John Quan, or more famously, Johnny Q, describes his business empire as a mini-conglomerate. He's got a thriving sound system company, he's the proprietor of the Pub House and he owns a hardware store.
And that's not all. Quan's other endeavours include auto parts, pet supplies, portable toilets, events (which includes table, tent and chair rentals), small tools rentals and scaffolding.
He's basically a model for diversification – and resilience – at a time when so many other entities are struggling to cope.
In a recent interview with Business Day, Quan said frankly it was the reason he survived as well as he has so far during the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on movement enacted by Government to mitigate covid19's spread.
But as much as he was grateful to be be in a more viable position than some other businesses, he was concerned about how long it could last, given the prolonged slowdown in the economy. He's also bracing for the impact of the lack of major Carnival celebrations next year.
The Johnny Q Sound Company, for example, has been hard hit by the fallout in the entertainment industry. Right now, it's a wait-and-see game, he said.
Quan said, “We are a mini-conglomerate, with multiple businesses and divisions. But with no Carnival in 2021, and the current restrictions, we're just playing the waiting game with the companies that deal in entertainment. Our sound, lighting, stage, screen, generators, lighting towers and other associated departments are not running.
“Unfortunately, there is not a steady stream of business. Some days we operate at 35 per cent and then we will pick up to 40 or 45 per cent, and then it will drop again.”
The blows keep coming
The fallout from covid19 – and restrictions – keep coming, even seven months after the first recorded case in TT. The business community – including two of Quan's main portfolios, restaurants and entertainment – have been among the hardest, if not the hardest-hit sectors.
The Prime Minister on Saturday announced some relaxation of the restrictions, allowing gatherings of no more than ten people (up from five) and up to 20 at funerals (up from ten). Flights between Trinidad and Tobago increased to six from two and the Buccoo Reef and Caroni Swamp boat tours restarted.
But in-house dining and liming at bars and restaurants as well as other entertainment activities, like the reopening of movie theatres, and clubs, are still off limits.
Quan's flagship restaurant and bar, the Pub House, has three branches – Ariapita Avenue in Port of Spain, Heartland Plaza in Chaguanas and San Fernando. He has no choice but to close up shop until further notice.
Trying to survive under the restrictions made no sense, he said, and Pub House will not reopen until the restrictions on such establishments are lifted.
“We tried as much as it (restrictions) would have allowed us. But it has now reached a point where we had to shut our doors, temporarily, until the government opens back up the economy. With the current situation it does not make sense to pay staff to come out to work because the sales were not where it needed to be. It was not feasible.”
Pub House employs more than 80 people, including managers, assistant managers, accountants, chefs, servers, runners, host, hostesses, bartenders, cashiers, dishwashers and couriers. The staff, Quan said, were not fired but were made aware of the economic climate that made it impossible to provide steady and constant employment.
“We are operating at almost 90-something per cent less. Our revenues have declined that much. When we realised that it did not make sense competing, we closed. Rentals and cost overheads were killing us. The candle was costing more than the funeral."
The restaurant and bar style was not designed for a pick-up-and-go model, he said. "The situation is that we cannot compete with the people that are doing curbside pick-ups. Our business model does not allow for that.”
Because of a loss of jobs and people having to supplement their incomes in some way, almost everyone has some type of mom-and-pop food shop, he said.
“Bars cannot survive selling beers and rum, so when all the bar owners realise that they are in trouble, they go into selling some type of food. Is it even competitive any more? The prices need to be so cheap in order to stand a chance, and because the price point must come down, ultimately profitability is less.”
Quan tried as best as he could to absorb Pub House workers into other elements of his business, but that too has had difficulties. Workers' health, both physical and mental, was something he worried about, he added.
Rebound and recovery
Quan hoped there would be a cultural and behavioural change by the population in how it saw and managed covid19 in order to have some sort of normality return to everyday life.
“A lot of people are not adhering to what needs to be done, and...that, I think that was one of the problems that led the Government to do what they did. They were left with no choice...We (citizens) are being penalised partially because Government started off managing covid19 very good, but then they left the back door open.”
Quan believed that inefficiencies in border control and mismanagement contributed to the rise in covid19 cases in TT and the reason for the return of the health restrictions.
He said, “If we don’t stop the coronavirus from coming in through the back door, it is going to cause the taxpayers of this country and the government a lot to fix the situation. Prevention is better than cure.
“There must be strict rules on who is entering the country, when, where and how they are entering. The borders in this case could be opened on a need-to basis to allow businesses to operate.”
Quan predicted a harsh climate for small business and entrepreneurs and blasted landlords for their unreasonable expectations.
“I do not think reality has kicked in as yet in this country. Landlords need to understand that in the good times, we paid, and we have always paid. In the bad times, they need to understand that we have zero income, so how can we be paying out money?”
Rebounding will be tough, and Quan acknowledges the hard task of the authorities to get the country moving again.
“The Government is in a predicament, and the budget was not an unreasonable one. We have no Carnival and tourism, so that means no income. Because of the position they are in, they need to be very conservative in their commitments.
“There is not much that can be done that does not involve interaction, and there are zero things that can be done," he repeated, "with the rules and guidelines that we have to abide by.”