At 80, Michael Chastanet, mega business magnate, is as optimistic about business as he was when he purchased his first boat that set him on this chosen path. Initially the wooden vessels he invested in with his brother, David, led to the launching of the “Michael David”, a schooner which travelled between the islands carrying flour which helped his mother’s bakery and to support their family of 10.
But as a young man growing up in Saint Lucia, he soon realised that one had to go abroad to source materials to provide for Saint Lucians wishing to do business. Moving his young family from Saint Lucia to Puerto Rico in 1968 was the commitment to expand his shipping business as this was a hub for cargo. It was a big move both personally and professionally but this instilled a work ethic in the family of what it takes to succeed. “I have no regrets. If I had to do it again, I’d like to do it the same way all over again.” His 6’ 5” body is stretched out on his lounging chair, relaxed, and overlooking a soothing scene of the beach from his double glass office window. But work is never far away as he is also surrounded by files neatly stacked on a side table, some even on his chest as he answers phone calls in quick succession; the phone is a constant companion and his connection with a host of partners worldwide.
Chastanet is spontaneous, nostalgic and animated when he talks about shipping and it is clear that of his many endeavours shipping still has a hold on him as much as he has an investor’s love affair with boats. He tells many stories. And they seem more adventure than business. “It is important to be in the right place at the right time, but you must be observant as well to understand the trends that impact on your core values.” And because of this, business never shuts down for the ever optimistic Chastanet, who at one time was up to seventeen ships. The crew on board were mostly Saint Lucians and the captains and engineers were European as Chastanet offered support to address issues as ships delayed in port cost money. Over the forty years in shipping with upgrades to second hand steel hulls, purchased to carry various cargo, including containers, coffee, lumber and cement from ports in Africa, Canada, North and South America and all ports in between. However, with oil hitting $18 a barrel, Chastanet did the maths and since returns on his cargo were not covering the fuel costs, Chastanet retired from shipping.
Chastanet returned to Saint Lucia after fifteen years abroad with fresh eyes to invest and improve business in Saint Lucia; and not before moving between Puerto Rico, Florida and New York with his children, Allen and Feolla – both of them becoming bilingual and fluent in Spanish with an ease of living and travelling to various countries.
Chastanet describes himself as an ‘entrepreneur’; this simply means he has a wide interest in a variety of businesses. He adds, however, he is an entrepreneur who “puts people first”. “To succeed in business you need a mixture of dedication, discipline, passion and drive.” He explains: with these you develop an inner feeling – a gut feeling and intuition – that allows you to take risks and to think outside the box – even when the rest of the world is saying otherwise.”
He put this business philosophy to the test in one such partnership with Barbadian partners and this saw the launch of the Carnival Sailing catamarans and Caribbean Metals, both of which continue today. The challenge of doing business in Saint Lucia comes back, he says, to two key factors: no mass market to create volume and the weak buying power. As an investor, Chastanet believes it is the return on the investment which makes the decision if a project is to go ahead.
Business is what keeps Chastanet keen and sharp. He has one eye on developments locally and regionally and the other on the global perspective of market trends. But he also has one heart and one mind focused on doing business that creates opportunities, not just for himself but for all Saint Lucians.
Chastanet defies all the stereotypical perceptions that come with his 80th birthday milestone. As he moves from file to file and continues answering calls, he reaches for a sheet of paper and reads the lyrics of a song – penned for a local calypsonian in which he is portrayed as a greedy businessman intent on having it all and who would do anything to get it all. Chastanet roars with laugher when he is done reading because he knows the very opposite to be true. “The many Saint Lucians who are part of our businesses share in our successes; and I believe that the successes we have is because we respect those who make it happen.” He gives examples of employees who are rewarded as partners in business and who became shareholders. “My interest is to take care of our people (employees) and this gives me the deepest sense of satisfaction.”
With his Insights into trends abroad, he started warehouses on John Compton Highway. This soon developed on a larger scale when Michael opened the Gablewoods Mall, first in Sunny Acres and then Vieux Fort, both of which still operate today. Perhaps his biggest tenant at the malls was Julie’N Supermarket, which could be considered the “engines” of the malls. When the Barbadians partners opted to leave Saint Lucia, Chastanet had no choice but to buy them out – which was not his initial plan -but 22 years later it turned out to be one of his best investments when he sold out his shares to the Trinidadian conglomerate, Neal & Massy, at the end of 2013. Though this decision caused concern for Saint Lucians, Chastanet, however, saw it as an opportunity and had confidence that he was putting the chain in good hands which would sustain the growth and services provided.
The opportunity to purchase the Candyo Inn in 2002 was the start of his entry into the hospitality business which seemed a welcomed addition to his portfolio as both Allen, his son, and Feolla, his daughter, are both passionate about tourism and hospitality, and have been involved in this sector for the last thirty years. To date his biggest investment has been Coco Resorts, which includes the 103 room Coco Palm Hotel in Rodney Bay and once again this has brought him close ties with key business partners in Barbados, Dominica, and Jamaica.
Chastanet is among the proudest of Saint Lucians whose opinion of business on island is highly sought after. His endorsements carry a lot of weight and can make or break many a deal. His contributions to Saint Lucia’s business development have been recognised by the Saint Lucian Government with national honours being bestowed on him as a Member of British Empire (MBE) and Order of Saint Michael and Saint George(CMG) Order of British Empire (OBE) which he received from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.
The sun is setting and Chastanet takes yet another call. It is for a late afternoon meeting and the guests have arrived. As he gets up to let them in he chuckles with assurance and “spirit”: “I can’t believe I am already 80 years. I feel like I have just started.”