Early Adventures 1922 to 1939
An early and important concern of the new Company was office accommodation and warehousing facilities. The Grace building at 64 Harbour Street contained room to spare, but wharfage was inadequate. In March 1923, At A Directors’ Meeting. Dr. Grace raised the matter. He proposed that the Company should enter into a joint agreement with the Jamaica Fruit and Shipping Company for the lease from Grace, New York, of 64 Harbour Street, only part of which was, in fact occupied and leased by Grace, Kennedy; and for building a wharf and improving the premises. The cost of building and improvements would be equally shared, each party putting up £4.000. He proposed that Grace, Kennedy should raise this amount by the distribution of 20 shares pro rata to existing shareholders, which would yield £2,000, and by borrowing £2,000 on the security of the real estate of the Company’s branch in Montego Bay.
The three other Directors endorsed all these proposals, and the joint lease agreement was signed in June 1923. By March 1924, the wharf had been completed ‘within estimated costs’ and was in operation. It was then decided to add an oil-store and a tramway to service the wharf, which promised to be a profitable venture. It was, not, however, all good news. Following the decision to borrow, the Company had issued £1,500 in debenture shares on security of the Montego Bay property, but in 1923 that branch had lost £2,500 in bad debts. The performance had not improved in 1924 and at the end of March 1925:
With unanimous agreement of the shareholders, the Montego Bay business and property…. At book values (stock, debts, real estate and plant) less 5%.
Notices had been issued to debenture holders that debentures would be redeemed with a bonus of £2.10s plus interest at 6% per annum to the date of redemption, set at May 7, 1925. Nor, indeed had the wharf fully met expectations. It seemed a little early to be sure, but importations during 1924 had been lees than expected. Thus, the tramlines had been laid but, because of new regulations governing construction and the high costs that would be involved, there was still no oil- store.
One of Grace, Kennedy’s early interests was in solar salt obtainable from Pigeon Island. The main problem was transportation, and in 1928, a year of good business and few bad debts, the Company purchased a share in a schooner, the Admiral Beatty, and had the vessel fitted with a motor engine. It had promised to be a direct money-maker and also to put the firm in ‘a satisfactory position in the importation of salt’ but, in fact, the Admiral Beatty showed a small loss on operation during that year, and in December 1931, whatever had happened between the times, ‘the loss of the Admiral Beatty’ was reported at a meeting of the Directors. The news was disturbing. Only a month earlier an agreement had been reached by which the Jamaican and Turks Island Government would provide a subsidy towards the cost of the vessel; and a contract had been drawn up with F.C. Grant and W.D. Wood of Turks Island for salt to be provided in 1932-33. One result was that the Company ‘had to absorb losses on Pigeon Island’ in 1932.
In 1935 Grace, Kennedy acquired Standard Soaps, a small manufacturing business; but that was soon resold to Jamaica Coconut Producers, thus becoming the origin of what subsequently became Seprod Limited. Another brief and unsuccessful venture was made in association with James Gore, an outstanding Jamaican entrepreneur of the time. With him, Grace, Kennedy moved into the manufacture of cigarettes. A Directory of Kingston business concerns recorded the new development in a nice example of 1930s public relations style:
Messrs. Grace, Kennedy & Co., Ltd., has recently added to its many activities a well-equipped cigarette factory. One of the machines there turns out every minute hundred of cigarettes ready for smoking. Another noteworthy machine, said to be the only one of its kind in Jamaica, is an ingenious one that packs the cigarettes with amazing celerity and accuracy. The tobacco used for the Company’s cigarettes is Virginia blended with Jamaican tobacco; and the cigarettes under the names of ‘Missing Ball’, ‘Plus Fours’, and ‘Turf Club’, are all very popular.
That was no doubt the hopeful expectation of these remarkably named brands; but, alas, they could not compete with rival goods from England such as Players, Gold Flake and Three Castles, or the locally produced Four Aces, Royal Blend, and the mentholated Zephyr. The business failed.
Those were minor setbacks. In the 1930s Grace, Kennedy and Co., Ltd. were representatives of thirty-two overseas manufacturers. They imported a wide variety of goods, including steel safes, liquors, rice, silks, salted and pickled fish, tonics and flour. And the most important of these were the salted and pickled fish and meats, together with rice and flour. The wharf was highly profitable and trade was good. In 1928 the Company, jointly with the Jamaica Fruit and Shipping Company, had purchased adjoining premises belonging to Lindo Bros. and extended the Grace Wharf by 150 ft. Grace, Kennedy’s share of the cost was met partly out of surplus and partly by the issue of the preferred shares. In 1929, the extended wharf accommodation had been ‘full of business’, merchandise warehouses had to be given over to the use of the wharf, and the Directors decided in 1930 ‘to exercise our option to acquire the freehold wharf premises’. By January 1931, and again jointly with the Jamaica Fruit and Shipping Company, the purchase of the wharf From Grace Ltd., of New York, had been completed. The half-cost had been £12,500. The agreement between the purchasers was that if either party wished to sell out its half- share it should be offered to the other at the actual cost less depreciation. Altogether, it was a bargain.
Lindo’s Lumber Wharf and the old Grace Wharf, together with their extensions and improvements, now formed Grace Wharf, which was valued as follows:
- Lands only – £21,000
- Offices, 64 Harbour Street – £ 6,500
- 4 Concrete Warehouses – £11,600
- The Newly Built Pier – £11,900
- Extensions to 64 Harbour Street – £ 2,000
- Total £53,000, or £26,500 to each party.
The extensions to 64 Harbour Street were to provide offices for Captain List of the Jamaica Fruit and Shipping Company, Mr. C.E. Johnston of the Banana Producers’ Association and, on the ground floor, a customs office and a passengers’ reception room.
It was on the provision of basic foodstuffs for the garden-boys and the labouring classed in general, that Grace, Kennedy’s later success was to be founded. In the mid-1930s, Grace, Kennedy & Co., Ltd., now general importers, commission merchants, wharf owners, and steamship and insurance agents, was a steadily growing enterprise as their advertisements of the time clearly indicate. Among their advertised goods was flour. Imported counter flour and salted codfish were staple items of working-class diet.
In 1933 another young Jamaican, a relative through marriage of the Moss-Solomons, had left school early, as Fred Kennedy and James Moss-Solomon had done in their time, in order to help the family living. His name was Carlton Alexander, and he had found employment with Grace, Kennedy as a billing clerk. On an afternoon in 1937, Carlton Alexander, then four years with the Company, was with one of its customers. He accepted an invitation to lunch, which consisted of roast breadfruit, salt-fish and pear. Alexander asked the host if he would take his supplies of counter flour from Grace, Kennedy. His host agreed, and it might well be claimed that Grace, Kennedy & Co., Ltd. was carried through World War II on vast flotillas of flour dumplings.