Jul 03, 2011 News
“I think in life one has to give openly, one has to be kind but one still has to be strong.”
By Crystal Conway
It can hardly be said of any family-owned businesses that they have become an empire over the years, there are only a handful; even fewer women can say that they have been instrumental in the building of such an empire. But after more than fifty years, Lyla Kissoon can say this and more. Not only has she been at the helm of what is now one of the largest group of companies in the country, but she has also raised a family and still had the time to be of service to her country and her fellow Guyanese.
Born Lyla Sankar on February 19, 1930, to Amin and Zohora Sankar, she was the second of eight children. Her mother gave birth to her in a tiny house in what was then Nickerie, Dutch Guiana. When she was very young, her father acquired plantation Waterloo in Nickerie, so she has fond memories of her years growing up on a sugar estate, but she was not destined to stay there very long.
At the age of eight, Lyla and her older sister Amna came to Guyana with their father where his very first task was to get them both into school. His first and only choice was The Bishops’ High which at the time was the best all-girls school in the country. This proved to be no trouble with Amna who was 11, but at eight, Lyla was three years too young for the school, but her father was determined and after much persuasion he managed to convince the head teacher to take both sisters.
She recalled that her parents were very serious about education, especially her father of whom she said, “Daddy always said that whatever a man can do a woman can do better.” She said that Mr. Sankar felt education was the most important gift a parent could possibly give to a child – not money but education, and he was very strict about his children never missing a day of school. So strict in fact, that he sent Lyla to school when she had the measles telling her to say she had been out in the sun too long and had gotten sunburnt; luckily the headmistress was too smart for him and gave both sisters two weeks off from school.
Her parents brought her up to exhibit excellent manners, to be polite at all times and to be honest, hardworking and humble. The last three qualities she says are exceptionally important if you want to be successful in life. The first two, however, would serve her well in her later years as she began to rub shoulders with the elite.
At Bishops’ High, she would go on to complete her Ordinary Levels successfully, but she did not fare so well at her Advanced Levels. Lyla explained that she wanted to become a doctor but she “failed miserably” at both Chemistry and Physics. Her explanation was a little surprising, but it proved the existence of a spirit of boldness that would later be invaluable in her business life. She said that the teacher would only tell her to read from this page to that in the text and never spent enough time actually explaining any of the work to the class. Not being sufficiently captivated by the work, she therefore rebelled by skipping her classes and hanging out with her friends. She laughed as she recaled how worried her parents were that she might have been seeing some boy, when in fact, that was the furthest thing from the truth.
After leaving school she decided to join her father’s company, Sankar Ltd in Water Street, she was 18 years old at the time. It was here that she would meet her husband, Alston Kissoon, who frequented her father’s business to make regular purchases for his uncle. Alston pursued Lyla, and it took her three years before she made up her mind to marry him, but eventually she did. The couple moved into five homes before settling at 54 Main Street, where she recalls her husband telling her that this was their last house. Coincidentally, their next door neighbour is Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, who happened to be their neighbour when they were living in Charlotte Street, before he took office, too.
The couple had five children, first came the twins, Alston and Anthony, followed shortly by Christopher. Four years later their first daughter Ann came along, followed a year later by Tara.
Meanwhile, they decided to go into business for themselves, and on the lot that is now home to Republic Bank at Camp and Robb Streets, they opened a dry goods store. She remembers that the little dry goods outlet was very small with a little back storeroom and no toilet, but for all of that it was a start, and a very positive one too.
The date was December 9, 1951 and Mrs. Kissoon distinctly remembers that when they started their business, everything was given to them on credit, with no guarantees required. Such was the couple’s reputation that all of their distributors were willing to trust them implicitly. The husband and wife team worked hard to make their business a success and put in the hours. In the early days they had very little staff and did almost everything themselves, but they kept going and they kept growing.
One day in 1955, while on a trip to New York to buy stock for the business, Alston visited a furniture plant. He was so impressed by what he saw that he came home and convinced Lyla that their next venture would be to open up a furniture factory here. And they did just that. She recalls that after raising the necessary capital, they pitched their idea to Dr. Cheddi Jagan who then gave them three lots in the Ruimveldt Industrial Site which at the time was just “cane fields and swamp”.
So the Kissoons, S. K. Puri, founder of Torginol Paints and Mohammed Yassin, founder of the LYSONS Garment Factory, all began setting up operations at the same time in Ruimveldt.
The couple brought in experts to teach them the operations and to teach their staff; they then combined these with the tried and true techniques of local craftsmen to produce their furniture. Mrs. Kissoon recalled that their company, A. H. &L. Kissoon was one of the first to start offering Hire Purchase in those days, the early sixties. It was $1 down and $1 a week but she remembers that for years they never did a single repossession, because everybody paid. In fact people who paid off within a certain time got their furniture at the cash price.
And so the Kissoon Empire began to grow, the businesses were doing well, her children were going to school – it seemed like things couldn’t get any better. They would though, but first they would have to get much worse.
On January 8, 1966, Alston Kissoon was convinced by a friend in the government to attend a trade fair in India, so he got on a plane and went to India for a three-week stay. While there he shopped around for some authentic Indian wear to give his wife who had never really worn a sari before. On January 24, he changed his flight from British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to Air India because the British flight was running late and he wanted to get home to his family.
