WHEN most Trinidadians see a piece of local craft they say "that's nice". When the managers at State entity Export Centres Company Ltd (ECCL) look at a piece of local craft they say, "That's a $400 million industry."
Guiding ECCL in developing the craft industry locally, so that it can eventually penetrate regionally and internationally, is new chief executive Sushilla Ramkissoon-Mark.
And one of her main duties is turning around a company that has not made a profit in a decade.
Ramkissoon-Mark was introduced to the public in her new role in a weekly newspaper story last November which alleged that it was a "belated wedding present" from the government to her after marrying House Speaker Wade Mark.
"I think it's rather unfortunate that such negative publicity would be published when in truth and in fact I am duly qualified for the position," she told the Business Express in an interview.
She was interviewed recently at the ECCL's offices at Eastern Main Road, Mt Hope together with the company's business development coordinator Vernalyne Luces.
Ramkissoon-Mark provided some of her background: Attorney at law with 14 years of corporate law experience, with work in construction law, contract law and environmental law; started in public sector and has served in oil and gas sector a number of years; completed a course at Harvard Business School where she learned about negotiation and leadership; and was appointed deputy chairman at the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission.
When she was hired as ECCL CEO in October last year she met a house that needed putting in order.
ECCL began in 1996 under the then Small Business Development Company "originally mandated to empower members of village communities and in particular, female heads of households, through the production of craft for the export market".
ECCL for a time had opened craft outlets at Centre City Mall and Gulf City Mall under the name "Natural Pleasures", a subsidiary they plan to eventually reintroduce.
It moved to the Ministry of Community Development in 1998 then to the Trade Ministry in 2001 and back to Community Development in 2002, the last year it made a profit.
In 2004 they incorporated the training aspect and approximately 4,000 people have been trained in metal, wood, jewelry and other types of craft, to get into small and micro-businesses.
Ramkissoon-Mark said the first thing she did upon assuming the position was to do a gap analysis of the 101-employee company and found a number of deficiencies "primarily in the areas where it relates to lack of process (and) lack of structure".
She said there was a need to introduce proper structures and processes, especially in the human resources area, to make it a more profitable, viable entity.
"It was basically stagnated, no growth, no development," she added.
Ramkissoon-Mark said she brought an element of leadership to the staff as well as her wealth of corporate experience in terms of turning around institutions.
She said they recently launched their strategic plan for the period 2012-2016 and expect to see profit.
Luces said the new strategic plan will focus not only on expanding craft focus but inclusion of fashion, specifically East Indian and African, and gourmet foods following a feasibility study.
Ramkissoon-Mark said they are also looking at producing goat cheese and chocolates, recently meeting with officials of the The Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board of T&T.
Getting back to craft, she said the market locally was at the "toddler stage" and there needed to be more public awareness through promotions and trade shows.
She said one step was simply getting the nation to acquire an appreciation for art and craft, as obtains in markets such as the European market. She noted one area to start was to have information and help desks at the airport and at the port for cruise ships with brochures and literature on crafts for tourists.
Luces said they will use a differentiation strategy targeting niche markets and middle to high end customers, as locally we cannot compete with the mass production of countries like China and India which focuses on the low end market.
"With creativity and innovation people don't mind premium prices," she said.
One innovative piece on display at the company was a black glass-top table fashioned to look like a steelpan.
Ramkissoon-Mark pointed that the nation lacked the infrastructure for developing the craft market, pointing out that countries such as South Africa and India have large craft institutes. Locally, however, there were disparate associations and bodies that ECCL is attempting to bring together.
Originally geared towards more economically depressed in society, Ramkissoon-Mark said they want to cast a wider net including university graduates desiring to become young entrepreneurs.
Luces said they plan to go regional first and then international but they first have to penetrate the local market, like the old Jamaican saying "learn fi dance a yard before yuh go abroad".
She explained that this will have social and economic benefits as people become more economically independent and self-sufficient, and it will also increase foreign earning potential and support the tourism sector.
Ramkissoon-Mark said they have not reached the export side yet as they first have to master the local market, but their vision is to turn out highly skilled workers that can produce for the international market.