The Peter Rousseau Factor

What really makes a successful businessman? Franklin McKnight profiles one of Jamaica's leading hoteliers

  • Ciboney, Ocho Rios. Photograph by Ciboney
  • "A jovial, entertaining man with a laid-back style". Photograph by Ciboney
  • Peter Rousseau. Photograph by Ciboney

Perhaps it was the travels with his father, who was a salesman for Grace, Kennedy & Co. (Jamaica’s largest food processor and distributor) and later an executive. Or perhaps it was the evenings when he was allowed to sit in, with his brothers Pat and Jack, as his parents entertained business colleagues, high flyers and political heavyweights in Norman Manley’s infant People’s National Party.

But something gave Peter Rousseau a strong feel for business, a free spirit and an interest in politics that years of hard-nosed commercial success have not dented. One factor that certainly influenced him was the time his father lent him £20 and firmly insisted that he pay it back over four months. Twenty pounds was enough then to buy six pants and associated finery for an attractive young man who needed them for work and liked to wear the best clothes over a solid six- foot frame.

Whatever it was, Peter Rousseau has become one of Jamaica’s leading businessmen, never short of ideas or action, a man who is willing to take risks and to cut new paths, and who makes sure he can pay his way. At 56, the footprints he has already left on Jamaica’s landscape are much less ephemeral than the ones left on the beach by guests from around the world at Ciboney Ocho Rios, the much-praised resort which Peter has made into one of the Caribbean’s leading hotel properties.

Peter Rousseau was different even in his teenage years In those days, a typical light-skinned, middle-class boy from a good Kingston high school would normally set his sights on a profession — doctor, lawyer, accountant. Peter Rousseau didn’t do any such thing. He wanted to make money.

At 18 he started selling office furniture, and a year later was able to buy himself a 1949 Austin Devon for £80 out of the money he had earned and saved. “I used to like to sport and have fun,” he says, leaning back in his boardroom chair, with a nostalgic twinkle behind his thick glasses. “I wanted to get a car quickly and the only way to do that was to go and sell.”

Next he became a salesman for what was then the largest insurance company in Jamaica, North American Life. He had what some would call the ideal characteristics: he loved people, had many contacts, and knew what it was to sell on straight commission. “I believed I could sell anything. I was full of myself and wanted to earn my own money.” He made the One Million Dollar Round Table, switched firms to join his long-time friend Danny Williams, did his Certified Life Underwriters course, and swept upwards through management positions, teaching others how to sell and serve.

He learned vital skills and attitudes from selling office supplies and insurance. “Above all, it taught me how to start work every month without any income and needing to earn it.”

By the time he was 30, in 1968, Peter had started his own housing development company (several of his companies have been in the sales and development business — as development consultants, project managers or receiver managers). He spread his wings into, other companies, merging and strengthening family businesses with his brother Pat. His interest in influencing social and political issues in Jamaica led him towards the press — one of his companies gave Jamaica a second newspaper in 1973. The launch produced horrendous problems; Peter was sent to clean them up in two months, but was still there 18 months later. He learned a great deal, but the paper would not last.

By the late seventies, Peter was looking for broader horizons. With hundreds of house constructions and several large office complex developments behind him, he crossed the Caribbean to Trinidad and Tohago, and between 1977 and 1981 his company planned or developed a wide range of projects, from housing estates at Point Lisas through the Neal & Massy Group’s headquarters to Tracmac in Chaguanas.

When he came back to Jamaica, he plunged back into business life. He earned such a high reputation and was so well trusted that when Jamaica’s second largest bank, the National Commercial Bank, decided it would not become a lead investor in Air Jamaica, which was being divested by the Jamaican government, Peter Rousseau was asked to head the acquisition group. He forged ahead with negotiations but eventually backed away from the deal. As it turned out, he made way for another leading Jamaican hotelier, Gordon “Butch” Stewart (who eventually acquired the majority share in the airline, based on the earlier deal.)

Peter Rousseau is a jovial, entertaining man with a laid back style; he wears his success and his status lightly. He likes people, enjoys good company, knows how to get on with all types.

Peter DeFreitas, a former bureau chief for the Caribbean News Agency in Jamaica and then the editor of CANABusiness and Editor-in-Chief of the Jamaican Observer, says of Rousseau, “He is sharp. His entrepreneurial skills and his ability to make things work are just good.” According to Colin Steele, one of Jamaica’s brightest young financial managers and a former Rousseau employee, he is “eternally young, energetic, brilliant, positive, full of ideas, a true entrepreneur.”

Like many entrepreneurs who rise above the hordes of merely successful business operators, Peter Rousseau has a capacity for single-mindedness, for focusing clearly on what has to be done and seeing it through — not even a hurricane deflected him from his purpose while he was developing Ciboney.

