Lunch express with… Tony Ritch

Global telecoms giant Cable & Wireless, which now trades as LIME in the Caribbean, has been in the Cayman Islands since 1966. For more than half of those years, Tony Ritch has worked for the company in almost every capacity imaginable. Now LIME Cayman’s General Manager, Ritch spoke over lunch at the venerable Grand Old House restaurant about his and the company’s evolution and the challenges they’ve faced over the years.  

As a child in Cayman Brac, Tony Ritch was interested in technology and engineering. 

“We would take a flash from a Polaroid camera, a small transformer and a 9-volt battery and say, ‘what if we did this…?”, he said during lunch at Grand Old House in December. “So as kids, we were always experimenting.” 

But in Cayman Brac in the first half of the 1970s, learning at Spot Bay Primary School was fairly basic.  

“Coming from the Brac, you had very limited resources to play with,” he said. “We never had much access to subjects such as chemistry or physical sciences, which came in quite late in my high school days into the curriculum.” 

It was rather natural, then, for a boy who always found engineering and learning exciting, to gravitate toward getting a job at Cable & Wireless, which launched the first telephone service in Grand Cayman in 1966 and then in Cayman Brac in 1967, coincidently the same year Ritch was born.  

“In terms of technology, outside of maybe the power company, they were very few careers back then that you could enter into that would give you that sort of gratification,” he said. 

Ritch also wanted to further his education.  

“What was really important to me was I wanted to go off to college in some way, shape or form, so I wasn’t just content to leave high school and just jump into the work force.” 

But there were no means at the time for Ritch, who grew up in a humble home in Spot Bay that didn’t have electricity for much of his childhood, for him to just go off to the college of his choice. 

“My parents couldn’t afford it,” he said. “We didn’t… have the level of support we needed back then to apply for things like a scholarship. So I knew that Cable and Wireless was going through a fairly aggressive training regime where they were taking a lot of kids like myself straight out of high school and sending them off [Island for education].”  

Immediately after he graduated from Cayman Brac High School, Ritch applied for a job at Cable & Wireless. He was asked to come take a test and then, after another set of interviews, offered a position. In August 1984, the same month he turned 17, Ritch left Cayman Brac for Grand Cayman.  

Nothing was guaranteed. He and other new high-school graduates were taken on as work experience students for three months – long enough for Cable & Wireless to see if they were the kind of young men the company was looking for. 

He stayed with one of his cousins in an apartment just off Walkers Road on Maple Avenue. The pay was low, just $84 a week paid in a little brown envelope. Ritch didn’t have a car – he didn’t have a driver’s licence yet either – so he had to walk everywhere. But the struggle paid off; in November, Cable & Wireless offered him a permanent position as a technical watch keeper. 

Ritch has been on the payroll ever since.  

 

Grand Old House  

No restaurant in the Cayman Islands can come close to matching the historical relevance of the Grand Old House.  

The structure was built in 1908 as a stately Caribbean great house on Petra Plantation, where coconuts were grown and harvested.  

Petra later served as a private home, a Sunday school and even a hospital before it was purchased by Americans Bob and Jeanne Brenton and turned into a restaurant in 1969. Since then it has remained one of Cayman’s finest restaurants. 

The restaurant’s well-maintained decor oozes with sophisticated island charm, offering seating it numerous settings, including private dining in the Wine Room and the English Room, indoor dining in the air-conditioned main dining room, screened in terrace and indoor gazebo, outdoor gazebo dining and, of course, waterfront dining on the deck next to the ocean.  

For our lunch, Ritch and I were tucked away in a quite corner of the English Room just off the main dining room. 

The Grand Old House is heavily staffed with well-dressed hospitality service professionals from across Western Europe and the service standard is high, from the greetings right down to the presentation of meals. 

Last year, the restaurant went through its first management change in many years, with new manager Lazlo Boros infusing a fresh approach not only to aspects of the decor and staffing, but also to the menu, with some of the heavier European-style dishes and cream sauces replaced by lighter, Caribbean ingredients and fruit-based sauces. 

