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Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Bertille “Silky” DaSilva

Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Bertille “Silky” DaSilva

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By Luke Browne Fri, Mar 28, 2014

Mr Bertille “Silky” DaSilva is the premier auto dealership entrepreneur in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Mr DaSilva is the owner and managing director of Star Garage Ltd and this company is either a dealer or distributor for Toyota, Suzuki, Honda, Mazda, Kia and Hyundai Trucks. Star Garage has been repeatedly recognised by vehicle manufacturers for superlative annual sales performances and the company has visionary plans for the future. However, Silky is not all about transportation and automobiles. The 84-year-old businessman (who was born on February 19, 1930) is also the chair of Haddon Hotel Ltd and DaSilva Holdings Ltd.{{more}}

Mr DaSilva served on several statutory bodies and he was the President of the Lions Club of St. Vincent and the Grenadines from 1975 to 1976. Silky is a business veteran of well over 60 years and there is so much regional respect for his judgment that he was asked in 1996 to serve as a Senior Judge for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition for Barbados and the OECS. He was obviously considered to be above the competitive fray of that contest. Silky served in the capacity of Senior Judge until 2002.

Bertille DaSilva was the fifth of the eleven children that were born to Mr George DaSilva (a white man) and Mrs Vivianne DaSilva née Blenman (a black woman). George came from a fairly well off family but he was ostracized and disinherited because he decided to marry someone from a different race. Vivianne taught her children the virtue of hard work (which was all the more important because of the disinheritance) and implored them to prove that they could succeed without the help of their fair skin relatives. She also forbade them from crossing the threshold of a popular supermarket in Mesopotamia that was owned by one of George’s cousins.

Bertille was given the nickname “Silky” by his father for a special reason. George DaSilva once went to a horse race and fell in love with a stallion that was not a favourite to win. George bet some money on the horse (whose name was Silky) and it actually emerged victorious. Around the same time, George’s wife had a son and when he (George) took his first glimpse at the newborn baby he instinctively said “he’s a winner” and nicknamed him after the unlikely champion horse.

The DaSilva family lived in Evesham Vale (or La Croix). Silky’s father owned three principal things: a small amount of land, a rum shop and a donkey cart. Silky had a scattered primary school education. He was home-schooled by his maternal grandfather, Samuel Blenman, to begin with. Mr Blenman was a very strict educator who originated from Barbados. He sometimes beat the young Silky until he “pissed his skin.” After Samuel’s death in 1935, Silky was sent by his mother to the care of Headmaster B. R. James at the Belair Government School. B. R. James was the teacher of the day. Silky had the privilege of riding a donkey to and from school. Finally, after Mr James left the Belair school, the young student was transferred to the Evesham Methodist School to complete his course of primary school education. That was it for school.

Silky’s mother wanted him to become a teacher but her son was not very keen on teaching for a mere $6.08 per month. He opted instead to work at the Forde Service Station which was located in Kingstown on land that is now occupied by the C. K. Greaves supermarket. He worked at the station alongside Mr Randolph “Ronnie” Russell for three months. As fate would have it, Silky, who refused teaching because of the low pay, ended up working at the service station over those three months for a grand total of 72 cents.

After Silky left the service station, and when he was in the watershed years of manhood, his father invested in him. Mr. George DaSilva mortgaged his property and bought a car for his son. Silky said “that’s where the whole thing started.” He used that car to provide taxi services and rent-a-car services starting from July 4, 1950 out of the Deluxe Garage premises (located where the Music Centre is today). Silky was the first person here to do car rentals and the rental rate at the outset was $8 per day.

The young businessman suffered a major early setback when a client to whom he had rented out his car wrecked it in a major accident coming down the Vigie Highway (between the Belair Gap and the roundabout). Silky thought he would have to scrap the car and go to work for someone, but his father advised him otherwise. The wise father (who admittedly knew more about donkey carts than automobiles) said “Silk, fix the car and it would work.” This advice proved to be sound. The car was duly repaired, used for some time afterwards and then sold for the same price for which it was bought. Silky said that very often it was guidance and direction from his father that carried him along. This father often said that what a man needs in life is not talent but purpose; in other words, not the power to achieve but the will to labour.