It’s an under-rated gift: where most of us lose focus when faced with too many things to do, real entrepreneurs seem to thrive on it, and can juggle an enormous range of complex interests without losing sight of any of them. Rousseau’s cover development, construction and marketing as well as tourism, and include Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Inn, data conversion, furniture design and manufacturing, investment and housing companies, fast foods and property consultancy, as well as Ciboney and arguably the best housing development in Jamaica, Airdre in Norbrook.

His is a firmly hands-on management style; he likes dealing direct with people and does it well. That’s another characteristic of real entrepreneurs: none of that managing from on high, none of the distance from the real action, that marks run-of-the-mill executives. At Ciboney, Rousseau makes sure he has high visibility: he knows people’s names, favours warm handshakes and easy Jamaican style, he gets involved with training and scholarships for staff families, takes a real interest with what’s happening with them, likes people to come and talk to him and listens carefully. He also likes to keep a close personal eye on what’s happening: if someone has forgotten to polish the fingerprints off a meeting-room table, or the lighting at an evening entertainment isn’t quite right, it’s quite likely to be picked up by the Chairman and CEO, who will make his point warmly and helpfully but will expect it to be taken seriously.

The rather obvious thing about Peter Rousseau is that he loves what he’s doing. There’s nothing of the careworn manager or weary executive here, nothing of the man who really wishes he was doing something else. Rousseau has the other essential characteristic of the entrepreneur: a relish for what’s happening.

It was family commitments – taking care of his two daughters who were attending university abroad — that pushed Peter Rousseau into the hotel business for which he is best known in the Caribbean today. When he returned to Jamaica in 1981, US dollars were hard to come by, and Rousseau decided he was going to earn the foreign exchange he needed to give his daughters the best education overseas, rather than wait in the lines at the Bank of Jamaica. He and his brother Pat negotiated a deal on a Kingston hotel that opened up a whole new horizon and enthusiasm.

He developed the idea of a vacation resort with luxury villas that would be sold to individuals on a lush, rolling, well-fruited piece of land in Jamaica’s fastest growing resort area, Ocho Rios. The project was conceived and planned against the slide of the Jamaican currency, swelling inflation and soaring interest rates; nobody was building luxury hotels, and it needed plenty of tenacity, guts and financial know-how to make it happen.

Ciboney Ocho Rios opened its doors in 1991, a $45 million all-inclusive resort on 45 acres, lavishly equipped. Its luxury villas nestle among landscaped gardens above the sea, styled in the manner of traditional Jamaican plantation houses and centred around a Great House. In its second year, it won the coveted AAA Four Diamond Award, the first all-inclusive in the world to do so; it won the Award again in 1993 and 1994. By 1994 it was named among the World’s Ten Best Hotels by the American Association of Travel Editors and in 1995 won the Gold Key Award for excellence in meetings, conventions and incentive travel, and a Gold Platter Award for its cuisine.

Ciboney now extends to 540 rooms in two properties, one run by Sandals. Rousseau himself was nominated Independent Hotelier of the Year by Hotels magazine in 1994. One of his strongest interests is making sure that at Ciboney guests can taste real Jamaican food from real Jamaican ingredients prepared the real Jamaican way.

Having entered the business from necessity, Peter Rousseau quickly became a major player in Caribbean tourism, involving himself in the industry associations and becoming a director of the Jamaica Tourist Board, the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (where he served three terms as president) and a leading figure in the Caribbean Hotel Association. In a few years he has become a voice of authority. “I learn pretty well, by osmosis,” he says, “so I was in there, soaking up everything.” But Ciboney is his crowning glory, much praised by travel writers and international industry monitors. He invited the Jamaican public to buy into the project in 1993, in what was then Jamaica’s largest public share offer.

“I used to entertain more, but now I’m getting old,” Peter laughs.

Old? Don’t believe it. Married with two grown-up daughters, he can often be found on Jamaica’s social circuit, greeting friends with a tight hug, at the centre of animated discussions, stepping back and making his points firmly, often bursting into laughter. He spends time in Europe and North America on hotel business, and among the cool hills of St Andrew. His favourite people are the people of “friendly countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Antigua, St Lucia, Dominica . . . ”

His friends stay close for a lifetime (former Prime Minister Michael Manley is one of them). He keeps on top of regional and international events, reads mountains of serious newspapers, watches the television only “as a distraction”, enjoys watching soccer, monitors Caribbean hotel development with one of the sharpest eyes in the business, wields a lot of influence at regional tourism gatherings, and takes a keen interest in everything from his wife Beverley’s business to Jamaica’s political and social progress.

Whatever he says, don’t expect Peter Rousseau to put his feet up any time soon.