One thing that has remained is Grand Old House’s award-winning and extensive wine list, which features new and old vintages of wines from around the globe. 

 

Education  

A technical watch keeper back in 1984 was someone who kept an eye on Cable & Wireless’ early satellite communications equipment, which was required by international regulations to be watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Although that task might not have been particularly exciting, it paid better and allowed Ritch to get his own apartment.  

“At 17, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment near the Public Works Department,” he said. 

While Ritch worked as a technical watch keeper, he was attending private classes in math and physics arranged by Cable & Wireless in preparation for taking standardised exams in those subjects, something required for entry into company’s technical college in England. After he took and passed those exams in June, 1985, he was told he would be heading overseas to the Cable & Wireless Engineering College in Porthcurno, Cornwall County, the place where many of the first transatlantic telecommunications cables came ashore. 

Ritch spent two nine-month terms there, broken up by a summer back in Cayman doing a series of field exercises. 

As it would several times over his career, Cable & Wireless not only paid for his education, it paid him to learn. 

“Cable & Wireless was a great company, still is,” he said. “In my case, I left as a permanent member of staff on full salary; they never stopped. Any staff that left for training on full salary, continued to receive full salary.” 

After completing his studies in England, Ritch came back to Cayman and worked as a switch engineer.  

Over the next 13 years, Ritch worked doing a number of different jobs for Cable & Wireless, getting regular promotions.  

He had always wanted get a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, but said he never could find the right time. By the year 2000, he had married, had two sons and was in the process of building a house. It seemed like the perfect time for both him and his wife Lisa to go back to school. They enrolled in the Community College of the Cayman Islands, which has since become the University College of the Cayman Islands.  

“We did it part time. I’d go during the day, but I did my share of night classes,” Ritch said, adding that juggling the child care took lots of advanced planning. “We’d have to sit down before each semester and plan our classes,” he said.  

Ritch earned his Associate’s degree, graduating as the valedictorian of his class. 

But neither he nor his wife were content to stop there. In December 2003, they left for Florida – children in tow – to attend the University of Tampa. 

While there, they enrolled their sons in elementary school, which gave them the opportunity to pack in as many classes as possible during the day. 

By loading up on classes during the day, taking some night and summer courses, Ritch was able to complete his degree in business management in just 18 months. 

He returned to Cayman, with his sons, in August 2005, while his wife – who had taken a normal course load – stayed for another term, returning with an 
accounting degree in December 2005. 

In addition to having his schooling paid for by Cable & Wireless, the whole time he was in Tampa, Ritch was still drawing a salary, and still doing a bit of work for the company. 

The commitment Cable & Wireless shows to the advancement of its employees is something Ritch thinks sets it apart.  

“The investment, the confidence, the desire to continue making sure we had opportunities and we were able to capitalise on those opportunities when they came by, was really important to our business and it still is,” he said. “It still is one of the foundational practices that I push to my team.” 

Ritch encourages his staff from top to bottom to continue learning, improving and seizing opportunities when they come.  

“I really want to get to a stage where I’m seeing more and more of our Caymanians – and the entire organisation really – taking advantage of the opportunities around,” he said. 

“I think we still have much more to do in terms of upping our game and in terms of leadership. I think it’s really critical that we have the right levels of leadership across our organisation and much of that, of course, comes from the shop floor and being out there doing it,” he said. “But I also believe fundamentally in underpinning that with a very strong set of academics.” 

 

Lunch  

I’m partial to foie gras. In years past, Grand Old House would order a special shipment once or twice a year and it would appear on the menu as a special for a couple of weeks. I would inevitably have it at least once during those two weeks. 

In recent years, Grand Old House had obtained its foie gras from the top American producer, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras is now a permanent menu item at Grand Old House, served wtih pear-cinnamon compote and dark cherry port wine reduction. I was compelled to order it. 

“I’m going to stick to something traditional, conch fritters,” Ritch said. “I tend to experiment with the conch fritters and some places are exceptional and some places are too big, too much bread… so I’ll try these. I haven’t been here for a while.” 

