Lunch express with… David Kirkaldy

Now in his final couple of weeks as the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce president, David Kirkaldy sat down over lunch at Agave Grill to discuss his year at the Chamber’s helm, the difficulties in running a business in today’s economic climate and his knack for making eye contact when people are looking for volunteers to head up one organisation or another.  

 

David Kirkaldy is an early riser these days. He gets up at 4:45am and exercises, goes through e-mails and reads.  

Once every four days, it’s also his turn in the rotation to drive his daughter Taylor and her three friends to swimming lessons that begin at 5.30am. On the drive to the pool, he talks to the children, who range in age from 11 to 14.  

“I tell them, ‘You guys are doing something. I guarantee almost all of your friends right now, while you’re on your way to a physical activity and have to be focused, are asleep’.” 

He says he tells them that a commonality among a lot of successful people – academically and professionally – is self-discipline and getting up early, both of which are required in the swim programme. It’s a self-discipline Kirkaldy didn’t have a pre-tertiary student, but it’s come since then. 

 

Agave Grill  

Every town has hole-in-the-wall eateries of some sort that are mostly unknown to visitors but loved by locals. 

Agave Grill is one of those places. 

With it’s location in a steel building at the edge of Cayman’s industrial park, it looks more like a place to buy construction materials than it does to get a good meal. 

But looks can be deceiving – the proof of the enchilada is in the taste – and that’s where Agave Grill excels.  

When I told Kirkaldy we’d be having lunch at Agave Grill, he was pleased. He likes the restaurant and it’s conveniently close to his office. But he doesn’t necessarily get there often. 

“I remember this place when I have somebody in town and you don’t want to go to the usual places,” he said. “I love the fact that it’s so small and there is such an incredible cross-section of people in here every time you come in. It’s really quite wonderful.” 

Kirkaldy says he often calls the restaurant before coming to see what’s on the daily special because he usually gets that, rather than ordering off the menu. 

“It’s usually pretty awesome,” he said. “About two weeks ago they had a chile relleno – oh my gosh, it was absolutely incredible. They had it with shredded tuna. It was just fantastic. That’s not something you’re going to find everywhere.” 

On this day, Agave Grill is offering several dishes on the special menu board, including fresh snapper ceviche, pan fried snapper, a Southwest veggie enchilada and a spicy pork burrito or enchilada with pineapple salsa. 

“That actually sounds pretty nice,” he said, referring to the enchilada, which is what he ends up ordering, along with pork belly soft tacos.  

I took Kirkaldy’s lead and ordered off the special board, starting with the snapper ceviche and following it with the spicy pork burrito.  

Kirkaldy had read some of the previous dinner conversation articles in The Journal and knew they usually involved alcohol; he was afraid tequila might be involved in our conversation. But this is lunch and we both had work to do afterwards, so I ordered water. Relieved, he opted for Diet Coke. 

With our drinks, we were served tortilla chips and Pico del Gallo – fresh salsa – with guacamole, a good start to any Mexican lunch.  

Agave Grill’s part owner and executive chef Ervin Horvath is a supporter of the Slow Food movement, only serving fresh fish and using, whenever possible, local produce. 

What made the snapper ceviche dish so good on this day started with the fact that the fish was fresh and ended with the terrific meld of flavours. On any given day for a lunch, the chips and ceviche would have been plenty, but we had much more coming.  

Both Kirkaldy and I chose the combo plate for our main courses, which meant it was served with Mexican rice and cheese-covered refried beans. Had I known how large the burrito would be, I would have skipped the combo plate and gone easy on the chips to start off with. 

There are burritos and then there are burritos, and Agave Grill’s burritos are in a league of their own, both in terms of size and flavours. It was spicy, as advertised, but one of the nice touches at Agave Grill is that it makes its own scotch bonnet hot sauce, of which I’m a huge fan, so I made my burrito even spicier.  

