Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Negative image as a business driver

In an article in the Business Guardian last week ( the CEO of the National Quarries Company says that the quarrying industry in Trinidad and Tobago is a literal "gold mine." He does admit, however, that the industry here has a negative image. And were it not for this "negative image", he is sure we could have a "billion dollar industry" creating a virtual "gold rush."

Mr Mitra Ramkhelawan, the Quarries' CEO, has all the business figured out - elevating the production from basic construction materials - sand and gravel - to high end products such as frac sand for lifting oil and gas, and beach sand. He has estimated a 500% profit on frac sand, and concludes that "we should try to find the highest value for that material and not just use it as a basic commodity as we do in T&T.”

It seems to me that as a businessman, Mr Ramkhelawan has the right instincts, but a very limited view of leadership, responsibility or vision. For as other bigger businesses have typically neglected to acknowledge in their business plans, and then hastened to accommodate when it might be too late,  there remains that thorny question of "negative image."

It is extremely disconcerting that the causes of the negative image mentioned three times in the newspaper feature seem to be of no concern to the business operator. It would be richly productive for him if he could open his mind to the whole of his business - not just the sand and gravel to US dollars part. Like oil and gas, or even a monoculture like wheat or corn or GM potatoes, a quarry must take into account its immediate environment, its fenceline environment, neighbouring communities and the benefit of the nation.

To exploit any resource so exclusively (be it oil, ore, water, or sand and gravel) is to destroy everything else that may have depended on it for life and survival; as well as to negate any other opportunity that may have arisen out of that environment. Call that negative image if you like. Such death, such loss, may indeed be incalculable, in comparison with the 500% return on investment from the rock.

To be sustainable, every business today must count all the costs of the operation - whether these are actually to be paid for, or not. And businesses that are already in existence must be called upon to develop a conscience, to incorporate measures for social responsibility, sustainability and proper resource management. They should be required to have a plan for their effects on surrounding  communities, whether these are communities of people, plants or animals and earthworms. They should be required to have "exit strategies" that include remediation and replanting of exhausted areas. 

It is easy to say that quarrying has one of the smallest carbon footprints of any industry in Trinidad and Tobago today, especially when no one bothered to count what was there in the first place or to estimate how those losses have been compounded since then. But now that we know better, isn't it time that quarrying got with the programme. Today, being a responsible operator should require on-going dialogue with all stakeholders, continuous surveys, as well as strategies for remediation; all of which should be demanded by regulatory oversight.

Yes, negative image is a very important business factor, not to be dismissed as if it were an act of God, or beyond the business's control. It can be assuaged by communications, by public relations. It can be patched up by community relations and social investments, but it needs to be considered as a whole. Generally, it can only be addressed effectively if there is vision and leadership to ensure that the profits today are matched by guarantees for sustainable tomorrows. 

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