By the time this initial car was sold, Silky already had a number of other vehicles in his fleet. The company was moving from strength to strength. Silky drafted his brother Trojan into the business and they jointly operated under the banner “The DaSilva Brothers.” These DaSilva brothers landed lucrative contracts for the transportation of public officers and mail in the days when the civil service had no vehicles. The responsibilities included taking around the Grenada-based Governor for the Windward Islands whenever he was in town. For these purposes, Silky borrowed the best car in the country at that time, an Australian Holden, from his good pal Augustus “Chippie” Browne. Chippie was a very generous man. Silky subsequently bought a Forde convertible for use by the Governor.

The fleet expansion was financed by a combination of savings and loans. The DaSilva Brothers moved out of the Deluxe Garage and into a rented building which carried the name Star Garage (this building was at the current site of the Kendra’s Aluminium Products Kingstown office). They adopted that name and carried on with business. Trojan sold his car and went back to Evesham to live with his mother after the death of his father. Silky continued to forge ahead in the city.

Star Garage got into trucking at the advent of the banana trade in response to the unreliable transportation situation. The old trucks that were previously used for the transportation of bananas broke down very frequently and often left farmers stranded on the road with their produce after the Geest boat had long left. These farmers therefore suffered huge losses of income as a result. This was obviously an untenable situation. Silky intervened with dependable nationwide trucking services. The trucks were also used in non-agricultural sectors. They were considered to be the most suitable vehicles for the transportation of steel to Cumberland for the Hydro Project.

Silky was the first person to bring mini-buses to St Vincent. He brought in a 12-seater Ford Transit bus around 1958. There was a view that mini-buses would not do well here since, unlike the big wooden buses which predominated at that time, they had no space “to carry load.” Silky took his chances. He just showed up at the market square on one Saturday morning with the mini-bus and said “is Mespo we going.” He got a full trip and moved from there. Subsequently, another businessman brought in a mini-bus and put it on the same Mesopotamia route. Silky responded to the competition by switching to a different route that worked out to be more profitable for him.

Silky’s brother Casper often came down from Mespo on weekends to help out at Star Garage while he was still going to Grammar School. Casper used to drive the mini-bus and took on other tasks. Casper had to put up with the heckling of his Grammar School classmates as a result. These snobbish classmates thought that Casper was engaged in activities that were “beneath him” and asked Casper if he was going to the Garage to drink “old oil.”

In general, the mulatto DaSilva children from the countryside faced discrimination and had to put up with all sorts of derogatory remarks and racial innuendoes or slurs. They did not allow this to bother them. It was like water off a duck’s back because of the training they received from their parents at home. They simply did what they had to do. When Silky’s success could not be denied, someone from overseas said to him that he had the strength of his mother and the brain of his father. This is deplorable nonsense!

Casper is still by his brother’s side right up to today. Silky is grateful that Casper stuck it out with him over the years and counts him as an equal partner in business. Silky said that his brother Casper is better off “individually and collectively” in every material respect than his former school critics.

According to Casper, Silky surreptitiously bought the current Star Garage property in 1959 (this was after the introduction of the mini-buses). Mr Bertille DaSilva then wrote to Germany in a bid to become a distributor for Ford Taurus but he was not successful. Silky explained the difference between automobile dealers and automobile distributors – a distributor has direct contact with the manufacturer but a dealer does not.

Silky bided his time after his request was turned down and he was eventually appointed a Peugeot Dealer by Dare’s Garage (a Barbadian company) in 1961. He graduated to the status of Peugeot Distributor shortly thereafter. Silky said that there were problems with European vehicles and he realised that it was necessary to look beyond Europe for a solution. He turned to Japan after he looked in amazement at a Toyota jeep climbing up some stairs in Trinidad. Silky immediately set out to secure a Toyota dealership. The Japanese vehicles were on the rise and were affordable since they were priced for market entry.

