Special Features
February 21, 2014
Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Alphius Nathaniel Jack

By Luke Browne Fri, Feb 21, 2014

Alphius Nathaniel Jack was born among the poorest of the poor just over eight decades ago in Montreal, St Vincent and the Grenadines. He had a very inauspicious start to life but he didn’t allow the circumstances of his birth and early upbringing to prevent him from reaching many significant personal and professional milestones. Mr Jack celebrated his eighty-third birthday last Thursday, has been happily married for over sixty years, and is the Founder and Proprietor of Jax Enterprises. Success was not handed to him on a platter and there was no inheritance for him to rely on. This man had to earn his escape from a life of serious hardship.{{more}}

Nathaniel moved back and forth between Montreal, Richland Park and Mesopotamia during his early childhood. He spent most of the time living with his single parent mother, Agatha Joseph, but also had a very short stint in his father’s house and largely spent his primary school years in the care of a family friend. He went to the Mesopotamia Government School when he was eight years old and walked out of school when he was around 12, without completing the curriculum and despite very good academic progress, to escape the prospect of harsh punishments for the slightest of reasons. Nathaniel’s mother struggled to make ends meet and to provide for her children even in the best of times. She was very sick and dying when her adolescent son left school and was in no position to look after him. She didn’t live to see him reach maturity.

Between ages 12 and 14, the young Jack did little odds and ends so that he could buy food and clothes. He then found the comfort and security of a father figure in a man whose name was Donally Bacchus. This was a life changing moment. Donally and his wife, Mildrina, looked after Nathaniel. The teenager moved into the Bacchus home and Donally took him under his wings as an apprentice. Mr. Bacchus taught the willing youngster how to sew caps and shirts. Nathaniel learnt to make pants on his own through experimentation and by observing and questioning experienced tailors.

As fate would have it, Nathaniel Jack married Donally’s sister, Theresa Bacchus, on July 22, 1953. Theresa was quite a seamstress herself and the couple embarked upon an independent sewing venture after their marriage. They initially specialised in making caps and Mr Jack literally peddled his merchandise all over the country. He carried a load of up to 30-40 lbs on a gear-less bicycle from his Richland Park home to as far as Sandy Bay on many occasions. The young man went from village to village and shop to shop, with stops in places like Diamonds, Greiggs, Lowmans Windward and Park Hill. He repeated the drill along the Leeward coast all the way to Chateaubelair. Sometimes he rode the bicycle, and sometimes the bicycle rode him. The long Leeward journey was actually done by a combination of bike and boat since there was no road in some areas at that time. Nathaniel often had to overnight by some of his wife’s relatives in Rose Bank. He also took caps to St Lucia and Grenada.

The market for caps was small, had little prospect of expansion and Mr Jack faced stiff competition from about eight business rivals, several of whom had vehicles. He therefore decided do something else. By this time the powerful sewing pair had children of school age and naturally made their children’s school uniforms. The quality of these uniforms stood out and they received numerous uniform sewing requests from other parents. Mr Jack immediately recognised an opportunity to generate a decent income from school uniform production and made the career defining decision to go fully into that line of business. This was their calling.

Mr and Mrs Jack started out with home-based production and operated on a limited local scale. After a while, they attracted the attention of two big merchants, Edwin D. Layne and Simeon Cumberbatch, who approached Mr Jack and made separate offers of a business partnership. Mr Jack did not want to be unequally yoked and declined the invitations. He however agreed to make uniforms for Edwin Layne on a weekly basis for a set price per piece using cloth from Mr Layne’s store. He had different supply arrangements with Mr. Cumberbatch and with most of the other uniform retailers in the country. Mr Jack had established himself as the uniform man in SVG. The dynamics of the Layne-Jack relationship changed after Nathaniel decided to import his own fabric and sell uniforms to the store as distinct from simply making uniforms for them.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Mr. Jack bought his first car and used it to carry out deliveries. He formally set up his company in 1973 with some help from the Development Corporation (DEVCO) and was granted pioneer status for 10 years by the government. This pioneer status designation entitled the company, whose original name was Jax General Garments, to duty free concessions on imported machinery and raw materials and to a protected market. Mr Jack gained a decisive competitive advantage. He even had an advantage over large Chinese manufacturers who shipped clothes to St Vincent because of his intimate knowledge of the local market and of Vincentian shapes and sizes. There were many occasions when Mr Jack had to adjust garments which were imported from China by local stores.

Mr Jack was encouraged to rent factory space in the Campden Park Industrial Estate shortly after he received the pioneer status. He rejected the suggestion because he did not want to make monthly rental payments which did not count towards ownership. Relatedly, the renowned proprietor objects to the idea of taking an interest bearing loan to pay for any item that does not appreciate in value, such as cars. Accordingly, he paid for his first car in cash. Consistent with these principles, Mr Jack bought a building outright from P. H. Veira in 1976 and converted it into his factory and a small grocery store which eventually became a full blown supermarket.

