edge

​Mind Your Own Family Business

Pictures courtesy Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Derrick Lewis and I manage a family-owned household appliance store.

I’m from Diego. I’ve lived in Diego Martin from my early teens. But I was born in Nelson St, Port of Spain.

There are still good people in East Port of Spain. I oftentimes go back, to make sure the younger ones know where they come from. We don’t have many relationships there any more. But my family and I come from there and we’re good people and there are people like ourselves there still.

One bad person can [seem to outnumber] ten good ones but I don’t think that Port of Spain was good, then, and is bad, now. It’s not a regression, it’s just that, now, we have guns.

I was fortunate to get a soccer scholarship to go to university. Football turned out really good for me. Because I’m not sure my parents could have afforded to send me away.

I was the youngest player to play U-19 football for Trinidad. Myself and Gally Cummings have a back-and-forth on it. Because I was 14 on the U-19 team, and started as a 15-year-old. And it seems he was the same age. Or younger.

Tigers don’t run at their prey. They sneak up. Even though they’re the king of the jungle.

Whenever someone says, “Oh, your great family business was passed down by your father”, my brother and I do not ever correct them because generational continuity is a great thing. But it was started when we all got together. My father had worked for the same store all of his life, literally, from a teenager, until Anthony Sabga, as ANSA Ltd, made a bid for it. My father had worked himself up from a very menial job to being the brand and sales manager of General Electric and was able to acquire the distributorship.

It was a bad time to start an appliance business. Westinghouse, Huggins Maytag and Whirlpool all went under in Trinidad’s recession. Holding the GE brand was very important and it was held, very thinly, by my father. He had come to my brother and I and said he wasn’t doing it for himself at 50-something, when he could take his retirement package and ride off into the sunset. He would do it only if there was going to be continuity. So I left the US. Foolishly.

I was living on 5th Ave, New York City, enjoying the 5th Ave lifestyle in an advertising agency at 5th & 19th St, like Mad Men. My then girlfriend, Debbie, now my wife, was finishing her masters, I was finishing mine. Everything was looking great for piece of the American Dream. And then I heeded my father’s call. Foolishly.

I was foolish to leave the US and get into the family business because I had an MBA in 1988. As a person of colour, I ticked many boxes and could have got any job I wanted! I had just met the most beautiful person, ever, who is now my wife – and I left a potentially life-changing relationship, a secure, high-paying job and the Manhattan, lifestyle.

I’d just bought a German sports car in Manhattan! And I left that to come and drive a pickup – no, to come and wait on a pickup! The company had one car, one pickup, one truck. I had to wait until after work, when the servicemen were finished with it! I had sweaty pickup as my ride home 8 o’clock at night!

When I left Trinidad in 1978, with things booming, real money in the place, people asked me why. When I came back close to ’90, the same people asked me, “What you coming back here for?” So it was like I was swimming against the tide both ways!

In Trinidad, I was greeted by the coup! We reversed a Laser onto the doors of the store and, for three days, literally slept on the bonnet and windscreen. If you had to come into Lewis Appliances, you had to go through me and my brother, and the car, and the chains – and our will to be there. People came but they saw it was a tough proposition and we had no problem. We actually had a vagrant fighting for us, threatening to pelt bottle. We didn’t know him, never saw him before and after. He was just one of those angels. I’m a believer.

I was making very little money when I came back. My wife came two years after me. She went from a masters from Columbia to scrunting for groceries.

I knew I had to honour my father’s request to come. But I didn’t know why, or what would come out of it. I’d made US$3M for the ad agency I was working for. I might have been able to say, “Dad, come, we have a house with a pool in New Jersey and a little annexe for you”. Would that be success? I would always have wondered what I could have done for my family if I’d come back. If the family business failed, and I was part of it, I could say, okay, I did what I could.

We’re not a sophisticated company, we’re a simple family-owned company and we’re like a family selling to other families. A lot of the guys who work with us are like an extension of family. They call my father, Carlton, “Papa Lew”. We believe he’s in his 80s now – if you ask him, he’ll say he’s 60-something – and, until he retired last month, he was in the parts department every day, except if there was cricket at the Oval. He still comes in two or three times a week.