I had so much of the delicious hot sauce, I needed something to cool the burn, so when they brought out a warm chocolate chili cake for us to share, I had to have a couple of bites even though I was thoroughly stuffed.  

 

History  

Kirkaldy was born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. They moved to Grand Cayman in 1969, when Kirkaldy was just two years old. 

His earliest memories are of Cayman, not Jamaica. 

“This is all I’ve ever known,” he said. 

He went to the St. Ignatius primary school, then to the Prep School for a couple of years, then to the public middle school and finally to the Cayman Islands High School. 

He said he was never a great student in those years, but recalled a saying he’s heard that essentially suggests that ‘A’ students end up teaching ‘B’ students how to work for ‘C’ students. 

“I think I may have heard that way too early on in my schooling because I made a concerted effort to get C’s it seems,” he said with a laugh. 

Although he was unsure of a career path after high school, Kirkaldy eventually attended Loyola University in New Orleans, where he studied liberal arts, concentrating on communications and public relations. 

Although he was studying abroad, there were the friendly and familiar faces of several other Caymanians at Loyola during the time Kirkaldy was there, including Stacey [Goubault] VanDevelde, Brigitte [Kirkconnell] Shaughness, John-Michael Foster, Jordana and Amini Awe, and Winston Connolly, with whom he was in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.  

“I was [fraternity] house manager for the last two years I was there at our house and Winston was my little brother at the fraternity and my roommate at the house, so it was great having that Cayman connection.” 

Although he had never been involved in leadership activities before, Kirkaldy started his trend of community service while at Loyola. In addition to his fraternity leadership role, he also became president of the university’s international student association. That volunteerism trend hasn’t stopped yet. 

 

Early career  

The day after he returned from university, Kirkaldy got a job – but not necessarily the job he expected – at Atlantis Submarines. 

“I had my degree and thought at the time I was so very impressive because I got a job the very next day,” he said, adding that instead of being put behind a desk to be a marketing assistant, he was sent outside. 

“I was given a sign board and pair of shorts… and dressed up as faux captain and I was waiting for a load of 35 cruise ship visitors with a sign above my head, and that was a big part of the sales job,” he said. “Marketing assistant meant a whole lot more than just developing a brilliant strategy for advertising I found.” 

Remembering his frustrations in those early days on the job, Kirkaldy said he always counsels returning university students now to be patient when they first get work after graduation. In his case, working at Atlantis offered knowledge and experience. 

“Everything in life gives you terrific learning opportunities,” he said. “I met so many great people. I learned the frustrations and the challenges of that industry. It is a tough, tough business – watersports, tourism. There is always a bigger dog out there and there are always issues to be dealt with. On the flip side, the industry is also a very practical industry.” 

After a two years of employment, Kirkaldy’s resume was good enough to get a job with Esso as a sale representative.  

“I was there for five years and it was… an impressive company to work for,” he said. “The company is just an incredible believer in education and had a strong Caymanian workforce. It was almost like you couldn’t get your work done because they were sending you on another training course so often. They’re just really firm believers of working from within, promoting from within.” 

While at Esso, the company sent him to work in Puerto Rico for six months. 

“I was given an opportunity to stay, but decided since I was planning to come back and propose to my wife, it would really be a lot better for me if I turned down that opportunity,” he said with a laugh. 

On March 4th, 1995, a date he said he easily remembers because it’s the only commanding day of the year, Kirkaldy married Christina Godfrey.  

“I sort of look at it as a classic ‘nerd gets the popular girl’ story,” said Kirkaldy, who said he was very much cast in the nerd role in his Prep School days. “I definitely remember seeing [Christina] there, but she has no recollection of me even being at Prep School and we were a year apart.” 

After returning from college, Kirkaldy said he and Christina had a lot of intersections with friends, which led to their relationship.  

Along the way during his time at Atlantis and Esso, Kirkaldy got an entrepreneurial itch. When the opportunity to become involved in the ownership of a company arose, he jumped at it. 

