Carita Jamaica survives and thrives through Hilton’s hard work.
Rita Hilton has been around long enough to appreciate the journey.
The managing director of Carita Jamaica Ltd. has been with the company since it was first registered and has seen every step of the process that’s taken it from a one-person operation with $20,000 in annual sales to a team of more than two dozen employees and revenues measured in the millions of dollars.
“The produce business is not an easy business, it’s full of challenges,” she said. “And having survived to this point is quite a feat. There was a gut feeling that this was the right way to go.”
Her personal path actually began in the classroom as a teacher, but she ultimately found herself between careers and seeking a reliable and independent source of income. An acquaintance in the produce business told her there was a need for Jamaican-grown products in New York, and Hilton quickly immersed herself in behind-the-scenes research to investigate the available possibilities.
Ultimately, she used her expertise in geography to study the nuances of the export market, then turned to the charisma and comfort developed from her school days to sway others toward the business.
The company name, in fact, blends the company’s home region – Caribbean – with her name.
“I felt that I could motivate, stimulate and also train people to do the job I wanted to do,” Hilton said.
“I asked a lot of questions and I did a lot of footwork. Money at that time was a big challenge because financing was not available to women on their own merits, they had to have a male figure co-signing loans and co-signing financial arrangements. But I managed to persuade my way and get myself on my feet. It was not easy and I did a lot of the tasks myself.”
Today’s operation features 30 employees working out of a warehouse facility in Kingston that’s owned by the Jamaican government. The government had been directly involved in buying and ultimately exporting fresh produce from small farmers on the island, but that business incurred large debts and was eventually halted, which made the warehouse available for rentals to private produce traders.
Carita Jamaica now works out of 4,500 square feet, Hilton said, though expansion is imminent and necessary thanks to the burgeoning nature of the business. In fact, she said, a lot of interest comes in without solicitation, simply because it has been around so long and developed such a solid reputation.
“Customers come to us,” she said. “They look us up and say this is a company that has been trading a long time and has longevity and it has a history.”
The company deals with wholesalers to guide it on what products are needed in the marketplace from season to season, and Hilton said relationships have been established with clients as far flung as New York, London and Toronto, as well as Miami, Atlanta and Houston.
Carita Jamaica will participate in a trade show event this year in Houston and Atlanta, and has near-term plans to expand its product line beyond fresh produce to include frozen items and Jamaican natural teas.
“We’re trying to spread beyond the diaspora and ethnic markets, and that is why we are looking at new areas,” she said. “We do have a link into an upscale market, which is the DeKalb (Farmers) Market in Atlanta, and we need to strengthen that relationship. We want to see first-hand what the customers’ needs are.”
The positive vibe that’s attached worldwide to nearly all things Jamaican doesn’t hurt either.
“Jamaica has such a tremendous brand,” Hilton said.
“And Jamaica is so known for athletics, music, its food; the only way to go is up to capitalize on that platform. I think there’s a definite advantage to products emanating from Jamaica.”
Of course, doing business on the island is not without its challenges, too.
She said multiple layers of bureaucracy and the accompanying red tape is a perpetual challenge to any domestic operation doing business internationally, as are security problems created by the fear of drug contamination and exorbitantly high energy rates compared to the rest of the Caribbean.
“It makes doing business in Jamaica vey uncompetitive,” Hilton said. “So you really need to be sharp and be able to be innovative to deal with these challenges.”
The company’s facilities have passed initial tests required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and it follows requirements as laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well, so it’s now in the process of developing links to local farmers who can provide products to those specifications.
Most of Carita Jamaica’s business is with the United States and Canada, though a greater export footprint across Europe is a prime objective. As well as boosting the company’s profile domestically through outreach within its home territory.
“There’s a whole new world for us to expand into and we are very much looking forward to that,” Hilton said. “My objective is to get a lot of community involvement in our business. I am very seriously concerned with raising the standard of living of rural communities and empowering them. This will the s contribute to the recovery of the national economy – because Jamaica has such a wide range of natural products. We are just not reaching the potential that this country has in terms of exports.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Carita Jamaica Ltd.
WHAT: Distributor of fresh produce and processed foods, including pepper, yam, breadfruit, ackee, callaloo, soups and juices
WHERE: Corporate headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica
PREFERRED PARTNERS: March Pac Ltd.