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“Looking at the Waterfront some nights ago, with the lighting, I thought what a magnificent structure. It has changed the landscape of this country. Whatever else he did, he did that,” mused Jearlean John, who was confirmed as the chairman of the Urban Development Corporation of T&T last week.
She was referring to the man she replaced, Calder Hart. She remarked that Hart’s legacy is evident in the multi-storeyed, glass-walled buildings that have transformed the capital city in the past 10 years— an enviable feat in spite of the allegations of Udecott’s mismanagement and corruption. It was 4 pm last Monday evening, and in between planning for a key-presentation ceremony the following day at Union Hall, John had agreed to speak with the Business Guardian. John, who admits to being married to her job and “extremely disciplined” at that, is also the chief executive of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). She’d thought the interview would take 10 minutes but eventually stopped checking time. It took about 45 minutes. The returning chairman acknowledged that compared to the “looming figure” of Hart, she is a petite 5 feet 2” and had a say-it-like-she-sees-it personality.
But John is unique—she’s the only People’s National Movement (PNM) appointed chairman to be re-appointed to that position.Why? The questions being asked are: did she play the politics well or did the People’s Partnership, in this instance, choose the person for the job with the best skill set?
Well, as she sees it, she’s committed to work which has earned her the confidence of her line Ministers: Roodal Moonilal, the Minister of Housing and the Environment and Senator Mary King, the Minister of Planning, Economic and Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs. “It was an opportunity to be part of the development of T&T in a real sense,” she told the Buiness Guardian. Launched on December 28, 1994, Udecott managed more than 39 construction and restoration projects worth more than $4 billion.
Despite Hart’s exit, Udecott is still synonymous with him, the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) and the year-long Commission of Enquiry which revealed allegations of impropriety and bad governance. Hart was asked to resign after it was alleged that a company called CH Development—which appeared to have close family ties to his wife, Sherrine Hart—received a construction project contract valued at $320 million. John’s job now is to do to Udecott what Steve Jobs did to Apple.
It’s that simple. Jobs transformed Apple, then just a computer company, into a billion-dollar enterprise with innovative products like the the Ipod, Iphone and Ipad. With a smile, she admits, she doesn’t possess about one per cent of the talent that Jobs possess but it’s not bad shoes to follow. “Work is work to me, work is not a status symbol.”
King told the newly-appointed board—which includes a criminal lawyer, architect, accountant and financial manager— that they needed to regain the confidence of the public. King committed Udecott to being a fully accountable entity and furnished the board with the Companies Act, the Integrity in Public Life Act and the State Enterprise Monitoring Manual. She encouraged board members to immediately declare conflicts of interests, which hasn’t always happened at Udecott, to ensure transparency. The time has come for Udecott to move on, says John.
John was first appointed chairman of Udecott in April 2010. After a month and a half on the job, a general election were called. She’d barely had time to settle in. That, she said, wasn’t enough to get her mind around the intricacies of the organisation as there were no chief executive or chief operating officer to help transition her in. Hart, who was executive chairman and chief executive, had resigned and left the country and Neelanda Rampaul, the COO, had followed suit. “I really wasn’t given specific directives. But you knew what the organisation needed at that time. You had people who really needed that sense of direction,” she said. John’s reception then was greeted with scepticism in the publicity-bruised state company. “Obviously they were not happy. As a corporation, they would have been the subject of envy. They were getting all the prestige projects and now their names were literally in shambles. There was low morale, a lot of confusion because everything had happened so quickly. The chairman was here today and gone tomorrow,” she recalled.
The “walking on eggshells” phase soon passed after elections were called. “During the period of elections you don’t really do too much or take too many decisions that are material,” she said. After the People’s Partnership victory, John viewed her role solely as caretaker until a new board was in place. She admitted that not much has or could have been done without a board. “I took a back seat and allowed the new minister to get to understand Udecott. As fate would have it, I was asked to be on this board. I am really delighted at that opportunity.” “Udecott is not only about large buildings. Udecott was created to help with the build-up of this country. I believe there’s is a lot in the energy of the people which can be harnessed and projected.”
Shortly after the People’s Partnership came into power, Justice Minister Herbert Volney was tasked with implementing Professor Uff’s 92 recommendations. Volney explained to the Business Guardian that the Uff report was not a criminal probe. “All the Uff report served to do was direct the Government to areas where a criminal probe might uncover malfeasance or wrong doing,” he said. Volney said he secured the opinions of two Queens Counsel: David Williams and Allan Newman and a small ministerial team is looking to advise the Government. From them, the Cabinet will advise on the next steps. “We are not chasing shadows. If the Cabinet suspect there is a possible criminal probe, it will follow or pursue,” he said.
