Saturday, February 24, 2018

The man behind Matouk's


Jeremy Matouk shows some of the most popular products under the brand that bears his family name. —Photo: Micheal Bruce

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Open any pantry in the country and chances are, there's a Matouk's product in there.

From ketchup to kutchela, the Matouk's brand is well known throughout the Caribbean and the world for its consistent quality and unique West Indian flavour.

"Everything we make, we make with pride – our family name is on there," said Jeremy Matouk, managing director of National Canners Ltd (NCL), parent company of flagship brand Matouk's, as well as, Mabel's, MP and National.

In an interview with the Business Express last Thursday at his office in Santa Rosa, Matouk spoke about the pride he has in his products and his people.

"We try to run a good company. We are the market leader in everything we make," he said.

"You make sure that the quality is uniformly good, make sure the product represents value for money and keeps up with world trends. You see what's out there and decide if you're going to follow or go one better. We were the first company in the world to offer mayonnaise in a flexible stand-up pack with a zip top. Now, we sell more mayo like that than we do in bottles.

What's most important, though is what is in the package. It has to taste good, be well made, healthy and represent value for money. And people have to like it. More importantly, they have to like it enough to keep buying it," he added.

NCL is internationally known for its hot sauces, jams and ketchup, as well as canned vegetables, mayonnaise and other traditionally Caribbean condiments.

"We produce millions of cases a year. We have nine production lines and are highly mechanised. We also have 350 employees who are highly skilled and talented. They are committed to their job, and are fun to work with," he said.

The company was started in 1967 by Matouk's father, and many of the initial recipes were traditional, developed by his mother and grandmothers in the family kitchen.

"Over the years, the range has grown and grown; we now make over 50 products," he said.

After almost 45 years, the company is also proving to be successful even through these rough economic times.

"It's funny- downturns don't affect us much. I think it has to do with some of our products being a staple. But when times are tough, people will give up big luxuries, but still want to the small, inexpensive ones like good pepper sauce and good jam. Things may be hard – you mightn't be able to go on vacation this year, but you're not going to give up your small luxuries. That's what our products represent," he said.

What is affecting the company, however, and as far as Matouk is concerned, the entire country, is the deteriorating work ethic of Trinidadians.

The manufacturing industry has been reported to be running at about 60 per cent capacity and Matouk admits even his company is running at this below-optimum level. He attributes this to a work ethic that is based on easy money, funded by government welfare programmes like CEPEP and URP.

"The single hardest problem manufactures face is the deterioration of the work ethic. Running a factory, as mechanised as you might be, you still need competent people. We are not labour intensive but there are many things in here that have to be done precisely. This is the food business, and if you're not precise, you can kill people. You have to have people where you train them, and are willing to learn.

"It's hard to insist and develop a work ethic when you have these welfare programmes. What irks me, is in Trinidad, there are really poor people who don't get any assistance. The ones who do get are the ones who can very well be working in my factory or anywhere else," he said.

"It's politics – vote buying and all governments are guilty of it. I've said it before – it has seriously damaged Trinidad, it's affected our productivity, our competitiveness and our economy," he added.

Agriculture is also a problem for food producers like Matouk.

"We can't get enough produce. Our local pepper is the best around, but we have to import half our requirements when it should be zero," he said. He said while the company had no problem getting things like seasonings locally, crucial products like pepper, guava and mangoes had to be imported.

He added while Trinidad was a net exporter of pepper, the prices were too high for him.

Guava on the other hand, was a different matter.

"We've put down 5,000 guava trees in different parts of the country over eight years in an effort to get a supply that we should be reaping now. But once again there are problems, like labour. Labour affects agriculture very badly," he said.

He said in Trinidad, people had a mindset that farming was menial. To change that, he suggested the high-tech mechanisation of the industry.

"That will make a huge difference," he said.

Somewhat cynically he noted, "Trinidadians will only change their mind when things get very difficult. We need Farm-PEP. If they put these CEPEP people on farms and teach them about agriculture and have them do something productive, that will be productive. Swiping grass is work for prisoners."

He also noted that the food and beverage industry has been earmarked by the current government as key for economic diversification, he believed that development should not just be restricted to diversification.

"I think we need to look at the expansion of our industry, especially our onshore economy – the part that doesn't depend on foreign direct exchange, energy and is sustainable in the long run.

"We have enough oil and gas for the next decade and we must use these resources to transform the economy. The government is taking a long time to implement their plans. I do believe they are earnest but by now we should have seen more. They've done a few good things. But the time of reckoning will come and it's not going to be nice."

For his company, Matouk is looking towards international licensing for his products in factories that meet his standards.

"It's the way of the world," he said.

As for his plans, he says: "I've been here for 21 years and I enjoy it. I'm only 53, so I think I'll be here at least ten years more. I like what I do. My name's on the jar. I was brought up to work – whether I work here... I play golf, cricket, I have a good life. I'm respected in here; I'm respected for what I do. It's not money at the end of the day. It's the joy and satisfaction you get out of life. It's the sense of purpose that drives me."