Mr DaSilva became a Toyota Dealer in 1966 through Charles Emtage Electrical out of Barbados. He was named a Toyota Distributor in 1968 (around the time when he acquired some land in Murray’s Road on which a Garage annex was subsequently built). Silky got what turned out to be an almost pointless dealership for Mercedes Benz in 1976 – he only managed to sell two of these vehicles (one to Dennis “Das” DaSilva and the other one to a United Nations officer who was resident here for a while).

Silky made a number of important breakthroughs and accomplished some major feats in his career. He was the first local agent to get the car boat to come to St Vincent instead of leaving St Vincent-bound vehicles in Barbados for onward shipment. This led to a dramatic reduction in shipping costs since it cost half as much to ship the vehicles from Barbados to St Vincent as it cost to ship them from Japan to Barbados. Silky sold a record 104 new vehicles in 1984. Mr DaSilva was the man behind the “Skettel Revolution.” He once brought in so many of these vehicles in bulk on a chartered boat that he could hardly find space to park them. Barbadians and Trinidadians marveled at his used car selling prowess and they asked him how he was able to pull off the phenomenal skettel sales. Silky willingly shared his secrets with them. Star Garage was the first local company to offer vehicle financing for customers.

Silky was not limited to land transportation. He ventured onto the seas. Mr DaSilva bought a ship (the M. V. Anjo) out of Germany around 1984. The M. V. Anjo took a shipment of arms from Germany to Colombia on its maiden journey and Silky earned more from that single freight (because of the dangerous nature of the cargo) than he paid for the ship. After Colombia, the ship went to Maracaibo and then it docked at the home port. It was used to distribute flour from the East Caribbean Flour Mills to OECS countries for a while and facilitated other forms of trade. The M. V. Anjo sunk in 1985 when it was on its way to Tobago from Barbados with a load of cement.

Silky also took on air transportation. He and Ken Boyea jointly owned a company (St. Vincent Airways) that provided airline charter services. This business pair also bought an air charter company (Aero Services) from the Barbados government in 1990. Aero Services delivered British mail and other cargo to Caribbean islands. It had landing rights in OECS countries for 12 years at the time when it was bought.

Barbadians could not accept the fact that Aero Services was bought out by foreigners and succeeded in making life impossibly difficult for the new owners. Silky and Ken were forced to sell that company to TIA in either 1992 or 1993. They had to abandon St Vincent Airways for a different reason – the SVG government of the 1990s took away the company’s office space and thereby precipitated its closure.

There you have it! Silky covered all the modes of transportation – by land, by sea and by air.

Silky’s other principal realm of business was accommodation. He launched the Haddon Hotel (a twenty room hotel) on August 24, 1960. Haddon Hotel was managed exclusively by Silky’s wife (Sylvia DaSilva née Wilson) until his marriage hit the rocks in 1975. Sylvia abandoned the management post and this caused some disruption from the business standpoint. She also filed for divorce and Silky, on the advice of his legal counsel, responded to the petition with the novel claim that they were not properly married in the first place since the vows were exchanged after 6 p.m. This case may well have triggered a revision of the local marriage laws and it is the subject of study, deliberation and passionate debate by university law students. There was another oft-cited legal episode in which Silky was involved. Mr DaSilva once avoided culpability for the lack of a liquor licence because he was served the summons in the wrong place.

Haddon Hotel is still around and has recently undergone some major renovations. Silky acquired the Blue Lagoon Hotel some time ago and plans to develop it into a Five Star Resort. Mr DaSilva helped to shape hotel development and tourism policy as a long-standing Director of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Hotel Association.

Silky bought the Penniston Estate at a Barclays Bank public auction in 1976. The estate came with over 200 acres of land, a Club House and a golf course. It was vested in a company called Aqua Duct Ltd. shortly after it was acquired by Mr. DaSilva.

Silky was involved in a number of other professional pursuits. He was a promoter who organised shows and dances with foreign guest artistes like the Dutchy Brothers, The Mighty Sparrow and Mahalia Jackson. He is into real estate and set up DaSilva Holdings Ltd. in 1976. Mr. DaSilva has done some land speculation along the Villa-Fountain road. He owns several prime pieces of real estate throughout SVG, the Escape restaurant and a Cinema Complex (Lyric Theatres).

