Matalon: a passion to serve, a commitment to Jamaica

New chairman of the RJRGLEANER Communications Group, Joseph Mayer Matalon, assumed leadership of the listed group on May 1. Joe M., as he is also known, lists among his hobbies a love for public-sector policy work, that has seen him lead major review panels and committees that have advised Jamaican governments over many years, on matters related to tax reform, economic policy and business development.

Kingston-born Matalon, who turned 60 on March 13, and whose substantive day job is chairman of the diversified ICD Group Limited, describes himself as a Jamaican, a family man, a bit of a policy wonk, and an avid player of table tennis. The latter activity, he reveals, provides for him a necessary workout four to five times per week from the convenience of his garage at home.

Born into a family for whom voluntary national service was always natural and important, Matalon’s voluntary public-sector engagements have spanned many years from the 1980s to the present, leading tax reform committees of the 1980s, the General Consumption Tax (GCT) Committee of 1991, the tax structure examination of 2003-2004, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) private-sector working group on tax reform, the government’s incentives working group that proposed the fiscal incentives legislation of 2014 that rationalised corporate tax rates, employer tax credit and changes in capital allowances.

Central figure

Matalon was a central figure in the work of the Energy Sector Enterprise Team (ESET) that piloted the introduction of natural gas into Jamaica’s energy mix. Following his groundbreaking work with ESET, he was asked to take on the chairmanship of the Office of Utilities Regulation, a capacity in which he has served for the past three years.

“People tell me I am extraordinarily passionate about Jamaica. It is that passion that drives my involvement on the public sector side,” Matalon told The Gleaner in an interview on the eve of his assumption of leadership of the group, replacing the Hon Oliver Clarke.

Committed to helping the youth
It is his passion about Jamaica that fuels Joseph Mayer Matalon’s motivation and commitment to providing social and economic opportunities for young people of Jamaica’s inner-city communities to achieve their potential and surpass their greatest dreams. This explains his long association with the Youth Upliftment Through Employment programme, which he founded, and its 2014 merger with the ICD-led MultiCare Youth Foundation, which began in 1993 with endowments from ICD, Cable and Wireless Jamaica and the Caribbean Cement Company.

Social responsibility

His sense of social responsibility extended to the West Kingston-based, people-focused St Patrick’s Foundation – for which he was founding chairman. There he worked alongside the late Monsignor Richard Albert in 1994 to improve the lives of citizens in several western Kingston communities. His work in providing educational opportunities, skills training, mentoring, apprenticeship and cultural expression for young people led to an invitation for Matalon to join the board of the United States-based International Youth Foundation (IYF), where he has served as a director for some seven years. He is currently vice-chairman of the IYF, which does youth development work in about 160 countries.

His selfless community and national service includes a 12-year stint as chairman of St Andrew-based Hillel Academy, an international preparatory and high school; a position he relinquished in September last year.

A believer in family, immediate family for Joe M. consists of Tracy, his wife of 26 years, son 33-year-old Mayer Joseph, and daughter, Ali, 24, who graduates later this month from Columbia University in the United States with a master’s degree in public administration. Matalon is thankful for the blessing of the close relationship his family enjoys, and he describes his wife as a central figure in his life and the 26-year-old partnership they share. There is a larger extended family circle of kinship involving the family of his four sibling sisters (he being the only son of Mayer and Sarita Matalon) and the families of his father’s six bothers and four sisters – the children of Joseph and Florizel Matalon.

The businessman believes that family and family life are central to development of young people with both parents having the responsibility to be role models for the successful and balanced development of their children. “The limited role models they have is, for me, the most serious factor in trying to address the issues of at-risk youth,” he reflects.

Focused on Entrepreneurship
Joseph Mayer Matalon has a keen interest in entrepreneurship and encouraging what he describes as the ecosystem that supports the growth of entrepreneurial activities in Jamaica. This interest has been fuelled, no doubt, not only by his decades of hands-on experience at all levels of business, but also his years of providing mentorship, work and skills training to young people who have demonstrated the desire to succeed in their own businesses.

Converting this passion into tangible action, Matalon has served as chairman of the Development Bank of Jamaica, raising and channelling funding to micro, small and medium-sized companies. He is also a founder and a continuing investor in Jamaica’s first venture capital network, the FirstAngels Jamaica, of which is he chairman.

“I have invested in most of the entities that have been funded by FirstAngels,” he notes.

He declares himself a believer in the power of entrepreneurship.

“My experience is that Jamaicans tend to be highly entrepreneurial in their outlook and I don’t think that has entirely been encouraged in the past,” he states.

