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Ricardo Da Silva, left, plant manager, Sunshine Snacks, explains the snack manufacturing process during Trade and Industry Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon tour in March. Looking on are ABIL’s chairman Arthur Lok Jack, third from left, and ABIL’s deputy chairman and group CEO Nicholas Lok Jack.

Associated Brands Industries Limited (ABIL) has been able to complete an entire factory in Colombia more or less remotely, ABIL Deputy Chairman/Group CEO Nicholas Lok Jack has revealed.

Speaking to the Business Guardian magazine, Lok Jack said ABIL just completed its Greenfield manufacturing factory for breakfast cereals in Bogota, Colombia.

“This was a decision taken in 2019 and continued during the pandemic and we completed in November last year and have been producing breakfast cereals in Colombia for the Colombian market since March.”

“We have not had a chance to commemorate the factory as yet due to the closed borders, but we are hoping to get down there very soon. In the meantime, we have been able to construct, build, install, commission the factory remotely, “ he said.

Lok Jack hopes to travel to Colombia before the end of this year to commission the project officially.

The establishment of the factory in Colombia came as a result of ABIL actively looking at other markets internationally.

“We’ve been there for a while. We have been exporting there for a while. We feel comfortable with the country as a destination and we think that it is a good market for the future so we will operate down there and see how things turn out and see what other opportunities come around,” he added.

Lok Jack said new markets often come in waves, “So Central America, North and South America are always going to be a focus for us given our geography and our relationships.”

Another market that ABIL will be entering soon is Cyprus.

Catch chocolate will be sold and distributed in Cyprus from September.

“The container is still on the water and should be arriving next month, and we will be doing a heavy launch in September of the brand. We will be doing our marketing, we have been doing our communication and investment into the market and hoping that it pays off in the long term but we have done our homework as far as possible,” Lok Jack said.

Lok Jack revealed that ABIL is excited about entering this new market.

Cyprus , he said, is an attractive market for ABIL to continue its penetration into European and Middle Eastern regions.

Cyprus is ABIL’s third European market for Catch, joining Ireland and Malta.

The Deputy Chairman/Group CEO stated ABIL is currently engaged in talks with players in the Middle East about entering markets there, such as Jordan and Kuwait.

“We are hoping that Cyprus will allow a certain exposure to the brand that allows us to start entering other markets. As we get more and more exposed, we get more and more leads and more and more people asking about our products. So, we follow every lead up diligently to see how serious they are and how we can get to the point of doing business,” he said.

And ABIL is not stopping there, noted Lok Jack, “We have more interesting things coming but we can’t talk about it as yet, but you will see more things on our international front. Internationalisation as a philosophy and a Strategy for Business has been instilled into our Group’s culture by our founder and Chairman, Arthur Lok Jack since practically our inception in 1974. His vision for this underpins almost everything that we do on the international market.”

Lok Jack stated ABIL has not adopted a one-size-fits-all approach when entering a new market.

“I think the main impetus is we are flexible, and we are willing to deal with whatever the market needs to deal with in a tailor-made way,” Lok Jack said.

He believes coming from the Caribbean region and understanding that there are cultural differences in each country, has helped in that regard.

But what advice would Lok Jack give to other companies hoping to also begin exporting?

Well, he underscored the importance of understanding your business.

“I think understanding your business fundamentally, inside and out, and understanding what you can afford. What your balance sheet strength is. And understanding what is your clear strategy for where you are going,” he said.

“Sometimes there are positions where you want to go somewhere but you can’t afford it right now and you have to find a way to do it or put it on the back burner. So, understanding what you can afford and what your balance sheet can take is a very critical part in my view,” Lok Jack said.

He noted if you can’t keep the core together, you should not be expanding, “Expansion is very costly. Yes, we are going to Cyprus, and we are spending a lot of money there. Is it profitable in the first year? Probably not, but we take the long view. But first you have to take the short-term view to make sure that we are stable enough to be able to go on these expansion journeys. That will be my most critical advice. It is to understand where you are. And if you are strong and if you are solid in your base then you should be looking to expand.”

He added that no market is insignificant, and any market that you enter should be treated with importance.

While ABIL has been able to make some headway during the pandemic, Lok Jack disclosed the last year and a half has not been easy.

He revealed the company has had to overcome the pandemic and deaths related to it, and while there was a huge adjustment period, the staff and management at ABIL have gone above and beyond expectations which he stated bode well for its future developmental projects.

“It was amazing to see how the executive and management team and staff have stepped up during the pandemic and pivoted to keep the organisation moving forward. Credit really has to be bestowed upon them,” Lok Jack said.

ABIL has also had to be flexible to ensure compliance with the laws of the lands in all the countries they operate, “The difficult part has been adjusting to every single environment we operate in. We are actually operating our own businesses in Guyana, T&T, Barbados, St Lucia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Panama and each one of those territories has treated with the COVID in a different way,” he said.

Lok Jack lauded this country’s manufacturing sector, saying it has been “really outstanding.”

He indicated this is not just a recent occurrence but something he has noticed over the past decade.

“It never ceased to amaze me when I went out and met with manufacturing players to see what they are doing. If it is anything, we are a bit modest, and I think there are reasons for that. T&T products have a long history of being very high-quality products and I think they can stand up almost anywhere in the world,” Lok Jack remarked.

“I am impressed with all local products on the market and so I think it is just to start going overseas, understanding our niches, understanding how we market, what we do, and how do we get overseas, I think that is the critical part to it,” he said.

The younger Lok Jack predicted that the sector would continue to make inroads once there is proper guidance.

“I think the sector has a bright future. I have been seeing a significant amount of entrepreneurship, at a micro and small level, which I feel really has the ability to get going somewhere. We just have to figure out how we nurture and mentor these entrepreneurs along the way.”