Resilient entrepreneur triumps despite the odds
Guyana has been aggressively pushing its tourism, targeting its virtually unspoiled natural eco beauty.
The development of the necessary infrastructure picked up in tempo in recent years, especially in readiness for the Cricket World Cup, in which a few matches were hosted at the Providence National Stadium. Quite a few entrepreneurs have been joining in to capitalize in what is being seen as a potentially lucrative niche.
On East Coast Demerara, at Le Ressouvenir, a village a few miles east of Georgetown, lies nestled one of the country’s finest top-tier hotels in Guyana. Its rapid growth, décor, and reputation for good food and hosting small, intimate receptions and conferences, has attracted the attention of worldwide travel entities.
Today, Grand Coastal Hotel and Conference Centre, is rated among the top places to stay in Guyana. So much so, that the diplomatic community and international agencies are among its more significant customers.
The story of Grand Coastal, aptly named because it is a short distance from the breezy Atlantic Ocean, is one of challenges, tears, pain and triumph. A story which has evidently paid off for one man and his family; a man whose humble rise from a little Strathspey boy to a successful businessman, is a story that wreaks of confidence.
Mokesh Daby, 54, is a relaxed man. He is as comfortable in a shirt and tie as he is in casual wear. There is a quiet air of assuredness in him. Mokesh, as he is known to friends, is not shy to speak about how it all started. Two of his sons, Kevin, 28, and Navin, 23, were with him at this interview. His other son, Dane, 19, is currently studying abroad.
Mokesh grew up in Strathspey, a village neighbouring Buxton, in a family of 11. With five brothers and three sisters, he was no stranger to work and entrepreneurship. To look after his family, Mokesh’s father owned a number of chicken pens located behind the family home.
His mother owned and operated a fruit and vegetable stall at Bourda market.
From an early age, Mokesh learnt responsibility. He was tasked with feeding the 3,000 chickens, and even working weekends with his mother at Bourda. On an average day he, together with neighbourhood boys, had to clean and pluck 25 chickens that had to be supplied to city restaurants and other customers.
On some days, the little boy would walk along the streets of the villages, packing a basket on his head. He laughs, “Even now, the boys think that’s why I’m graceful when I dance. It comes back from the days with that basket.”
For little Mokesh, school was not something that took much of his time. His duties proved to be too much, so by age 12, he dropped out.
It was in 1975 that Mokesh’s parents migrated to Chicago, US, leaving the teen with his two sisters in Guyana. By then, the chicken business had become challenging. It was natural for him to learn a trade. He hopped around a little, staying a year learning welding and auto mechanic repairs. He even worked in a grocery store.
On weekends, for a short while, he and his sisters continued the family business of selling at the market. But interest in continuing in the market business did not last long.
For a while, under the strict watch of his siblings, Mokesh worked with one of his brothers, a goldsmith. He liked the hours and life was good.
Two years after the parents migrated, Mokesh and his siblings joined them in Chicago.
“There, I quickly realized that education is a must. At bare minimum, you had to be in possession of a high school diploma.”
GOING BACK TO SCHOOL
He started to attend school and worked part time as a store clerk. “My English was not too great and I was packing boxes for a while. Then I started to interact with customers.”
Mokesh’s superiors quickly noticed his natural marketing skills, and soon the Strathspey teen was elevated to become part of the floor staffers.
He was the oldest graduating student for his high school class at age 20. He enrolled at the University of Chicago/Illinois, focusing on electrical engineering. However, Mokesh was finding Maths and calculus difficult. It was not until a professor at the university advised him to seriously consider marketing, that Mokesh switched.
He graduated, majoring in Marketing and a minoring in Management. As part of his assignments, Mokesh honed his skills by visiting local businesses in the Chicago area, helping them prepare business plans, among other things.
With his studies completed in 1984, Mokesh came back to Guyana at the urgings of his brother, Ramesh, who managed the popular Kiskadee Restaurant, on King Street, Georgetown.
“My parents were a great source of inspiration. My father gave up his love of entertaining and singing and took a job as a dishwasher at a hospital. His was a great sacrifice. My mother, she was the deal maker, who took care of us, working at the same North Western Memorial Hospital with my dad.”
In Guyana, Mokesh helped around the Kiskadee Restaurant with his brother, rubbing shoulders with a wide cross-section of Guyanese.
That Christmas in 1984, was significant for Mokesh, as he met his wife, Rosalyn, who worked at Guyana Stores.
He went back to New York, but business thoughts and wanting to see Rosalyn again kept him coming back to Guyana.
It was around that time that DM Sales was born. The company specializes in beauty products and today, has managed to grab sole distributor rights to several top brands from the US.
Back then, with foreign currency hard to come by, the era of “suitcase” traders was booming. Mokesh started traveling with Polaroid films, music cassettes and costume jewelry. He was rubbing shoulders with Len Rambharose and Wilfred Jagnarine, two friends who later made it big. Mokesh’s skills in marketing were improving by leaps and bounds, with some of the most significant businesses amongst his customers.
In 1985, he married Rosalyn and nine months later, Kevin was born. He took Rosalyn to the US and was travelling back and forth to Guyana.
In 1991, Mokesh’s dealings as an emerging businessman caught the attention of another trader, a Regent Street businessman. That businessman wanted to sell his two properties located in the upper Regent Street area. With his business growing, Mokesh grabbed the opportunity. It was a good deal. He was not required to lodge any down payment.