We sell equipment related to family and we go into people’s homes every day. We do 60-75 jobs a day, five days a week, for more than 30 years! We’re in people’s kitchens and their washing-rooms. So we make sure the people who work with us, as much as possible, use our washing machines and cook with our [brands]. If they don’t live it, it’s hard to sell it.

An older man came in to replace his fridge. I asked him, “How the wife and kids?” It came out that he was an empty-nester, his children grown and moved away. He wanted to buy a big fridge. I told him, “Why not scale down?” He started to cry. I had to take him in the back and get him some water. Now, I woulda make more money off the bigger fridge – but he wanted something he didn’t need. You need to live with people through their lives and, as they grow, you sell them an appropriate product.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayFor the first 15 years, my brother Dane and I were there every day. I’m five years older than him. I’m the only Lewis with hair.

We are the joy of life of the Caribbean. And we are not actually selling that. We’re selling murders and mayhem. We need to be an entertainment, marketing and sales capital. Nobody is ever going to come here and say, “Man, I was so blown away! Can you believe that Trinidad does 29M cubic feet of natural gas?”

Like Trinidad & Tobago, our family firm is not big. We are beautiful. We don’t tell suppliers we’re going to be their biggest purchasers. We want to be the client they want to talk to. We’ll take 20 fridges. The other guy is taking 1,000 – but they want to take our call and duck his!

A Trini is an extroverted introvert. Or an introverted extrovert. We go out and be very prim and proper and coy – until we decide is time for bacchanal. For the time we are introverted, we actually talk about the other people who are being loud and acting lewd or whatever. But, when we are ready, we become so extroverted, those people start looking at us!

Trinidad & Tobago means “potential energy” to me. The energy we’ve looked at is exhaustible and finite. We should look at the energy that is inexhaustible and infinite; which is the energy of the people. We should identify our strengths and weaknesses and wet our flowers and pull out our weeds. When we find out that our core competence is our spirit, when we realise we can play while we work, we’ll be tapping into the inexhaustible and the infinite. And we’ll make plenty more money, too!

​Mind Your Own Family Business

Pictures courtesy Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Derrick Lewis and I manage a family-owned household appliance store.

I’m from Diego. I’ve lived in Diego Martin from my early teens. But I was born in Nelson St, Port of Spain.

There are still good people in East Port of Spain. I oftentimes go back, to make sure the younger ones know where they come from. We don’t have many relationships there any more. But my family and I come from there and we’re good people and there are people like ourselves there still.

One bad person can [seem to outnumber] ten good ones but I don’t think that Port of Spain was good, then, and is bad, now. It’s not a regression, it’s just that, now, we have guns.

I was fortunate to get a soccer scholarship to go to university. Football turned out really good for me. Because I’m not sure my parents could have afforded to send me away.

I was the youngest player to play U-19 football for Trinidad. Myself and Gally Cummings have a back-and-forth on it. Because I was 14 on the U-19 team, and started as a 15-year-old. And it seems he was the same age. Or younger.

Tigers don’t run at their prey. They sneak up. Even though they’re the king of the jungle.

Whenever someone says, “Oh, your great family business was passed down by your father”, my brother and I do not ever correct them because generational continuity is a great thing. But it was started when we all got together. My father had worked for the same store all of his life, literally, from a teenager, until Anthony Sabga, as ANSA Ltd, made a bid for it. My father had worked himself up from a very menial job to being the brand and sales manager of General Electric and was able to acquire the distributorship.

It was a bad time to start an appliance business. Westinghouse, Huggins Maytag and Whirlpool all went under in Trinidad’s recession. Holding the GE brand was very important and it was held, very thinly, by my father. He had come to my brother and I and said he wasn’t doing it for himself at 50-something, when he could take his retirement package and ride off into the sunset. He would do it only if there was going to be continuity. So I left the US. Foolishly.

I was living on 5th Ave, New York City, enjoying the 5th Ave lifestyle in an advertising agency at 5th & 19th St, like Mad Men. My then girlfriend, Debbie, now my wife, was finishing her masters, I was finishing mine. Everything was looking great for piece of the American Dream. And then I heeded my father’s call. Foolishly.