Silky once operated a gas station in Mespo (next to the Mesopotamia Police Station) before he handed it over to his brother Trojan. Trojan subsequently passed it into other hands and migrated to the USA. Silky and his partner in air charter services, Ken Boyea, also jointly established a toilet paper factory (Paper Converters). Silky in his own capacity used to import bitumen from Venezuela and sell it to Public Works (GESCO).

Mr DaSilva should receive some credit for the low-income housing programme in SVG. Silky’s Venezuelan bitumen contact once took him on a tour of a housing project in Venezuela and Mr DaSilva returned to St Vincent with the concept of a housing programme that was modelled after the Venezuelan initiative. He shared this idea with the Mitchell government of the day and participated in a subsequent exploratory mission with government ministers and the chief engineer, but nothing concrete became of the idea until there was a change in government.

The new Ralph Gonsalves administration took up the idea and ran with it. The project came to fruition much to Silky’s delight. The manager of the National Commercial Bank at the time, Mr Joseph Heavener, was taken on a tour of a model house that was constructed before the project was rolled out. Mr Heavener said afterwards that the “low income” houses were very affordable and were not very different (in terms of size and quality) from the houses in which the British middle-class lived.

Venezuela was one of Silky’s favourite business destinations. He was also a member of a delegation which went to that country to explore the possibility of setting up a Polar beer factory in St Vincent. Silky was the unofficial project coordinator and he took it upon himself to learn Spanish (through evening classes at UWI) in order to more competently execute his coordination responsibilities. Unfortunately, the project never materialised.

Silky was a member of the Kingstown Tennis Club and he bought its Murray’s Road tennis facilities when they were put up for sale around 1983 (to serve as an extension of the Haddon Hotel amenities). Mr DaSilva then took what was the preserve of an exclusive elite and opened it up to Vincentians from all walks of life. He thereby broke down socio-economic barriers to the sport of tennis. These facilities are still owned by Silky but are being used by the Grassroots Tennis Club under the stewardship of Mr Grant Connell.

Star Garage is the only surviving automotive garage from the 1950s. This longevity has been attributed to good management and the separation of the technical side of the business from the administrative side of the business. Mr DaSilva has made changes to the corporate culture where necessary and keeps himself abreast of new developments. He pointed out that things are a little different in this internet age.

There have been challenges over the years, not the least of which were exchange rate fluctuations. On one occasion, Silky ordered some vehicles from Japan when 120 Yen were equivalent to US$1. By the time the vehicles arrived the exchange rate had fallen to 80 Yen per US dollar and this rendered the vehicles too expensive for local customers. Star Garage still has those vehicles in stock today.

Mr DaSilva said that he almost went crazy when the Income Tax Department decided to garnishee his business accounts in December 1997. The parties arrived at a preliminary settlement and then the tables turned when Star Garage Ltd. with Sir Henry Forde (of Barbados) and Othneil Sylvester as its lawyers took the government to court over the matter. The issue died a death.

Silky was once the alternate chairman of the Caribbean Investment Company and he recently appealed to Vincentians in Toronto to seriously consider making financial investments in the future of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Mr DaSilva has made his own investments in that future. He owns two very valuable local companies (Star Garage and Haddon Hotel) which have some 100 employees between them, are well positioned, and have succession plans in place. Silky is very optimistic about the business prospects since without transportation it would be literally impossible for us to get anywhere. He also anticipates growth in tourism and an attendant heightened demand for hotel rooms.

Silky is an astute businessman who has done well financially but is extremely modest about his achievements. He said that he’s less concerned about making money and more concerned about moving ahead with things. Silky has a big vision for the future and is pushing forward with plans to build a stat- of-the-art automotive institute and showroom in Murray’s Road. Silky has seven children, most of whom are overseas. Leonard (Silky’s son) and Casper’s three sons (Joshua, George and Jason) are being groomed for business leadership.

Mr Bertille “Silky” DaSilva said that he is what he is today because his father had confidence in him and invested in him. However, the car he got from his father by itself was no guarantee of success. Silky brought all the other necessary attributes and skills to the table. He had support from his family and from many other Vincentians. Silky was the horse that didn’t even have an outside chance of success in the race, and yet he won.