The Regent Street property was perfect for his customers, who were mainly other businesses buying in wholesale quantities. “Because of parking facilities, it was perfect, as we were not catering too much to foot traffic.”
The first challenge was in 1991, when bandits attacked his home at Le Ressouvenir, traumatizing his wife and young son. He packed up and took them to the US, running DM Sales from there.
However, the logistics of doing business from the US was taking a toll. DM Sales was growing. Mokesh, through his attendance to trade shows and other events, managed to acquire the distribution rights for a number of brand name beauty products.
With his sons, Kevin and Navin, in school, DM Sales had become a major distributor in Guyana.
It was around the mid-90’s that Mokesh started casting his eyes elsewhere. He was approached to invest in Lake Mainstay Resort, located on the Essequibo Coast. With his friend, Jagnarine and a few others, Mokesh threw his energies into the project.
It was an enormous undertaking, the lessons of which he later took when he ventured into the Grand Coastal project.
When the Lake Mainstay project was launched in the late 90’s, it soon became clear that the logistics of getting clients up to that Essequibo area provided the biggest of challenges. That remains a problem until today.
Recognising that the resort would need to keep some of the customers in the city, Mokesh decided to convert his Le Ressouvenir home into a bed-and-breakfast “holding” facility. It is this same home location that later became the iconic Grand Coastal Hotel.
Of course, the banks refused to finance the project, and Mokesh resorted to liquidating some of DM Sales’ stocks, and disposing properties to be able to finance the 17-room project on the East Coast of Demerara.
For a short while, it took a life on its own. Customers were coming from GuySuCo and from the Ogle Airport.
Then another major challenge emerged. East Coast Demerara and Guyana came under siege in the crime wave of the 2000’s.
For safety, Mokesh took his family to the US, traveling back and forth.
“Their future was important. I could not risk our lives.” He sold his property in Regent Street and paid off his mortgages, though keeping the core distribution business.
In the mid-2000’s, Guyana was looking to increase its room capacity, and Mokesh decided that Grand Coastal Inn wanted to capitalize on this national initiative.
He turned to the Canadian Executive Services Organisation (CESO), whose volunteers suggested a number of measures to attract customers.
Grand Coastal erected signboards along roadways leading from the Timehri airport. It worked well.
The customers were coming again and again. Even persons from Berbice on their way out through the airport were enticed.
Then disaster struck again. Mokesh was adding another wing to the hotel, (after convincing Demerara Bank to help finance his expansion plan) when the great floods of 2005 struck and devastated the East Coast, leaving up to five feet of water in the hotel. Substantial damage to hospitality supplies and equipment resulted.
Fortunately for the businessman, the insurance coverage kicked in and within months, construction was back in full swing.
Mokesh was not afraid to ask for help, and help came from several sources, including groups of senior executives who are friends and whom he refers fondly to as “guardian angels”.
Help also came from international agencies and local business networks.
“Networking helped,” Mokesh said.
“They indicated what kind of services they expect, and we readily accepted and adjusted.” In 2006, the West Wing of Grand Coastal was opened. It now boasts over 40 rooms, a pool, a restaurant and “great food”.
Mokesh was not done yet. He built a conference centre, and soon Grand Coastal was attracting organisations like the churches and even prominent telephone companies.
“For us, we insist on a high quality of cleanliness, service and safety for our customers, and the best of free high-speed WiFi communications.”
Mokesh also managed to convince his eldest son, Kevin, to return home and he is now the General Manager of Grand Coastal.
“Yes, we have experienced many difficulties. DM Sales even suffered a fire in 2005. But one has to deal with these challenges,” says an upbeat Mokesh.
“The truth is that we never envisioned in the beginning that Grand Coastal Hotel would have evolved into what it is. We have now one of the best boutique hotels in Guyana.”
Mokesh’s statement is no idle one. Grand Coastal Hotel is currently rated four stars by Trip Advisor, and was awarded the “Certificate of Excellence for 2014”.
The Tourism Ministry and Tourism Authority has showered the facility with numerous accolades. It has become highly rated, especially by businessmen and women who have been visiting regularly.
“We are now looking down the line to further expansion,” Mokesh disclosed. There is a good reason for that: Grand Coastal is so booked now, that it has to turn away customers.
With over 100 staffers between DM Beauty World and Grand Coastal, Mokesh said that the exotic décor of Grand Coastal was all deliberate, using a mix of local wood, flora and fauna, and modern amenities that are consistent with larger hotels.
He has some special advice for budding entrepreneurs.
“I can see at least 10 businesses opportunities that I can pursue in Guyana. There are opportunities. If you decide on something, prepare for hard work and aim for the sky. Do not wish to be somewhere else. Surround yourself with good people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask tons of questions and be a good listener.”
Mokesh also said that it would be wise to build any business cautiously, and then take it from there.”
The businessman has been quietly giving back too. He has been supporting the Radio Needy Children Fund and several orphanages, including those from Lusignan and Industry. He has not forgotten his home village, lending significant support to the Hindu temple at Strathspey.
The story of Mokesh Daby and his struggles and his triumphs represent what is surely one of the many success stories of the Guyanese spirit of resilience and winning, in spite of the odds.
We salute an outstanding entrepreneur.