Features — 02 March 2007 — by Adele Ramos
Septuagenarians, Mr. Karl Menzies and his wife, Mrs. Dorothy Menzies, have a fascinating story to tell. Their paths crossed while they worked in the 1960’s at the British Honduras Distributors in the old capital, Belize City. Both had been married previously to other people, but Karl said that he always gets what he wants, and when he told Dorothy that he was going to have her—he was dead serious.
Perhaps it is this same strong-willed nature that has made him a successful businessman, starting from selling loads of horse and mule dung at a penny a cart. He also sold the okras and flowers that he grew from the unsold portions of his find.
He started this venture at age 8, when he was still attending St. Ignatius School. He finished primary school at the age of 11 and never furthered his schooling. On the other hand, he marks this as the point where his true education began.
A year later, because of the separation of his parents, he went to live in Stann Creek Town. He had continued his manure venture until then, and it was with the money he had saved from his earnings that he was able to pay his passage to ride aboard the Sarawee vessel. Karl said that he ran away to his mom because his dad, Edwin Owen Menzies, wanted to give him a beating that he did not think he deserved.
His mom, Elna Henrietta Menzies, was a seamstress, and they barely survived on her income. Their midday meal, says Karl, often came from the Holy Family Convent; sometimes there was no food at all.
Even during these hard times, he said, his mom made him save half of what he earned every week.
Karl found work in Dangriga at the Agricultural Station (called the Ag Stag). His elder brother had left him his old bicycle, and that is what he used to ride 9 miles to Ag Stag, where he earned 30 cents a day. But one Christmas, his mom was broke and so he sold the bicycle for $7.50 and gave her the money.
Because of this, he had to camp out at the worksite all week, surviving on the powder buns and Johnny cakes his mom used to make. Sometimes he and his buddies would walk back home at the end of the week, the whole 9 miles, to save the 15 cents they would have to pay for passage.
One day Karl’s father went to pay them a visit in Stann Creek, and to his disappointment found him barefoot. Karl said that his dad gave him $1 to buy a pair of tennis shoes, and he told him he could come back home any time he was ready. But he would not give him any passage money. Instead, he was to tell Mr. Hunter, who owned the Heron H vessel, when he was ready to leave, and dad would settle the bill later.
His dad also promised to fix two of his front teeth that had bad cavities. Karl said that they had had it so hard at home, they sometimes had to brush their teeth with ashes and salt.
So Karl returned to Belize City at 14, and he began to repair bicycles to earn money. He later got a job with the Government’s telephone department working for $10.50 a month, but he quit when he was “jumped” for a promotion. He became a common laborer for a while, and then a friend of his who was a pilot, invited him to be his right hand. That relationship ended when the friend got sick, but the friend’s elder brother pointed him to a job at John Harley’s and Co. At Harley’s, Karl Menzies began working as a grocery clerk. That was 1945. He was 17 and earning $5 a week, $3 of which he sent to his mother in Stann Creek.
Around this time, Dorothy, whom Karl had not yet met, was off in England. She had attended the former St. Hilda’s College in Belize City, which was a shining institution in her time. She had told her parents that she was interested in nursing, and so when her father, Robert Gabourel, whose lineage is English, got his vacation, he and his wife, Helen Anderson, took Dorothy there.
She started out at a cottage hospital, Weybridge Surrey, at the age of 17. She was terribly homesick but she stuck it out until 1962, when she returned home to Belize. She has not left to live abroad since.
Dorothy Menzies said that she was glad she returned to Belize when she did, because her dad died two and a half years later, and she was happy to have spent that time with her father.
Before her return home, she had had surgery in England and could not work in Belize until 6 months after.
Instead of settling back into the field of nursing, however, she went to work at TAN Airlines. British Honduras Distributors were the agents. She enjoyed her job there, especially because it allowed her to practice her Spanish. The owners in Honduras decided they would take over the airline agency and run it themselves. She worked at Distributors, when she met Karl, up until 1967, then left to work with her first husband, who had his own business. She had a daughter with him named Stephanie Jenkins.
Around the same time Karl was preparing to open his own business. He had fallen in love with commerce when he began working at Harley’s, where he slowly grew into a man. Within weeks of working there, he realized that he loved to be in commerce, and he has continued in that field ever since. He realized, however, that it would mean hard work and dedication.
At the age of 21, he had been placed in charge of the warehouse. He said that when he became traveling salesman, he doubled what his predecessor did. By this time, he was married and had had three children with his first wife, who was pregnant with their fourth.
