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Friday 19 April 2019
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Mind your own family business

Derrick Lewis. Photo by Mark Lyndersay
Derrick Lewis. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

As told to BC Pires

My 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 Street, Port of Spain.

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.

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, and had worked himself up from a very menial job to being the brand and sales manager of General Electric. He was able to acquire the distributorship.

Derrick Lewis. Photos by Mark Lyndersay

It was a bad time to start an appliance business. Stephens & Johnsons had Westinghouse, Huggins had Maytag, Kirpalani had Whirlpool. And they 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 me 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 Street, like Mad Men. I had an MBA. 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! And I left that to come and drive a pickup – no, to come and wait on a pickup! I had to wait until the servicemen were finished with it for a 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.

We’re a simple family-owned company, a family selling to other families.

A lot of the guys who work with us 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. Until he retired last month, he was in the parts department every day, except if there was cricket at the Oval.

If you don’t wash your own clothes, you’ll think you can put towels, blankets and jeans together in one big wash in a big washer.

But if you know about washing, you’ll know the fuzziness from the towels will go on the blankets and the jeans will colour the blankets.

Buying an appliance is a three-step or four-step exercise. You actually need four visits to make one sale.

Step one, someone comes in to see what we have. Then they go and shop around. They come the second time with another family member or the whole family.

Then they go home and look on the Internet to compare, see if family in the States could help pack a container. We understand that’s what people have to do to get value nowadays. We actually help truly compare foreign purchases.

The third time, they come back with a cheque.

The fourth time is when they’re receiving the product. They call you, as sales person, not the delivery people.

Like TT, 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!

TT means “potential energy” to me. The energy we look 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!

Read the full version of this feature on Wednesday at wwwBCPires.com

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