The end of Bookers
Ian on Sunday
September 3, 2000
A part, quite a large part, of Guyana's history slipped into oblivion recently with hardly any public notice. Iceland Inc., an obscure British food company, absorbed Booker Inc at the end of June this year. It was the final act in the long drawn-out decline and fall of what was once a company of distinction and special values in Britain and very considerable, not to say overwhelming, presence in Guyana.
After nationalisation in Guyana in 1976, Bookers, having lost an empire, never really found a new role and over the years stumbled from crisis to crisis as it tried again and again to reinvent itself. Now the end has come not with some grand terminal bankruptcy bang but with a slightly humiliating whimper.
A subsidiary, Bookers Sugar Company, now tucked away somewhere within the Iceland group, remains international marketing agents for Guysuco
One cannot help thinking that the real end of Bookers came in 1976. After leaving Guyana Bookers lost its heart, soul, purpose and inspiration. It became just another average to small company with nothing better to do than try to be as profitable as possible. In this unexciting role it became increasingly muddled and useless. It is a relief to one who remembers the old Bookers that this now shrunken, lame and moth-eaten lion has finally been put out of its misery.
The Booker Prize, most famous of all British literary awards, born of an imaginative gesture in Bookers' glory days, is still intact for the time being. But no doubt that too will fall victim to some Icelandic lap-top cost benefit analysis.
A subsidiary, Bookers Sugar Company, now tucked away somewhere within the Iceland group, remains international marketing agents for Guysuco. However, the contract expires at the end of 2001 after which that last link with the Booker past will be severed and the extraordinary relationship of company and country which led to the description Bookers Guyana will finally disappear. And in a canefield aback some sugar estate in Demerara or Berbice a ghostly bugler will then perhaps blow taps and a long - gone congregation murmur farewell and rest in peace.
I personally have viewed the decline and fall of Bookers with sadness. In 1955 I joined Bookers at a time when the Jock Campbell revolution was in full flow. I found myself in the middle of a process in which Bookers was being completely reorganised and recreated. In this process the sugar industry in British Guiana was transformed from a run -down, unprofitable, inhuman, parternalistic and plantocratic expatriate family concern into a rehabilitated, forward-looking, productive and dynamic enterprise basically run by Guyanese for the much improved good of Guyanese and Guyana.
Sugar production grew from 170,000 tons to 350,000 tons. Estates were consolidated and factories modernised. Drainage and irrigation facilities and the whole infrastructure of field works were completely revamped. Agricultural practices and applications were overhauled in line with current world-class technology. The first sugar bulk-loading terminal in the Caribbean was established to replace the drudgery of loading sugar in bags.
And the people side of the industry was simply revolutionised: remuneration vastly increased, the old logies eliminated and 15,000 new houses in 75 housing areas built with roads and water supplied, medical services upgraded to cater for all sugar workers and their families and the scourge of malaria eradicated, Community Centres established on all estates and welfare, sporting and library activities expanded, training and education immensely stepped up, the Apprentice Training Centre established, a cadet scheme and scholarships started, and all along Guyanisation pressed forward until the time came when the industry was being run almost entirely by Guyanese. It was an era of tremendous growth and change for the better in the sugar industry and indeed throughout all the enterprises making up the Booker Group in Guyana at the time.
I cannot forget that time. All that was being done was captured in a phrase Jock Campbell as Chairman used in all his key addresses: "People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates." We tried to act in the belief that business could not possibly just be about making money if only because that would be soul-destroyingly boring. Business had to be about making the lives of people better and more fulfilled. People in any case always came first however you considered what you were trying to do in business. You had a four-fold responsibility to people: to shareholders, to employees, to customers, to the community of people in which business operated and found its meaning. Creating profit was vital but not just for its own sake but for good, everyday, ordinarily human, immediately flesh and blood, life-enhancing purposes.
Working in the old Bookers was marvellously exhilarating. There was a feeling of fervour and achievement - even in a small way of being involved in making history. Getting things done in a good, progressive cause was the essence of the job, not simply maximising efficiency and making profits which were to be seen as necessary means and never as ultimate ends. I remember the clear purpose, the hard but satisfying work, the extraordinary leadership, the good humour, the enthusiasm and high spirits, the overall intelligent humanity of the operation, the camaraderie and the sense of fulfilment - I remember it all with a pang of nostalgia as Bookers now comes to the end of its life as it long ago came to the end of its purpose.
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