Anthony Bergasse – The Mango Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree

After twenty-two years as Managing Director of J. E. Bergasse and Company Ltd., the grandson of the founder has taken the family business from wholesaling “beer and a few other things”, to supplying hi-tech office equipment and cutting edge services to support Saint Lucia’s 21st century commercial needs. In this exclusive interview with Business Focus, he shares some difficult memories, a few harsh lessons and an abundance of optimism for the future development of the company he loves to lead.
In 1979, as Saint Lucia was approaching independence and a new sense of nationalism was in the air, Anthony Bergasse was cutting his commercial teeth in Canada, a twenty-three year old Finance and Economics graduate with a penchant for the burgeoning field of “technology”, although perhaps at that time the phrase had not yet been coined.
After four years at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Anthony’s work experience included financial account management for Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company, and for 3M Canada, both based in London, Ontario, where he held a variety of positions culminating with that of internal auditor.
Anthony was called back to Saint Lucia in 1983 by his father, Peter A. Bergasse, at a time when the company was transitioning to a computerised financial accounting system and the J.E.B. management team needed someone to oversee the successful implementation and rollout of this new software. A self-described ‘nerd’ who could see that the burgeoning technological movement was the future, Anthony set about modernising the family company; he jokes that there was no such thing as a desktop computer back then, and the “state-of-the-art” back-of-house system was hosted on an IBM System 34 computer that took up almost half a room.
J. E. Bergasse and Company, along with LUCELEC, was joint first to bring an IBM System 34 to Saint Lucia, but according to Anthony, although the intention was good and the strategy sound, unfortunately the move was ill-researched and the timing a little off because of the imminent arrival of personal computers into the office environment. Also the complex software was not entirely appropriate for a food, alcohol and tobacco wholesale operation, so needed to be widely bastardised to fit the actual needs of the business.
Looking back, and with the clarity of hindsight, Anthony states that assuming the role of financial controller was a big responsibility for a young person, and despite his almost ten years at school and work in Canada, he knows now that it was an inordinate amount of pressure. With no handover from his predecessor, and a brand new “hi-tech” system replacing the manual one the company had used for decades, he walked into a disaster without the experience that was needed. Although he describes the exercise as a “dog’s breakfast”, the computerisation of the company’s systems did pay off in terms of billing and managing customer accounts, but his first ten years in the family company was anything but straightforward, and included another accounting system overhaul that would really begin the transition of J.E.B. to a technology company.
Twelve years after he returned to the island, Anthony Bergasse was to assume the role of Managing Director, following the unexpected death of his father from a heart attack at only sixty-two years old, during his regular morning workout on the treadmill. It was a dreadful shock to the family, the company and the broader community in Saint Lucia, where Peter Bergasse had been a beloved friend, respected business leader and influential member of the Catholic church.
When he was studying and working abroad, Anthony Bergasse had always known he would come back and settle in Saint Lucia, although perhaps the timing would have been different. His destiny may even have been to continue the family name in a new personal venture, but everything changed the day his father died, and the management of J. E. Bergasse and Company was thrust into his hands.
“Being the eldest in the family sometimes you just step up to the plate and fall apart later when you have time, he recalls. “There were areas that needed attention and could not wait, so you do what you must.” But the man describes himself in one word as “driven”, so the grandson of J. E. Bergasse embraced his new role as MD of the family business with the same passion for excellence and open-minded curiosity that has defined him as one of Saint Lucia’s most successful executives of the past three decades. As wholesaling trends changed and more than fifty percent of the revenue disappeared when Heineken decided to take over its own distribution, the company lost other lines and was being held afloat by the insurance businesses that had been part of the portfolio from early days. Anthony Bergasse kept his eye on the big picture, the next opportunity and the newest innovation. The time for food and beer was over, and it was time to reinvent the brand.
As the 1990s were in full swing, the name ‘Bergasse’ had becoming synonymous with hi-tech names like Xerox and IBM, and under Anthony’s strategy for diversification, additional world-class brands were brought to the Saint Lucia market, including RISO, Lexmark, Lenovo and more recently HP Servers, broadening the focus on ICT.