In 1998, he and Christina, and his father-in-law Michael Godfrey, started Little Holding Company Ltd., which in turn is the sole owner of Massive Equipment Rental & Sales Ltd. 

“There was an existing company there that Christina’s dad had operated for many years – Arch & Godfrey Equipment Rental – and he rented primarily… to Arch & Godfrey, who he’s a founding partner of, or to their subcontractors on jobs,” Kirkaldy explained. “Businesses was up and down, depending on what [construction projects] they had on. And we saw an opportunity to take that base and build on it into a real, quality, modern equipment rental company. 

In the years since, three more companies under Little Holding Company – Fireworks Ltd, Massive Media Ltd and Safety Services Ltd – have been formed. 

With the state of Cayman’s economy over the past four years, it hasn’t all been a skyrocketing success story. 

 

Challenges  

The Massive Group of companies now has 24 employees. Four years ago, it had 40 employees. 

“The recession has really kicked us in the butt,” Kirkaldy said. “I can really sympathise and empathise with companies as to what they’re going through, because I really hit a rut.” 

Hit with declining business, Kirkaldy said he reacted too late. 

“The problem even in my 40-person business seemed too big,” he said. “Hope was always just next year away.” 

Two years into the recession, Kirkaldy started making the staff cuts he should have made much earlier. 

“But you never [cut] deep enough and you never do it fast enough,” he said. “So if there’s any lesson to be learned for future recessions for me personally, it’s to react faster and cut deeper than you think is necessary.” 

Although he knew the cuts were necessary, he didn’t like making them. 

“It was depressing,” he said. “Can you imagine having conversations with [a staff member] and changing their life? In that instant, you’re changing their life. They’ve got families and you’re changing their life. It was very difficult for me.” 

Kirkaldy let some positions go through attrition, particularly with expatriate staff members who came to their term limit. Once these staff members were rolled over, he just didn’t replace them and eliminated the position.  

Of the 24 employees in his group of companies, only nine are on work permits now. 

“We’ve done a really great job of hiring,” he said. “We’ve got people that were there the first week that I opened business. We’ve got wonderful Caymanians that have worked with us for over a decade now that I’m just so thankful and happy about.” 

Kirkaldy said Massive tries to be fair with its employees. 

“We try to honour them as much as we can,” he said. “They’re everything to us. Massive is not me, it’s not my wife; it’s the guys in the front lines. It’s the guys who come and deliver stuff to your function.”  

 

Community leadership  

Over the last decade, Kirkaldy has headed up a number of community organisations. Before Hurricane Ivan hit Grand Cayman in 2004, he was chairman of the Cayman Islands Beautification Committee. From July 2005 until July 2006, he was president of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman. Last November, he became the president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce. 

“I seem to have a problem with making eye contact when volunteers are called for, don’t I?” he said, laughing. 

His year as Rotary president came during the rebuilding period after Hurricane Ivan, when life was just getting back to normal. Kirkaldy said he felt it was important to get the Club beyond the Ivan experience. 

“The Club had spent a huge amount of time and effort supporting the emergency relief side of the Island after Ivan,” he said. “I really took it as my year to… get back to basics – taking a look at how we ran the meetings a year ago and just getting back to that and doing some of things that we had sort of cast off in dealing with emergency relief.” 

When it comes to his community service, Kirkaldy said he sees it as a way of giving back. 

“This Island has been really, really good to me,” he said. “I’m blessed to have gotten to where I am on the Island. I think it’s absolutely wrong for people who have any kind of success, even if it’s not financial or business success, but who have a talent… not to pay it forward.”  

Kirkaldy noted that the Cayman he grew up in on Watercourse Road in West Bay was a very generous place. 

“That Cayman was a helpful place,” he said. “That Cayman was a place where people had quiet times on porches together. We’ll never dial back the clock and get that feeling completely back again, but by giving of what little I have in terms of our company resources for things where we can assist, just my time or talent in some area if I have any, I think it’s an obligation. I think that anyone this Island has been good to has an obligation to give back to it.”  