I was foolish to leave the US and get into the family business because I had an MBA in 1988. As a person of colour, I ticked many boxes and could have got any job I wanted! I had just met the most beautiful person, ever, who is now my wife – and I left a potentially life-changing relationship, a secure, high-paying job and the Manhattan, lifestyle.

I’d just bought a German sports car in Manhattan! And I left that to come and drive a pickup – no, to come and wait on a pickup! The company had one car, one pickup, one truck. I had to wait until after work, when the servicemen were finished with it! I had sweaty pickup as my ride home 8 o’clock at night!

When I left Trinidad in 1978, with things booming, real money in the place, people asked me why. When I came back close to ’90, the same people asked me, “What you coming back here for?” So it was like I was swimming against the tide both ways!

In Trinidad, I was greeted by the coup! We reversed a Laser onto the doors of the store and, for three days, literally slept on the bonnet and windscreen. If you had to come into Lewis Appliances, you had to go through me and my brother, and the car, and the chains – and our will to be there. People came but they saw it was a tough proposition and we had no problem. We actually had a vagrant fighting for us, threatening to pelt bottle. We didn’t know him, never saw him before and after. He was just one of those angels. I’m a believer.

I was making very little money when I came back. My wife came two years after me. She went from a masters from Columbia to scrunting for groceries.

I knew I had to honour my father’s request to come. But I didn’t know why, or what would come out of it. I’d made US$3M for the ad agency I was working for. I might have been able to say, “Dad, come, we have a house with a pool in New Jersey and a little annexe for you”. Would that be success? I would always have wondered what I could have done for my family if I’d come back. If the family business failed, and I was part of it, I could say, okay, I did what I could.

We’re not a sophisticated company, we’re a simple family-owned company and we’re like a family selling to other families. A lot of the guys who work with us are like an extension of family. They call my father, Carlton, “Papa Lew”. We believe he’s in his 80s now – if you ask him, he’ll say he’s 60-something – and, until he retired last month, he was in the parts department every day, except if there was cricket at the Oval. He still comes in two or three times a week.

We sell equipment related to family and we go into people’s homes every day. We do 60-75 jobs a day, five days a week, for more than 30 years! We’re in people’s kitchens and their washing-rooms. So we make sure the people who work with us, as much as possible, use our washing machines and cook with our [brands]. If they don’t live it, it’s hard to sell it.

An older man came in to replace his fridge. I asked him, “How the wife and kids?” It came out that he was an empty-nester, his children grown and moved away. He wanted to buy a big fridge. I told him, “Why not scale down?” He started to cry. I had to take him in the back and get him some water. Now, I woulda make more money off the bigger fridge – but he wanted something he didn’t need. You need to live with people through their lives and, as they grow, you sell them an appropriate product.

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayFor the first 15 years, my brother Dane and I were there every day. I’m five years older than him. I’m the only Lewis with hair.

We are the joy of life of the Caribbean. And we are not actually selling that. We’re selling murders and mayhem. We need to be an entertainment, marketing and sales capital. Nobody is ever going to come here and say, “Man, I was so blown away! Can you believe that Trinidad does 29M cubic feet of natural gas?”

Like Trinidad & Tobago, our family firm is not big. We are beautiful. We don’t tell suppliers we’re going to be their biggest purchasers. We want to be the client they want to talk to. We’ll take 20 fridges. The other guy is taking 1,000 – but they want to take our call and duck his!

A Trini is an extroverted introvert. Or an introverted extrovert. We go out and be very prim and proper and coy – until we decide is time for bacchanal. For the time we are introverted, we actually talk about the other people who are being loud and acting lewd or whatever. But, when we are ready, we become so extroverted, those people start looking at us!

Trinidad & Tobago means “potential energy” to me. The energy we’ve looked at is exhaustible and finite. We should look at the energy that is inexhaustible and infinite; which is the energy of the people. We should identify our strengths and weaknesses and wet our flowers and pull out our weeds. When we find out that our core competence is our spirit, when we realise we can play while we work, we’ll be tapping into the inexhaustible and the infinite. And we’ll make plenty more money, too!