He instigated perhaps the single biggest game-changer for J. E. B. by suggesting the family sell the historic home of the company on Columbus Square in Castries, now Sir Derek Walcott Square, and construct a modern headquarters in Vide Bouteille for the reinvented company, including its popular Document Centre. In February 2002, the staff moved in and a new era was symbolically celebrated.
Bringing the benefits of technology to the Saint Lucian public via The Document Centre had been an early mission of J. E. Bergasse and Company, and it quickly became an indispensable resource for businesses and other consumers. Over the years of his tenure, each piece of equipment and software added to its portfolio was hand-picked by Anthony Bergasse through extensive research and study of market trends.
“Our Document Centre mission is to enhance the output and brand of businesses in Saint Lucia. The Document Centre enables customers to stay local with their marketing needs. They can focus on their core business and let J.E.B. handle the print,” he explains.
The Document Centre has evolved from a place for photocopies to a full-service document shop, powered by Xerox. It continues to remain the island’s favourite go-to source for any and every type of print, scanning, copying and creative design, provides graphic arts professionals, as well as production of just about any application required in the market.
More recently, J. E. Bergasse Group has expanded its reach with the latest in consumer convenience – the SurePay brand – which allows utility, phone and other payments to be made in one place and one payment. The SurePay network covers every part of Saint Lucia, with locations in supermarkets and other high traffic points. It took three years to break even, admits the boss of Bergasse, but is now well-entrenched in the market, and the service will be enhanced within the next couple of months when customers will be able to pay their bills through SurePay online.
Searching for that new opportunity is what keeps him going, says Anthony Bergasse; it’s an attitude he saw in his father, and in Hollis Bristol, the Chairman who has been there from the very beginning.
“It’s a question of staying current, and that means travelling to trade shows every year to see what’s happening in the industry, to network and generally keep ahead of the trends. People say I travel a lot, and it’s true, but the inspiration has to come from the big markets which tend to dominate the direction that any innovation takes simply because of the volume of consumers”.
And apparently it’s a winning formula. Since 2002, J. E. Bergasse and Company Ltd. has delivered consistent year-over-year revenue growth. When asked to define leadership, Anthony has a clear view on what sort of a leader he is.
“It’s all about example – what you do is more important than what you say,” he muses. “You can’t expect people to do things if you aren’t prepared to do them yourself. You have to instill confidence in where you want to take the company and have faith in the people you are leading. I have confidence in my team, and there is a reciprocity in that they know I will always make decisions for the good of the company, not necessarily what’s right for me.”
As for the juicy details of his private life? Despite the sleek, white Mercedes Benz (which he admits might be a little over-specced for the pothole fiesta that is Saint Lucia’s road system) and the gadget-geek penchant that takes him on regular business trips, it’s all about J. E. Bergasse for Anthony M. Bergasse.
An avid and adventurous sailor in his youth, nowadays he runs a tight committee boat for national regattas, but has little time for recreational messing about on the water. And despite that straight-laced exterior and conservative tendencies, there’s a superstar side of Anthony that appears annually in a musical production put on by the Rotary Club of Saint Lucia’s all-singing, all-dancing ensemble of local business folk called the ‘Calabashers’.
A man of many talents indeed, as well as some serious personal style quirks, like the single diamond stud earring in his left lobe, and randomly colourful socks that make an appearance once a week, featuring monkeys or slogans or splashy geometric shapes. At sixty, he is absolutely comfortable in his own skin, although admits to acknowledging his mortality as he reaches the age at which his father succumbed to heart disease. About ten years ago, Anthony made the decision to get fit and healthy, dropped sixty pounds by changing his diet and headed for the gym. He lifts weights three times a week minimum, runs occasionally and credits the regime with re-energising his physical health and stamina ever since.
If the actual memories of working alongside his father are slightly faded for the current MD, his predecessor and father, Peter Bergasse’s legacy is burning brighter than ever before. His leadership style may be different, his delivery unorthodox, and there’s a definite rebel inside the dapper suit, but it is clear from his achievements of the past twenty years and strategies for the next twenty, that in the case of Anthony Bergasse and his dad, the mango didn’t fall far from the tree

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