 

Crime  

His year as Chamber president hasn’t had to deal with the crime issue specifically, but Kirkaldy said the topic comes up all the time in the business world. 

He believes that when the current recession ends, the crime rates will go down, as they did in the post-Ivan reconstruction boom period. 

“With an active and expanding economy came work, came jobs and people could feed their families,” he said. “I’m not saying when you can’t do that it’s right to go out and rob and steal, but it’s a direct correlation.” 

Kirkaldy thinks that healthy businesses will mean a healthy society.  

“At the end of the day, as a business organisation, if you can create opportunities, if you can create hope for people, if you can create a sense of a better day and a brighter future, despair and all the other negative things that go with a poor economy start to disappear,” he said. 

He said the Chamber of Commerce over the years has always considered a healthy business community as a way of combatting crime. 

“Do we expressly say this is an anti-crime strategy, maybe not,” he said. “But by having so many discounted training courses, literally thousands of people every year can go through our doors doing various training to better themselves, to up-skill themselves.” 

Sometime the Chamber takes an more active role in the crime issue, whether it be in its association with Crime Stoppers or anti-crime rallies. 

“After Ivan, we actually used a big chunk of our nest egg to employ a huge amount of people to do the Seven Mile Beach clean-up,” he said. “That was all done through the Chamber. Maybe someone else would have done it, but we stepped up and did it and paid those people and got them some employment going while there was still chaos on the island.” 

 

Single-member constituencies  

In his year as Chamber president, Kirkaldy has had to deal with a couple of controversial issues. 

“The elephant in the room has to be single member constituencies,” he said, referring to the effort that was made this year to have a people-initiated referendum on whether the Cayman Islands should move away from multi-member constituencies to a ‘one man, one vote’ system of single-members constituencies.  

Some people might argue that the Chamber entered the realm of politics with its pro-single-member constituency stance, but Kirkaldy doesn’t see it that way, particularly since the issue was discussed as part of negotiations that led to Cayman’s 2009 Constitution. 

“The Chamber of Commerce had an official seat at the Constitutional talks in London and that was not argued against by either side in power at the time,” he said. “If you get invited without opposition to participate on that level, I think you’ve earned your stripes and you’ve earned the right to comment on an issue like that.” 

Kirkaldy said that the position the Chamber took was something that the membership shared. 

“The Chamber isn’t me; the Chamber isn’t [CEO Wil Pineau]; the Chamber is a consensus,” he said. 

“The Chamber has had surveys in the past that dealt with constitutional issues that have touched on [single-member constituencies] and when we’ve done so, our membership has consistently said that a different form of representation per district was overwhelmingly what they wanted to see happen.” 

Before he spoke publicly on the topic, Kirkaldy said he did research on the various types of voting systems around the world and came to his own conclusions about single-member constituencies. 

“I just felt it was a better system,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. But is it better than what is there right now? Absolutely. “ 

Although he had personal views on the subject, Kirkaldy said he was representing the Chamber when he spoke publicly, conveying the Chamber’s official stance. 

“On balance, no one can say my representation of the Chamber in those public forums, interviews, debates, radio/television, was anything less than fair,” he said. “I had people on the other side of the spectrum who were sometimes complaining that I generally always wrapped things up with ‘The Chamber viewpoint is that we support this; personally, I don’t care how you vote, but I want you to come out that day and vote.” 

In the end, the referendum in July failed to get the required number of ‘yes’ votes for passage, even though the yes votes outnumbered ‘no’ votes by a wide margin. However, should the issue ever come up in the future, the Chamber’s stance is now well documented by a position paper. 

“One of the things I’ve implemented that we’ve been trying to get off the ground for a while… was Chamber position papers,” he said, noting that in the past, people have asked what the Chamber’s position was on certain issues and there’s been some inconsistency because the Chamber board is constantly changing, with half the board retiring every year. 

