Ranglin instills Caribbean culture and values at Grace Foods

Michael Ranglin, cultural journey

Michael Ranglin, cultural journey

Michael Ranglin says he has four places he can call home, although maybe not permanently. They are Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada and the UK.

Currently, as managing director of Caribbean food company Grace Foods, he’s ensconced in Welwyn Garden City in the UK but was appointed CEO of GK Foods, a division of Grace Kennedy, on 1 March 2011 and will return to Jamaica at the end of August.

It will be his 13th role at the company, which he joined in 1980 from a background in chemical engineering but with an interest in food, albeit engineering in food.

“I’ve been through almost everywhere within food at Grace Kennedy,” he says. “Sometimes they tell me I’m part of the wallpaper, but it’s moving wallpaper,” he smiles.

In the autumn Ranglin will head up a business spanning food processing and distribution, banking and finance and 60 subsidiaries across the world. Grace Kennedy is a public company listed on the stock exchanges of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago and one of the largest corporates in the Caribbean.

The business was literally launched in 1922 – and on Valentine’s Day – as a food importer in Kingston, Jamaica. It has expanded and diversified into services such as insurance and finance but food remains core.

“Food is basically why we exist, it’s what we do,” says Ranglin. It has revenues of £400m and a 6.5% net margin, before tax; derived mostly from foods and what Ranglin describes as “typical, day-to-day foods”.

Nurishment: new PET bottles

Nurishment: new PET bottles


Nurishment: number one brand for Grace Foods

Nurishment: number one brand for Grace Foods

It entered the UK market in 2007 with the acquisition of WT Foods, textile traders who had developed into foods and with a focus on ethnic foods including the Encona Caribbean sauce brand.

Encona Caribbean sauces

Encona Caribbean sauces

Ranglin’s remit has been to integrate a Caribbean culture into the business it acquired from venture capitalists Bridgepoint.

“They were preparing it for sale whereas we are preparing it for long-term growth,” says Ranglin.

The UK business fits in with the parent company’s 20:20 vision, outlined in 1995, of developing from a local Caribbean company into a global business, he adds.

“A lot of targets have been achieved and this is our foothold in the UK and European market,” he says.

His promotion and the arrival of Jamaican colleague Ryan Mack as his replacement are further steps on the journey or as Ranglin puts it “natural progression”.

Moving from a dominant and market-leading business in Jamaica to the UK, where Caribbean foods account for around 1% of the total grocery market and Grace Foods has less than half a per cent share, was a transition.

But Ranglin wasn’t fazed.

“Coming here, where no one knows who you are, was such a relaxing feeling,” he says.

But awareness has been growing. Within the ethnic market in sauces, Encona has a 55% market share, he says; and the brand is its second largest.

Nurishment, the milk drink with added minerals and vitamins, sold in an iconic ring pull can, is the company’s top brand.

According to Ranglin, it has 80% of the ethnic milk market and 6% share of mainstream sales and is a top 10 milk-based drink.

“Mothers use it for children, tradesmen use it when they don’t have time for a meal and students use it as a meal in a can, which is cheap,” he says.

The company has recently launched Nurishment Extra in a smaller size and lighter PET bottle to attract a new consumer group.

Ranglin reports the business has increased the marketing support for both Encona and Nurishment top propel them to mainstream.

“I’ve had to make a mental shift that Grace was relatively unknown and build Nurishment and Encona,” he says.

The company also has a portfolio of products under the Grace brand, which with 600 products in Jamaica aimed at a population of 2.7m is ubiquitous.

“But we only take some out of Jamaica – what’s appropriate for the market,” explains Ranglin.

In the UK, Grace brands include Coconut Water, Tropical Rhythms juice drinks, Ginger Beer, Soup Mixes, Porridge, Rice & Peas and Pepper Sauce.

In addition to the Afro Caribbean and mainstream brands, Grace Foods has a food service business, selling oriental products under the Silk Road label and Tex Mex lines under the Rio Pacific and La Mexicana brands.

Food service has suffered with the economic downturn, however, as consumers eat out less frequently and the sector experiences pub closures.

“We’ve had a rocky time with that business,” admits Ranglin.

On the upside, the oriental business has grown on the back of increased demand for Chinese takeaways. The Caribbean business has also held steady – popular with its own ethnic group and mainstream customers seeking a Caribbean experience.

Exports are also nudging ahead, up from 1% of revenue three years ago to 3% and targeting 5%.

Of Grace Kennedy’s total 2,000 employees and 1,000 associates, 180 are employed in the UK business, which manufactures sauces and food service lines out of Corwen in North Wales.

According to Ranglin, the business produces in short runs and has flexibility to make for other people, as it does in Jamaica.

Other working practices Ranglin has instilled by being aware of similarities and differences.

“One of the things I have learned is that people are people and business is business wherever you are,” he says. “Also, that although the official language in Jamaica is English, it’s not the same English and sometimes things you say get misinterpreted.”

With a staff made up of British, South African, Caribbean and Polish employees, there is an acceptance of diversity and respect, says Ranglin.

An open door policy, common at Grace Kennedy, has been introduced in the UK.

One employee, 11 years at the company, had never stepped foot in the managing director’s office until Ranglin’s arrival.

“In Jamaica it’s nothing like that, the chairman or CEO does not have an office,” he says.

But changes have to be made with a light hand, Ranglin says, otherwise it can create distrust.

He has implemented a balanced scorecard performance management tool to develop the company’s strategy. It focuses on financial results, customers, employees and processes.

Ranglin has also had to manage redundancies in his tenure in the UK with the workforce cut back from 300 a couple of years ago and fewer locations.

“We are now a smaller and tighter company in terms of the resources we use but with the same top-line revenue,” he says,  aware of the need to increase productivity in order to compete.

Bonuses and appraisals have been revamped too. Everyone is now on the same bonus scheme, which incentivises employees’ performance, reports Ranglin. Appraisals are also company-wide rather than restricted to senior staff.

“It’s more democratic,” he says, “these are some of the cultural shifts.”

Ranglin has done his job, but before leaving the UK he wants to tour the country. He’s already visited landmarks including Fort William, Lands’ End and Tilbury and is keen to see Newcastle.

“When we go to places, I drive and my wife navigates, so we get lost a few times,” he laughs.

And could it still be a home?

“I could come back to the UK comfortably and get around,” he says.