A pandemic can change perspective.
And for Thalia Lyn, the past chief executive, deputy chair and founder of food service company Island Grill Group, that meant a recalibration about who to hand over management of the business to that had just come through its three hardest years of operation sparked by the coronavirus health crisis.
To find the right successor, Lyn and the Island Grill board turned to PricewaterhouseCoopers to headhunt for a new CEO last year. And 90 people applied.
“Insisting that we wanted a seasoned QSR executive with multi-unit experience, we received close to 90 applications and interviewed two persons” for the position, Lyn said in an interview with the Financial Gleaner.
The transition to a new leader is happening at a time when Island Grill is in the process of amalgamating three companies into one group, namely Chicken Mistress Limited and Island Grill Holdings Limited, as well as Island Catering Limited, which is a partnership with Goddard Catering of Barbados.
The three will be merged into Chicken Mistress and trade as Island Grill, but will maintain separate accounts and file separate returns, Lyn said.
Now in business for 32 years, the privately held QSR, or quick-service restaurant chain, now has a new leader, former investment banker and insurance brokerage leader Tania Waldron-Gooden, who took on her new role less than two weeks ago while simultaneously taking on a new industry, on May 1.
The new CEO is known for her expertise in finance and business development, most recently as CEO of Caribbean Assurance Brokers, and is sought after as a mentor on the boards of various junior market companies. For the past three years, Waldron-Gooden has also served as a member of Island Grill’s board.
At one time, Lyn’s own family members were expected to take charge of the jerk chicken chain, but she now says it was her daughter-in-law – initially said to be among the favoured successors in 2019 – who suggested they give Waldron-Gooden a shot at the job.
“Denise suggested we ask Tania if she was interested, and we realised we had ‘the diamond in our own backyard’,” Lyn said.
Denise Lyn remains as Island Grill’s current chief operating officer, while her husband and Thalia’s son, Michael Lyn, who had similarly been pegged with his wife to take the reins of the chain, continues as chief innovation officer.
As an investment banker at Mayberry Investments Limited, Waldron-Gooden had a high profile during a period when the brokerage had become the main go-to financial adviser and arranger of initial public offerings on the junior market of the Jamaica Stock Exchange. Mayberry still holds the record of leading a plurality of the junior companies to market.
Waldron-Gooden sits on the boards of various junior companies, as director and/or mentor, including the one where she cut her teeth as a chief executive – Caribbean Assurance Brokers Limited.
On April 30, she officially ended a two-and-a-half-year run as deputy CEO and then CEO of the insurance brokerage, and joined Island Grill the next day.
“I did not choose food services,” said Waldron-Gooden. “I chose the Lyns and the culture they have built.”
“Our people are important to executing our strategies. The opportunity for learning an entirely new industry to me was also a major attraction. I am a knowledge seeker,” she added.
Lyn said the new CEO was already implementing new efficiencies at the company, the workings of which she was already familiar as a board member for three years.
“She is also very people-focused and mindful of our culture, which is why she is such a perfect fit. Together with Mike and Denise, we are refining our people development and growth through expansionary activities,” said Lyn.
As founder of Island Grill, Lyn will still remain on the company’s board and assist with product development over the next 12 to 24 months.
“I have decided to change my focus and pace at Island Grill. The board and executive team and I are aligned and know that with all the plans we have, we welcome renewed energy and external expertise to take this brand and company to the next level,” she said.
“Admittedly, it was a tough process mentally to get to this point, but I am very pleased with where we have reached, both as a business and as a family,” she added.
Island Grill wrapped up its past financial year, which ended March 2023, in full recovery mode from having its 18-store chain shuttered 43 per cent of the time during the COVID pandemic. The fast-food company, which specialises in chicken and fish dishes, now has 16 stores operational in Jamaica, and one in Barbados.
The airport store in Montego Bay was shuttered during the pandemic.
However, an additional five new stores are at different stages of planning and rollout. Island Grill New Brunswick Village will open in Spanish Town, St Catherine, in June. Another outlet, Island Grill White River, is awaiting approval by the St Ann Municipal Corporation. And there are three other locations being considered, but not yet finalised for rollout in 2024 and 2025.
During the pandemic, Island Grill’s sales revenue also declined by 43 per cent, but received concessions from landlords and external stakeholders to weather the downturn, its founder said.
“There were casualties and attrition; poaching and weekly price increases of our core products; severe shortages of products such as our forever-favourite French fries,” said Lyn.
“But the managers ideated; for example, temporarily parachuting breadfruit tostones onto the menu, which was a hit. and validated our Jamaican-ness,” she said.
“Supply chain issues resulted in four containers of fries arriving in quick succession, so we had the extra expense of cold storage and transportation. We ran out of packaging,” she recounted.
“We were unable to plan, which resulted in a high perishable ratio. We were forced to close the store at Sangster International. Eighty-five per cent of our staff are single mothers – many were on the verge of breaking – but teamwork prevailed and we beat the COVID and post-COVID years!” she declared.
But now, the company has recovered all of the 43 per cent of business lost and is ahead of where it was before the pandemic hit. What that has meant in numbers is unclear, as Island Grill does not disclose its finances and earnings. However, in 2019 Island Grill was reported to be turning over $2 billion in sales.
Lyn said on Tuesday that the company was profitable again, generating enough earnings last year to offer staff incentives and pay dividends to shareholders.
The company began in 1991 as Chicken Supreme, operating from Twin Gates Plaza in Kingston, then rebranded as Island Grill around three years later. Lyn describes the business as high volume-low margin, and dependent on swift service delivery by the workforce, which currently amounts to 772 employees.
“We have seen good margins with the higher sales volume and are excited about the future. We will open a new store in Spanish Town by June, and we plan to scale …,” she said.
The expansion of the chain will require financing.
“This is where I am thankful for the timely arrival of Tania, since she’s a pro at this and has already had meetings with one of our bankers – so over to her,” Lyn said.
“At this time, we are exploring all financing solutions: debt and/or equity; public and/or private,” she added. “Currently, our main funding strategy has been debt, which has been managed efficiently but needs a level of diversification at this stage. We are currently re-analysing the business with the intention to develop an overall funding programme, which will seamlessly support our growth strategies.”
Waldron-Gooden also describes her expertise and knowledge of the financial services industry as one of the strengths she brings to the new job.
Additionally: “What I have found to be valuable is coaching in mentoring, in the context of the growth and development of key employees. I also have those skill sets,” she said.
In a statement regarding the appointment, the new CEO said managing costs while increasing revenues at the fast-food chain would be the biggest challenge.