s a cliche but you kind of look at the problems as challenges. When we headed into the holiday season in 2007 there was a lot of negative press coming out of America about how retail was going to suffer,” Rick recalls. But like his father and father’s father, Rick refused to swallow the media spin.“If you buy into the negative or what the press is saying then you become that essentially and that was not going to
Director of operations Andrew Roberts heads the company’s human resources and training department. With more than 450 employees, success often comes down to product knowledge and customer services. “It’s our people at every level that make us successful. We have to create a working environment of mutual respect. We know that people are our business.”
The working relationship within upper management also contributes to John Bull’s continued growth. “We know each other very well. Straight through the organization it’s a close-knit, family-type business and I think that plays into the success,” adds Duane Roberts, CEO and director of finance. “On top of that, I’m sure it helps [that] we have some of the finest brands in the world.”
Establishing true partnerships with internationally recognized vendors strengthens the retailer’s business portfolio. Management also relies heavily on local market knowledge and visitor shopping trends to bring the right mix of products to John Bull customers.
Under Fred Hazlewood’s direction brand representation has always been a two-way street between vendor and retailer. “We are not just taking orders from someone else,” he says. “We know the market. We’ve had vendors that have come to us and say that the model we work on is not their model. Their model sometimes is to have Fred Hazlewood and his associates being directed by a far away foreign office and nothing else. We are much more than that.”
In the mid 1990s and early 2000s, stiff competition among Bay Street merchants caused John Bull’s management team to question the company’s expansion tract.
Bowleg recalls how “competing brands were opening stores on every street corner. We looked to our president and we said ‘Should we do the same thing?’ Mr [Fred] Hazlewood kept us very focused and we realized that our record showed that we do what we do and we do it well.
“Now we see the other stores closing while we are prospering and so we know that that was the key to our success. It was the formula that we had to grow our business. We based it on local market and tourist market demands and on vendor expectations but most of all on what makes business sense.”
Growing incomes and exposure to international products are levelling the playing field between Bahamian shoppers and tourist consumers.
“They all want the same thing. They want to know that they are buying into what is in demand,” says Bowleg. Popular among local shoppers are Gucci and David Yurman brands; both lines have stand-alone boutiques on Bay Street. Expanding to an individual store depends largely on “what degree of representation do they [the brands] need to be successful in the market,” she adds.
“Going back as far as five years, some vendors wanted their own brick and mortar stores. It’s sort of the vendors’ decision,” adds Rick Hazlewood. The local demand for the David Yurman jewellery line prompted the opening of a stand-alone boutique in 2006, the only one of its kind in the entire Caribbean.
“David Yurman was our decision. We had it in the store with limited potential and limited space. We knew that the brand had a lot to bring to the market so we sold the idea to David Yurman to let us open our own boutique,” says Duane Roberts.
In 2005, after an intense due diligence process, John Bull subsidiary Coffee Cay Ltd brought the Starbucks franchise to The Bahamas. While the jump into the food and beverage business is brand new, “it fits right into the mission of our company which is to exceed our customers’ expectations. Starbucks is a luxury brand, an affordable luxury. It is a premium brand much like most of our other products,” says Andrew Roberts.
Starbucks Seattle identified John Bull as a company that had mastered luxury. The company recognized in John Bull “values [that] match very closely to Starbucks Seattle’s. They were looking for a company that could not only operate a store but who placed the same value on people and community. It was a good match.”
From downtown revitalization projects to donations to local children’s charities, the Bahamian community benefits as John Bull grows. “As we prosper we are committed to sharing that with our community and the better we look as far as our bottom line, the more we can do for the community,” says Bowleg.
To keep service at international levels, Coffee Cay launched the Espresso Excellence training campaign coinciding with Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz’s initiative to get back to basics at the 8,000-plus stores worldwide.
“We have our own operations team that handles Starbucks training. Your drink has to taste the same in Harbour Bay as it does in Tennessee,” says Andrew Roberts. Already, The Bahamas franchise has grown by seven outlets in just three years with plans for further expansion.
For the executive management team, 2008 is all about fine-tuning what already exists. “In this business climate we know we have to give people a reason to buy,” says Duane Roberts.
As John Bull executives continue to keep an eye on market trends, the company’s five-year plan includes expanding current lines and diversifying product offerings at all of its locations. The Bahamian company that grew to become key distributor to sought after luxury brands continues to set trends in the local economy.