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Business View Caribbean interviews Urban Wilson, Managing Director of Wilrock Limited, for our focus on Resiliency and Business Excellence in St. Lucia.
Literally providing the building blocks for the road to development, family-owned Wilrock Limited is a leading purveyor of first-class stone products and concrete. From its quarry and processing facilities at Saphyr Estate, Laborie, St. Lucia, Wilrock supplies Screened Aggregates, Concrete Blocks, Ready Mix Concrete, Filter Stone, and Armor Stone to customers throughout the Caribbean. The firm is well- recognized for providing the best quality of service and materials, embracing innovation and use of the latest technology to meet all international standards.
Urban Wilson, Managing Director of Wilrock Limited, and his brother, Gilbert, Operations Director, are at the helm of the family quarry business that is in its 1st generation of exemplary service on St. Lucia. Business View Magazine recently spoke with Urban to glean his insights on the construction sector in the Caribbean and how Wilrock is positioning itself for the future. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: How long has your family been in the quarry business in St. Lucia?
Wilson: “The land was originally owned by my grandfather, who passed it on to my father, who then passed it on to us. So, it’s been in the family for three generations. Around 1992, I decided to proceed with the quarry business because there was an emerging opportunity in the Caribbean. From the onset, Wilrock was designed to export to markets outside St. Lucia because we are located in a very quiet part of the island with little economic activity.
“We work with barging companies for exports. We mine and process in the quarry and then transport to a port facility we operate in the nearby town of Vieux Fort. We mainly export to Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, but we have shipped to many other countries – St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, as far as Montserrat and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’re like a buffer. Whenever the demand outweighs the supply for individual countries, that’s where we come in – to complement the moments when the other countries cannot supply a quality material for their work. For example, Trinidad does not have a quality aggregate, and Guyana has quality aggregate but insufficient supply.
“Our big selling point is our quality. We mine basalt rock and we produce anything from zero millimeters to 15 unit tons. One of our main sellers is armor rock, which is used for coastal protection and sea defense. It’s a strong area for us in terms of competitive advantage over any quarry in the region. We have that strength, so we can proudly say we are the best in the Caribbean when it comes to armor sea defense.”
BVM: What products and custom solutions do you offer customers?
Wilson: We own about 50 acres of rock, rising to 150 meters above seal level. It’s a very dense and hard rock, so it involves drilling and blasting, which we do as we get market opportunities. Our business includes one mining site and two locations where we sell product. Along with the quarry, we have a manufacturing process where the rock (the raw material) is converted to various sizes. We process crushed aggregate for road construction and concrete, and armor stone for coastal protection, but we can produce any aggregate required in the construction industry. That’s another of our strengths. Included in our business, we also do concrete, and we own and operate a block-making facility.
“Many times, especially for the export market, when the difficulties arise in their respective countries, they come to us. We are the ones that generally come in to intervene and ensure delivery of projects from time to time. It’s not rocket science, but it is a science, that construction companies have to comply with certain project specifications. So, we come in when the local supplier of a country can’t deliver.
“Basically, it’s an ongoing business where, from time to time, different locations will have to protect their coastline. It varies, some years are better than others. Most of our work is for private companies. And we don’t get involved in contracting, ourselves. We’re a supplier. We work with construction companies and private firms. They come to us because of our reputation in the industry.
“Right now, we have reached all the markets we can possibly access. We are known on almost every Caribbean island as an alternate source and have had inquiries as far down as Surinam but anywhere beyond Montserrat I don’t think we can economically supply. Being a member of the St. Lucia Manufacturers Association is also a benefit for keeping our name out there.”
BVM: Being a family business, is succession planning on the agenda?
Wilson: “Presently we have 64 employees. My brother, Gilbert, and I are in direct management of the company, and two other brothers play a supporting role. As for the next generation, our future objective is for succession planning. It may not necessarily remain a family-operated company. That’s the vision I’m working on – how to reposition the company beyond our life span. We might have to diversify, maybe into real estate, that sort of thing. We have a next generation of family members in the business, however sometimes it’s necessary to go beyond family to attract the best talent for sustained growth.
“We have a philosophy of trying to keep workers motivated in order to avoid changing faces often hence we strive to give the workers a sense of stability and a sense of ownership in what’s happening. This implies that most of our staff has been with us more than six years. We give them a stable source of income. There are good days and bad days, because we are still sort of in a recession, but we try to keep the workforce together with minimal disturbance to the employment.”
BVM: What are the biggest challenges in today’s construction environment?
Wilson: “Honestly, the biggest challenge is getting paid for your product and getting the value for what you do. Coming from a small island operation, you have to work harder to convince the market that you have the capacity and capability. We have been able to supply some of the largest projects in the Caribbean notwithstanding the challenges we have faced. We’re trying to continue to inspire confidence that we are the better ones to deal with. We’ve done some marketing however our interface with many consultant firms and construction companies over the years has been our main source of referral for new business.
“Another challenge is a shortage of quality workers on the island, hence the reason we try to keep those we know. Our industry is not a ‘sexy’ one therefore it doesn’t attract the best talent. This is why we’ve tried to create a stable work environment to slowly attract the quality of employee we that can help grow the business. It’s a fact that here and around the world, there is a problem of attracting talented people in the mining industry.”
BVM: What are the future objectives for Wilrock?
Wilson: “Well, the construction sector fluctuates however the business we’re in is the essence of the industry. There is no construction without aggregate therefore once there is construction going on in a country there are avenues for business. We’ve positioned ourselves for regional business, and we are equipped and ready to serve any opportunities that arise.
“As far as the quarry property, itself, the long-term plan is for some sort of restoration. The land may be used for possible recreational activities or a unique construction project. For example, there was a luxury hotel built in China on a retired quarry, so there may be other possibilities as the years elapse. Generally speaking, because of the difficulty of getting proper solid waste disposal sites, quarries tend to be the preferred location for landfill on small islands. It could go either way, so we’ll look for the best opportunity at the time.
“The most important point about Wilrock, today, is that we continue to develop a reputation of dependability and quality in the region. That’s our mainstay. We also do our fair share of philanthropy. We don’t seek approbation for it, but we do support the community very well. The Laborie Steel Band here engages a lot of young people, from the age of five and up, into steel band music. We give them full support. I always try to support the youth – in schools, community groups, wherever and whenever we can, and that will continue in the future.”
Check out this handpicked feature on The JQ Charles Group of Companies – St. Lucia .
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Wilrock Limited
WHAT: Family-owned quarry and supplier of quality aggregates, boulders, and concrete
WHERE: Saphyr Estate Laborie, St. Lucia