“You get new [board members] on and they wonder what the Chamber’s position is on this or that, which may sometimes differ from their own personal position,” he said. “Well, now we’ve come up with a template [position paper] format and attached the relative documents. You can attach the survey results; you have a preamble as to what the issue is and a conclusion of the Chamber position.” 

Even though the current government did not support the referendum, Kirkaldy said he doesn’t think it damaged the Chamber’s relationship with the political powers. 

“Maybe I look at the world with rose-tinted glasses, but from where I sit, I don’t see any fallout,” he said, noting that the Chamber represents almost 800 local businesses and more than 7,000 employees. 

“At the end of the day, it’s how you do these things,” he said. “We have a social mandate and I think in this case, between our social mandate and our survey responses, we were very clearly directed that [single-member constituencies] was not an area that the Chamber should be silent on. 

“I don’t think the Chamber’s role is to agree with everything a government of the day has to say.” 

 

Chamber year  

The Chamber started a number of other initiatives during Kirkaldy’s presidency and in addition returned to Panama for trade mission for the first time since 2008. 

He said he came into the year wanting to focus on SMEs – small- and medium-sized enterprises. 

“I think successive [Chamber] presidents have done outstanding work, but very often the focus is on other types of business – the financial services and the hospitality,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that, given my experience and my own business, there was some emphasis placed on small business.” 

As a result, the Chamber established a small business committee that was already making representations to government. 

“Just yesterday we were finalising some recommendations on a consultation with [the Department of Commerce and Investment] on new regulations around the trade and business laws – some suggestions, ways you could manipulate the duty rates for companies that are registered businesses at a certain size, versus a large size, to encourage small businesses, which at the end of the day is the lifeblood of any economy.” 

The Chamber also established a separate producers sub-committee that will look at issues pertaining to the companies that manufacture or produce things in the Cayman Islands.  

“It’s an area that’s not had much focus, but there are quite a number of businesses that manufacture things or assemble things here for sale, and I’m really happy to see that that’s getting off the ground.” 

Earlier that morning, Kirkaldy opened the start of Cayman Coaching, a six-month programme done in partnership with Shirlaws. 

“So… there’s a lot of focus on things that can help a small business,” he said. “It just drives me nuts when people say, ‘hey, what’s the Chamber doing?’ and ‘The Chamber doesn’t do anything for me’. It’s such general statement and it’s just patently wrong.” 

He said the Chamber had also just launched a new web site called ‘Show me the Money’ where businesses can list their available scholarships for free and students can register themselves as a searcher for free. 

“I think it’s an awesome thing to try… and the strategy with that directionally is to start a junior or student membership within the Chamber to encourage education and business and the role of business in society.” 

Kirkaldy said advocacy was also important during his year. 

“I really feel that a Chamber of Commerce anywhere in the world ought to be a strong advocate for business,” he said. “I’m unapologetic about that.” 

But Kirkaldy also knows that advocacy has to be done a certain way here in Cayman. 

“The phrase I use is ‘respectful advocacy’,” he said. “I really think the Chamber needs to be an advocate but we don’t need to be a bully pulpit and we don’t need to be beating anyone over the head with a stick on these issues.” 

However, when there is an issue that can impact business or the community negatively, either now or in the future, Kirkaldy believes it’s absolutely the role of the Chamber to advocate “in a manner that doesn’t denigrate or put down the other side of the argument”. 

 

SEZ Authority  

Kirkaldy’s year as Chamber president is winding down, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other matters outside of his businesses to tend to, including some Chamber-related matters. 

One of the Chamber’s many roles in Cayman is as the International Labour Organization employee representative for the Cayman Islands. He made a trip to Trinidad in that role in October, and, while that was a fill-in for Chamber CEO Wil Pineau, Kirkaldy thinks past presidents could probably help the Chamber in various ways going forward. The way it is now, Chamber presidents go through a three-year process of being vice-president, president-elect and then president and then they’re not really involved anymore.  