Udecott is illiquid.
The company last published any form of financial statement, their half year results in 2008, which put their profit at $24 million up from 16 million in 2007. The new board, which meets on Friday, will have to examine three years: 2008, 2009, 2010 financials. John explained that monies are owed to Udecott by several ministries. But the company also has debts to pay. Udecott financed its operations through bonds and a budgetary allocation through the Infrastructure Development Fund. No allocation was made in the 2011 fiscal year. She explained that, in many instances, Udecott’s invoices were not honoured. “The permanent secretaries, who were the accounting officers of these ministries, were unwilling to release the funds because they not satisfied with the information Udecott presented. So they keep asking Udecott for additional information in an effort to satisfy whatever criteria they have based on their regulations,” she told the Business Guardian. “Their books would have a lot of money. They have a lot of receiveables but they’re not liquid. It’s an illiquid company,” stated John.
Among the company’s follies, she said, Udecott raised financing (bonds) on its own which put debt on their books. On January 18, 2006 Udecott floated a $192 million, 12-year bond which was oversubscribed, attracting approximately $288.9 million in bids. “One doesn’t know what the resolution is: whether there will be a refinancing or the ministries will be allocated funds to clear their debt.”
The Government, she said, will have to honour the bonds. How do you begin to make Udecott profitable, asked the Business Guardian. “Udecott was profitable before. It owns the Hyatt which is profitable,” she observed. “You really have to change the way Udecott does their business because Udecott didn’t own anything. Udecott was project manager. They managed on behalf of government ministries and state organisations. These organisations were like, I need to get this, based on whatever vision and Udecott will build. What Udecott did not do is secure where the fortune was coming from in that sense. So Udecott would have started the project and then find themselves struggling and got engaged in all sorts of expensive sorts of financing. That was part of the major problem of Udecott.”
Udecott has several projects on the drawing board; many still incomplete and buildings to be furnished.
“A lot of money has already been spent so I have not been given any mandate to stop, as such, but whether you start up will be a function of liquidity,” she said. John believes all Udecott’s buildings will be utilised as Government’s rental bill is too high. In HDC’s South Quay offices, the Government pays $500,000 a month, she said. “They will be utilised. They were built for Customs, Immigration and Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Legal Affairs etc. I have no doubt in my mind that Trinidad is open for business. It’s all a matter of marketing and provisioning. There will be people coming to Trinidad looking for spaces to rent. “Any building can be renamed, as long as it’s an office. But take, for example, the San Fernando Performing Academy, that would have been built in a particular way for acoustic, change room and so on. Based on the advanced nature of the work you won’t be able to change it to anything else unless you choose to do so at the cost to the taxpayers.”
She said in the past eight months, on-going projects have been significantly scaled down.
But the organisation was not stagnant. “They had facilities to manage like parkades etc so they kept doing that. You wouldn’t be making any material decisions because you didn’t want to interfere with any new boards. When the new board came in, they had a clear path on which they can run.”
The board agenda would be to sort out the “financial conundrum” and begin work again.
John pointed out that Udecott was tasked to build the new hospitals: the Arima Hospital, Point Fortin Hospital, Sangre Grande Hospital and they have already acquired and vested lands in Udecott.
Jearlean John: chairman
Zabar Mohammed Baksh: deputy chairman
Dr Victoria Phillips-Jerome
Brian Anthony Lewis
Real Spring Housing Development, Valsayn
Scarborough Financial Complex
Social Infrastructural Projects
Hospitals: Arima Hospital, National Oncology Centre, Point Fortin Hospital, Sangre Grande Hospital
Police Stations: Arima, Besson Street, Brasso, Cumuto, Guapo, La Brea, Maloney, Maracas, Matelot, Mathura, Moruga, Old Grange, Oropouche, Piarco, Roxborough, St Clair, St Joseph
Other: Coast Guard Facility, Tobago, Hart’s Cut facility, National Air Guard, St James Barracks
Core Infrastructural Projects
Port of Port of Spain
Arts Culture & Sports
Brian Lara Cricket Stadium ( 98 per cent complete)
La Horquetta Pan Theatre
National Academy for the Performing Arts (South Campus)
Tuco Convalescence Home
Arima Borough Corporation Complex
Chaguanas Regional Corporation Complex
Diego Martin Regional Administrative Complex
Restoration and Refurbishment Works
Knowsley Building Restoration
Mille Fleurs Estate, Queen’s Park Savannah
Cove Business and Industrial Park
Crown Point International Project
Scarborough Integrated Master Plan
Sea Lots Multi-Storey Car Park
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