Early in the morning of January 24, 1966, Air India flight 101 crashed into Mont Blanc in France killing all 117 persons on board. For the relatives of those who knew their loved ones were on the flight, the news was heartbreaking but for Lyla Kissoon, to say that she was anything less than shocked to her very core would be an understatement.
She recalls listening to the news on the BBC and feeling sympathy for those who had lost their loved ones but she knew her husband was on a British Airline. But later that day it was her sister Amna who would break the news to her. In disbelief she called Air India and they confirmed that Alston had indeed been on the flight. To make matters worse, his presents that he had bought arrived shortly after the crash and for awhile Lyla wore saris.
Mrs. Kissoon remembered that for one straight week she kept thinking that he would be home, but then she looked at her five children and realized that she needed to keep going. She decided to work. And so she worked harder than she had ever worked before, she took charge of the business and with the partnership and support of Hemraj Kissoon, a relative of her husband who had been with them since 1952, the Kissoon Group of Companies rose to even greater heights.
They went into low-cost housing at Good Hope; they ventured into the hotel business acquiring the Park Hotel on Main Street, which is still a part of their portfolio today; they even went into cattle ranching and eventually established the Abary Cattle ranch in Berbice.
Meanwhile, the furniture company had been growing while branches were being established around the country. Over time they also started to manufacture spring-filled mattresses, their capability in furniture manufacture got to the point where they were able to outfit every room in a home with the requisite furniture. Then the company acquired a polyurethane plant and expanded their operations into making foam-filled pillows and mattresses.
On the personal side, Lyla got married again to Hemraj in 1969. They are still married, and in fact, are celebrating 42 years of marriage today. The couple also added to their family with one more daughter, Asha.
In the face of extraordinary tragedy, Mrs. Kissoon managed to not only hold on to herself, but to become a dynamo in the private sector. At a time when the club was a gentleman’s one, she made herself a force to be reckoned with.
She tells of how she admired the fact that even though he came from a poor family in Corentyne, she always admired the hard work and kindness her first husband exhibited. It led her to emulate his example when it came to dealing with people, and as a result, they developed a very loyal employee base where there were people who had been working with them for decades.
“I think in life one has to give openly, one has to be kind, but one still has to be strong.”
And that has long been her secret to succeeding in the harsh world of business. She believes that the reason for the loyalty of her employees has been that fact that she embraced the habit of talking to people.
From the top to the bottom, she says that it is important for a manager to talk to an employee. “Managers need to find out on a regular basis, ‘Are you happy with your job?’ ‘Is there something that you think could be done differently to make you job simpler or is there another area that you would prefer to work in?’”
According to Mrs. Kissoon, this is something that business people today are failing to recognize, that businesses are about people and not about money. She agrees that you must make money, but feels that you can make more money if you just take the time to tap into the best that your employees have to offer, rather than just ignoring their welfare.
As she managed every single aspect of the businesses, she learned the work from the bottom up over the years, she was a secretary, a bookkeeper, a typist, an accountant, a supervisor, a manager and the list goes on and on. She smiled as she recalled the list and said, “You could say that I was the chief cook and bottle washer over the years.”
Lyla was also involved in charitable and service organizations too numerous to mention over the many years that she worked full-time. One of her favourite efforts was that of establishing the Guyana Cancer Society almost four decades ago.
In 1988, she was awarded the Golden Arrow of Achievement by President Desmond Hoyte for whom she worked as an advisor. Over the years, Lyla Kissoon has rubbed shoulders with every powerful personage in the country’s history. She was very close to the late Viola Burnham because she and Mrs. Burnham not only went to school together, but their children went to school together.
In her role as one of the driving forces behind the Kissoon Group of Companies, Mrs. Kissoon has spent over 50 years in the business sector; she has received countless awards and plaques in recognition of her sterling contribution to the sector and to the nation at large.
Lyla stresses that Guyana is an absolutely beautiful country with enormous potential, she says “we should be the gemstone in the Caribbean crown,” and she hopes to see the day when that potential can be tapped into and the proceeds shared honestly in an effort to bring the country to the standard it deserves to be at.
At 81, she feels that she would do more if God would permit her. In the last three years she has been easing off from the rigours of full-time work, only going into the office on an “as needed” basis, although she still works from home. Her six children have all married and presented her with 14 grandchildren and five great grands, and now she wants to spend time with her loved ones, too, so that she can pass on some of the knowledge she has gained in building a successful business, but she recalls the hard time she gets in passing on this information and laughs as she says, “When you’re young you think you know everything.”
She says that she is not strong enough to teach or she would be happy to share her business knowledge with young entrepreneurs who are now up and coming, especially the ones with no formal business training but who are still making an effort to run their own businesses and do something for themselves. Who knows, maybe she will write a book instead … leave behind a bit of her legacy.
Whatever the case may be, Lyla Kissoon has taken the life that she has been given, she has used all of the opportunities presented to her, and she has done extraordinary things as a woman and as a businesswoman. Her efforts have provided steady employment for thousands of people and helped them to raise their families over decades. She is proof for all women and girls out there that it is quite possible to hold your own in a man’s world and still retain your grace and femininity at the same time.
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