“I don’t know much about [the Chamber’s ILO role] yet, but I’m hopeful that through an area like that, or some other area the Chamber has through its international Chamber affiliations… maybe some more use of past presidents can be put in championing some of these things that are a much higher level.” 

Something else that will remain on Kirkaldy’s plate of things to do, at least for now, is being chairman of the Special Economic Zone Authority that came into being earlier in 2012. 

He makes no bones about being a big fan of the concept and of Cayman Enterprise City, Cayman’s first special economic zone. 

“I think it is going to be a major contributor to the future development of the Island in the same way that I also feel about [Health City Cayman Islands] – two projects that are going to change the landscape of Cayman, completely independently of everything else,” he said. “Personally, I find it a real honour that I am the chairman on the [SEZ] board.” 

Although Cayman Enterprise City hasn’t become an overnight success, Kirkaldy sees a steady increase in the number of companies it is attracting.  

“I firmly believe that what is going to happen here is… that you’ll have a tipping point… when a globally recognised brand in some particular industry comes to Cayman Enterprise City,” he said.  

“All of a sudden, everyone else in that industry is going to take note and try to understand… ‘What is it that made the leader of that firm make that decision? What does he see in that and how the hell did I miss that opportunity?” 

Kirkaldy isn’t all that surprised that it’s taken a while for Cayman Enterprise City to build momentum as far as registered companies are concerned.  

“It’s a process,” he said. “These firms… don’t just hear about it in a press release and sign up next week. They’re running on a strategic plan themselves and this was not on their radar. It comes to their attention through a road show… or through a visit to the Island, but then it becomes a process of getting board approval, setting up the special company and all of this. So it’s a process to get them in the door and they’re working aggressively on that.” 

Getting the Special Economic Zone Authority up to speed has been a process as well, but Kirkaldy said the Department of Commerce and Investment has done well in its role. 

“The secretariat is an offshoot of DCI, managed very capably by Jonathan Piercy and Dwene Ebanks,” he said. “They do a terrific job. It seems like a cop-out to say ‘under-resourced department of government’ but give credit where credit is due. Those guys, they work significant hours, their heart is in the right place and they’re doing a lot of good work.” 

However, like any new legislation that is passed, as it is worked in practice, issues arise that cause problems.  

“It’s matters like that we’re working through… and sending back recommendations through the secretariat to Cabinet, where inevitably, as all laws do, slight amendments may need to be made here and there.” 

Kirkaldy is aware that some people have been critical of Cayman Enterprise City CEO Jason Blick being on the Special Economic Zone Authority board, but he was quick to point out that Blick is not on the licensing committee. 

“I thought that was very important,” he said. “But it does make absolute sense in my mind to have him on the board. We have only one customer… and it’s… the company he represents. I see absolutely no anomaly whatsoever to having him on the board in the same way members of regulated companies are on the health insurance board, they’re on the insurance board, they’re on CIMA, they’re on various other boards, so it’s not unusual.” 

Although some have complained that Cayman Enterprise City will allow its tenants to avoid higher work permit and various licensing fees, Kirkaldy said its main purpose was to bring new types of businesses to Cayman and to bring more people here. 

“While you can whinge all you want about whether they paid a full amount for a work permit or this or that, at the end of the day, [Cayman Enterprise City’s tenants] have to rent a place or buy a place to live in, they have to shop at the supermarkets, they have to go to a restaurant, they have board meetings down here, they stay at the hotels… it’s a whole spin-on,” he said, adding that Health City Cayman Islands will have a similar positive effects on the economy.  

“Almost all people [who go to Health City] are going to come down with someone, sometimes more [than one person],” he said. “Cayman is getting a golden opportunity to showcase itself to this family, who, in the future should have very positive things to say and may even want to come back and visit on different terms.” 

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