The sales manager of British Honduras Distributors met him one day and offered him $125 a week, but he was already earning $200 at Harley’s. Karl said that he left because he realized that with the division between staff at Harley’s, things were not going to last. People said he was crazy for taking the plunge in salary.
But when Hurricane Hattie destroyed Harley’s in 1961, he was earning $337 a month as the first local sales manager for British Honduras Distributors. He said that he was the one responsible for pushing Heineken, for which BH Distributors was the agent, in the local market, and earning it a bigger market share. This substantially increased company profits, he added.
It was a subsequent job offer that opened the door for him to branch off into his own business enterprise. Hofius had offered him a job, but the offer was a joke, said Menzies. They came back six months later with an offer double their original offer, and he resigned from BH Distributors to take the job at Hofius.
He said that when he told Heineken he was leaving, they responded that if Menzies doesn’t take the distributorship of the product with him, they would move their product to a different agent. They also suggested that if Menzies was willing to open up his own business, they would let him keep the distributorship of Heineken. So it was that on October 2, 1969, he opened his own business with bank and credit union loans.
According to Menzies, he had been saving at HRCU since 1957, starting with a dollar a week and he never drew from his savings. When he went in for a loan, they offered him twice what he had, without security, because of his track record. He also got a $50,000 overdraft from the Bank of Nova Scotia after detailing his business proposal to the bank manager.
But again, people laughed at him, because he left a comfortable job to run his own business, doing most of the donkeywork himself.
He was 41 years old then, and he does not regret the move he made. Karl says that it has made a lot of difference being on his own. When managing someone else’s business, you are scared to make decisions and take certain risks because you don’t want to lose money.
In April 1970, Dorothy left her husband’s business to work with Karl, who had been her boss at British Honduras Distributors. Another lady by the name of Evelyn Pascacio has worked with Karl’s business since its inception, and is currently in charge of the warehouse even past her age of retirement.
Karl Menzies said that he was his own traveling salesman and his own bill collector. Dorothy made his sandwiches for his road trips and stayed back to run the business.
In 1971, their daughter, Kay, was born. Meanwhile, their business continued to progress. They built their own building in 1973 and moved over in 1974. They lived upstairs and worked downstairs. This meant that while Kay grew up, she could be close to both her parents.
Business was a challenge, because the market was changing. The Menzies couple knew that the Barry Bowen brewery was coming on stream, so they had to diversify away from being Heineken distributors and get into trading other products – cheeses, condensed milk and sardines, etc. were among the ideas they explored. Today, Karl H. Menzies is the agent for a number of high quality paints and hardware, and they have kept their original beer brand.
Apart from being heavily involved in their business, the couple has also been engaged in social work.
Mrs. Dorothy Menzies said that in early 1980’s, Ms. Emma Boiton asked her to serve on the board of Gwen Lizarraga Girls Home, then on Frederick Street. The home eventually had to close down, but in 1991 she was asked to serve on the board of another children’s home, which later came to carry her name—the Dorothy Menzies Child Care Center. She has also been a long-serving member of the board, which she has chaired.
Dorothy Menzies is very concerned that the children have been outgrowing the place and even with recent expansions and tens of thousands of dollars in investment – a large part of that from her own resources – the space continues to be inadequate to meet their needs. Dorothy says that much of her time is spent getting donations from both foreign and local patrons, whose trust she has earned.
Her greatest pleasure is seeing those children adopted into a good home, getting an excellent education, and making something of themselves.
She has not done much in the field of nursing, except for when her husband is ill. She is the one who nursed him back to health after multiple surgeries, and he feels blessed to have had her in those times of agony.
Karl is now on retirement, and while he sits on the board of his business, his daughter, Kay, 35, is running the show for him.
Meanwhile, he continues to serve in a number of capacities. He is the chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission; the long-standing president of the National 4 H Council, which he has served for 40 years; a member of the advisory council of the Protected Areas Conservation and Trust (PACT), and president of the Holy Redeemer Credit Union. He said that he has served his country in 26 different capacities.
In 2003, Karl Menzies was presented with the Meritorious Service Award in the annual Tribute to Belizean Patriots. He has been a justice of the peace for 27 years and was appointed a Commissioner of the Supreme Court in 1979.
The couple’s passion continues to be the young people whom they want to encourage to help themselves – Dorothy through the child care center and Karl through 4H.
Karl, a self-made businessman, believes in saving towards one’s financial goals, as well as learning to earn. It is a lesson that his life story exemplifies – and his success and even his ability to continue that mission today could not exist without the important role that his wife has played in the process. Karl had nothing but appreciative words to express how he feels about the positive impact she had had in his life.