Features — 11 June 2013 — by Charles X

I am sick of it! It’s been six years plus since Nova shrimp farm closed its doors, and every now and then I bump into someone who remarks, matter-of-factly, that the farm failed “due to mismanagement.” Just this past Saturday, I met an old acquaintance at the cricket game in Lords Bank, and the subject came up again.

It hurts each time, because I was a part of that “failed” company, a manager, in fact, and I don’t like failure. But, I am obviously biased, so I have kept my peace, hoping that someday, somebody, some Government, perhaps, would find it within the bounds of their civic duty to find out what went wrong, why hundreds of their citizens had to be put out of work, and what could possibly be done to remedy the situation.

The murder rate has escalated during the past few years, and one has to wonder what part the closure of two of the largest employers, Williamson Industries and Nova shrimp farm in 2006-2007, had on the socio-economic conditions, and by extension the crime situation in the Belize District and Belize City in particular.

Be that as it may, please allow me to get this “Nova mismanagement” bit off my chest. Perhaps it may spur some young aspiring politician or potential investor to take a second look at a project that embodied the true meaning of sustainability and environmental harmony, while bringing many jobs with dignity to the surrounding area.

Below are some thoughts I jotted down in frustration some years ago:

The Nova tragedy
Fri. Nov. 18, 2011

It is my understanding that a sale has finally been, or is about to be concluded for the remaining assets of Nova shrimp farm at Ladyville in the Belize District. Rumor has it that the new owners are considering some sort of resort/housing project.

Mon. June 8, 2009

In my gut, I can’t help feeling that what has transpired under the Receivers at Nova Companies in Ladyville is quite akin to a “crime against humanity.”

With the promise of a return to action once a successful bid was made, and with the published deadline of September, 2007, for a sale to be effected, hundreds of Nova employees waited eagerly for the good news to come. But the Receivers were in no hurry, and September passed with another published deadline some months later, and then another. Until in late 2008 they apparently abandoned the hope of a package sale, and began the breaking up and piecemeal auction of the assets of Nova.

The enormity of the “crime” may escape outsiders who had only seen the operation of the largest shrimp farm in Belize at a distance. But for those employees who watched up close the painstaking and meticulous growth and development of the farm, processing and hatchery infrastructure over the years, with the legions of foreign experts tempering their expertise with the genius of our local pioneers, it is at once heartbreaking and mind boggling how this finely tuned and fully functional and efficient operation has been systematically destroyed and dismembered.

Make no mistake about it. Nova Ladyville shrimp farm, all 2,195.4 acres of production ponds, its E.U. certified processing plant, and its 80 plus million PL’s (postlarvae) per month hatchery, was fully functional and ready, with one word from its managing director, to kick into operation for another 6 million pound crop of shrimp, when the close down order was received in January of 2007.

There have been rumours bandied about that Nova collapsed due to bad management. If the decision to quadruple the size of a highly successful and profitable operation was executed too aggressively, and did not adequately foresee the immediate impact, before even getting out another crop to start payment on the expansion cost, of (1) Hurricane Keith in September of 2000, (2) the dramatic return to Belize of the devastating Taura virus six months later in April of 2001, and (3) the cataclysmic drop in shrimp prices worldwide before harvests began a couple months later in June of 2001; if that was bad management, then, yes: Nova was guilty of bad management. Getting too big too quickly was a gamble that could have been described as brilliant, had the circumstances been different; and Belize would have reaped the bonanza, from investors who were determined to re-invest in Belize, rather than taking all their profits to foreign banks. Having met with bad luck, critics may call it bad management.

Worming its way back out of the huge debts it had accrued for the expansion project, was a challenge that bedeviled the Nova brain trust for the next few years, as it made a number of adjustments to both its management team and its production strategy, all with a view to greater efficiency. One thing that cannot be denied: the owners of Nova shrimp farm never attempted to turn their backs on Belizean workers, and, up to the very last, they honored all their commitments to employees according to the labor laws of Belize.

In the new globalized climate of dwindling profit margins, Nova had indeed become a dinosaur of sorts. It was not enough that in its last crop of 2006, where 6 million pounds of whole shrimp were produced, it was able to make a US $1 million payment to its chief creditors, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), who held the mortgage on all the major assets of the company. The sudden death of American managing director Bob Phillips a few days before Keith in September of 2000, and the death of Belizean director James V. Hyde in November of 2006 did not brighten the prospects for Nova either in the sight of the IFC.

But while the Receivers go on their merry way in dismantling and disposing of the years of painstaking technical and scientific architecture, it is worthwhile recording for posterity that what they received in January of 2007 was not an old broken machine, but a finely tuned, fully functional and primed operation that was by far the largest and most productive shrimp farm in Belize. The most regrettable aspect of the destruction taking place at the Nova compound in Ladyville, is what it did in dismantling as fine a team of workers as anywhere in this country – tried and proven, trained and tested, resourceful and dedicated – indeed, the last managing director, American Jeff Fort, expressed his earnest commitment to do all in his power to raise the necessary funds to re-activate the operation, following the bankruptcy proceedings, and to re-call the entire team of workers laid off on that fateful day of closure in January of 2007.

Our army generals are good at what they do. I don’t fault them for their method of employment. I sympathize with their apparent insensitivity to how much thought, how much energy and planning went into every detail of the many varied operational modules that they have so casually crushed and discarded. They saw a lot of equipment, buildings and machinery – just another failed company. They cannot fully appreciate the ingenuity, as well as the expertise and dedication, that went into the various building and mechanical structures that they have casually destroyed. Building, a famous political leader once said, is a task for giants. Building a nation is not the same as defending it, and nowhere near as easy as destroying it. Our generals are not to be blamed for their limited appreciation of this fact. But unfortunately it is a lesson that some of our political leaders also are apparently yet to learn.

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