With many of Jamaica’s entrepreneurs having left the country over the years, the planned resurgence of an entrepreneurial class in Jamaica is among Matalon’s dreams. It is that entrepreneurial activity, he is convinced, that is going to drive high levels of economic growth from innovation in the economy, business growth and job creation.

He notes that: “Mega projects can help (the) economy from year to year, but if you want to define what kind of engine the economy has, to my mind, one of the most important parts of that engine is entrepreneurial activities, and young people with new and innovative ideas actually bringing those to market in terms of minimum viable products and services to sell locally and globally.”

With a strong belief that Jamaica can be developed into the entrepreneurial hub for the region and the western hemisphere, Matalon knows a thing or two about the subject. An economist by training, he has worked as a financial analyst for large multinational company Alcoa. In 1984, he made his financial skills available to the family business that had been built from a modest pharmaceutical distributor in 1945 to a sprawling conglomerate by the 1980s. Born from the pooling of modest hard-earned resources by patriarch Joseph Matalon’s 11 children, Commodity Service Company Limited grew into ICD Group with holdings in pharmaceutical and dry goods distribution, pharmacy and restaurant operations, biscuit manufacturing and distribution, dairy and milk production, concrete-making, construction and housing development, grain and feed import, supermarket business, car dealership, appliance and furniture retailing, among others. In 1986, Joe M. spearheaded the group’s entry into financial services.

Standing firm at crisis time
During the era of massive devaluation of the Jamaican dollar and runaway interest rates of the 1990s, it fell to Joseph M. Matalon’s business acumen, emotional resilience and fortitude to steer ICD Group through the turbulence of high US-dollar denominated financing debt.

He oversaw the rationalisation of the group through the sale of several business lines, concentration on core activities and investment in new modern and emerging enterprises with more than 50 per cent of the group’s earnings now flowing from cutting edge businesses with a global reach. The new-look ICD Group now has a portfolio spanning construction, distribution, e-commerce, insurance and risk management, logistics and technology, business process outsourcing and property management.

It is with this formidable business and service background that the former PSOJ president for three terms ascends to the chairmanship of the RJRGLEANER Communications Group, having served as a director of the group since 2016 and member of the board of 1834 Investments Limited, formerly The Gleaner Company Limited, since 1987.

Chairman Matalon is clear that the media has a very important role to play in society and in securing Jamaica’s democracy. For him, Jamaica’s enviable record of press freedom is a tribute to many individuals and groups who have worked to promote the benefits of a free press and protect that freedom from control by government or by any one commercial interest group.

“Truth matters. Traditional media needs to cultivate the balance and be not just a source of commentary but also a source of facts,” he says in sharing his perspective on the industry.

With the media entity being regarded as more than a commercial enterprise, Matalon says past and future investments in the business must be seen in the context of a double or triple bottom line. He makes clear that the company must be financially viable and sustainable in order to remain relevant as a guardian of freedoms. He is optimistic that despite the many challenges and disruptions in the industry, including falling advertising revenues across all media, the board and management of the RJRGLEANER Group will carry out the innovations and changes required for financial and broader mission success.

Very committed

“We have a very vibrant management team and people who are very committed to their trade,” he says.

The new chairman has singled out investments in editorial and entertainment content as being critical to the success of the business. The board, he explains, recognises that content is the lifeblood and engine of the business requiring appropriate investments to sustain credibility.

Matalon describes former group chairmen Oliver Clarke and Lester Spaulding as being among the primary champions of press freedom and democracy in Jamaica. He salutes them as visionaries and giants of the industry. The new chairman is committed in leading a team that is motivated in honouring the legacy of these pioneers.

As he leads the current phase of the group’s journey, what are some of the factors that have contributed to Joseph M. Matalon’s success in business and continued leadership in corporate world that has earned him the national award of Order of Distinction Commander Class (CD) and induction into the PSOJ Hall of Fame in 2018?

“I have always been a reasonably driven individual. I work hard. I think I try to come to whatever issue I may be dealing with, having an open, enquiring mind,” he responds.

“People are the building blocks of any organisation. Recruiting, retaining the right kind of talent with values and value systems that are consistent with those of the particular organisation are key to success,” he adds.

“I am not a person who has the ambition to simply accumulate more and more wealth. Something has to motivate you beyond that. Whether an innate desire to create or to be of service. I think that is what drives the best organisational leaders,” Joe M. says, providing a glimpse into the personal philosophy of a business titan who is committed to Jamaica and wedded to the concept of service to country.

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