Nathaniel Jack monitored the importing behaviour of local retailers very closely. He noticed that they would bring in large quantities of supplies from abroad and only make small purchases at a time from him. Then they would apply a common 50 per cent mark up across the board (on both the local goods and the foreign goods) even though there were basically no inventory or shipping costs associated with the procurement of his products. He recommended a lower 40 per cent mark-up on the garments he supplied. The merchants did not bother with him and this prompted Mr Jack to establish his own outlet in Kingstown to “meet the consumer himself.” This allowed him to simultaneously sell to the consumer at lower prices and operate more profitably. It was a win-win scenario.

Jax Enterprises Ltd was unveiled in the capital city in 1981. The company’s original store was on a prime piece of real estate in Middle Street. Mr and Mrs Jack acquired the property with an unfinished building, completed it, furnished the place and opened for business. They still own those premises, but their main store and offices are now located at the corner of the Middle and Hillsborough Streets. Mr Jack’s sales volume increased dramatically and permanently after he opened the store even though many of his previous clients retaliated against his direct market entry by refusing to buy merchandise from him.

Nathaniel Jack defied the expectations of other businessmen who thought that he, a Seventh-Day Adventist, would have been forced to open on Saturdays in order to be viable. Mr Jack proved himself to be an uncompromising Adventist. He was actually christened in the Methodist Church of his mother, and his father was a popular Spiritual Baptist Preacher. He was however a baptised Adventist by age 16. The soft-spoken and unassuming entrepreneur is an Honorary Elder and significant supporter of his church. He served on the board of management of the Mountain View Adventist Academy and the Richland Park SDA primary school for many years. He and his wife had seven children: Eva, Muritha, Vida, Nel, Ronnie, Judy and Alex. The Christian couple ensured that all of their children went to Adventist schools. They suffered the tragic loss of Eva about four years ago. Muritha, Vida and Nel are overseas. Ronnie, Judy and Alex are directly involved in the business.

The amazing Nathaniel Jack holds firmly to the view that his health and strength come from the Lord. He made the point that the Heavenly Father gave him the ability to make money and therefore has a claim on his income. Mr Jack therefore makes it his duty to pay his tithes and offerings. Mr Jack is an outstanding ambassador for his Church and for Christ. He said that we should love God supremely, love our neighbour as ourselves and, of course, remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. Mr Jack’s faith is reflected in his company’s culture, and he does not invest in anything that is in conflict with his beliefs. He is also a good ambassador for our country and the embodiment and a symbol of racial unity – his mother’s parents were both born in India and his father was a black man.

Nathaniel Jack said that some people unfortunately get carried away with the glitz and glamour of success without seeing all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Mr Jack never functioned according to the 9-5 philosophy. He routinely put in at least 12 hour workdays. The experienced businessman shared the inspirational story of a former corporate executive officer who by dint of hard work moved from the lowly station of a cleaner in a regional conglomerate all the way to the General Manager’s Office. Mr Jack believes that anyone could get into business and do well as long as that person is honest, prepared to work hard and have identified an area of need.

Jax Enterprises Ltd. filled the need for manufactured garments and other items and is today one of the top local companies. The company is by no means restricted to school uniforms, even though school uniforms were undoubtedly its main stock and trade. Jax also made uniforms for bank workers and other institutional employees and practically produced every other garment under the sun, except ladies bras. Almost all Vincentians, regardless of their walk of life, have worn something made by Jax. The giant manufacturer exports products to Grenada, St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda and to a lesser extent Dominica. It tried its hand in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago with little success. There is a growing market for its products in the northern Caribbean.

Mr Jack believes that his company still has the competitive edge. This may have something to do with its effective marketing techniques. After all, a popular refrain that has been etched into the collective memory of Vincentians is “Shop at Jax this Christmas.” Jax is famous for shopping incentives and almost irresistible bargains. The store is complete with what shoppers have found to be a fascinating feature and novel – escalators.

Mr Jack values his customers. He said that business is about a give and take, and emphasized that sometimes you just have to cut your mark-ups to make goods cheaper and more affordable. The experienced proprietor said that he knows what poor people are going through because of his own prolonged experience with poverty and he would never want to make things more difficult for them. He wants to live and let his brother live. Mr Jack underscored the point that we all need one another and that we must help one another. He stated that the people who buy from his store help him and he has an obligation to help them back.

A good manager knows how to work well with others, and Mr Nathaniel Jack has generally enjoyed an excellent working relationship with his employees. This has contributed immensely to his success. The company now has over 100 workers and many individuals who were trained by Mr Jack in the art of sewing were able to branch out on their own.

To crown off a distinguished career, Nathaniel Jack was awarded an OBE in 2009. This excellent son of the soil remembers his roots. He holds on dearly to the piece of land in Montreal on which he was born, and laughs about the fact that the condition of the road in that area has hardly changed since his childhood. Nathaniel, though, has come a long way since his 1931 entry into the world. Mr Jack overcame the challenges associated with poverty and little formal education. He succeeded even though the odds were heavily stacked against him. Nathaniel Jack triumphed over adversity and misfortune by the Grace of God. This outstanding Christian businessman does not believe in retirement and going home to sit down in a rocking chair. He plans to stay at the wheel until the good Lord calls him home.