I enjoyed my foie gras, eating it fairly quickly, partially because foie gras is served in small portions.  

Even though the Grand Old House’s conch fritters are large, there’s only two of them, so I expected Ritch to finish them soon after I was done. I was wrong. 

Twenty minutes later, when the waiter came to collect the plates, he noticed that Ritch was still working on his conch fritters. 

“Five more minutes,” Ritch said to the waiter with a smile. “I think I talk a lot.” 

In a way, he was right. Of all the people I have interviewed for lunch or dinner conversations, Ritch is the most thorough in his response to questions, usually adding a little history or context, along with reasoning to his answers. 

He requested that nothing be ‘off the record’ during our lunch, something that doesn’t usually happen. He is frank and forthright and his candidness, especially on topics like the competition, surprises me. 

I asked him how his fritters were, knowing that they’ve been sitting on his plate in an air-conditioned room for about a half hour while he talked. 

“It’s not bad,” he said. “It had a fair bit of conch in it. The way they’ve done the batter on the outside seems to be rather different. I think perhaps because I spoke so much, I didn’t get to enjoy them while they were warm, so they get a little chewy after they’re cold, but they’re good. And their sauce is quite nice as well. I’m not sure what it is. It’s a little sweet and it’s quite nice.” 

For the record, the sauce was mango dip, which was served with jerk tartar sauce. 

 

Liberalisation  

On 10 July, 2003, Cable & Wireless and the Cayman Islands Government signed a liberalisation agreement that ended the 37-year monopoly on the telecommunications business here. 

In August 2003 then-Minister of Works Linford Pierson surprised many by saying that Cayman’s telecoms industry would be open to as many qualified licensees as cared to apply.  

Less than two months before he left for Tampa, Ritch got to see just how tough battle would be at the 2003 Chamber of Commerce Business Expo at the Lions Centre, the first such Expo that featured telecoms other than C&W. 

Ritch said that in the early months after liberalisation, Cable & Wireless had a ‘bring it on – we are ready’ idea about telecoms competition, but what they saw at the Expo worried them. 

“I recall Digicel being there, I recall AT&T being there – I think that was the year they brought down the Dallas Cowgirls or something like that,” he said. “I had thought that we were [ready for the competition] but in terms of the actual level of what I would call commercial mindedness and marketing savvy… we had a very different language and we had to rapidly change that. When I left [for Tampa] what I saw was a company that was absolutely… worlds apart.” 

By the end of 2003, Cayman’s Information & Communications Technology Authority had issued 17 new telecoms licences, 11 of which were to companies that planned to compete with Cable & Wireless.  

“It was quite concerning,” said Ritch. 

“Whether or not we were all going to lose our shirts or… eke out a little 20 per cent [market share] and all survive, well I think it was anyone’s guess back then,” he said. 

Even though C&W had the advantage of being the incumbent, it was at a disadvantage when it came to operating in a newly liberalised market, Ritch pointed out. While many of the new licensees had experience in liberalised markets in the US or the UK, most of Cable and Wireless’s learning came from the Caribbean. 

“We had very little precedence to work with,” Ritch said. “It was really a case of some experts and, of course, in some cases, the benefit of expat staff over here and some experts that were flown in, who would say ‘here’s what to expect, here’s what’s going to happen and here’s how we work with the [ICTA] to make sure we’re doing the right thing, but also thinking about what it’s going to mean for us’.”  

C&W realised quickly it had to change the way it did business, Ritch said. 

“With the shift, which I know came with a lot of pain for most of us, we went from being very much an engineering-led company for probably 25-30 years… to one that was led by bean counters,” he said with a laugh. “They finally got their say. You had the bean counters saying for 20 years, ‘you guys are spending too much money, you’re buying stuff and you’re not using it and where’s the return on that investment’? Back then, we didn’t have to [justify investments] because it was a monopoly.  

“As we liberalised, it became very clear to us the skill sets had to change, the level of business savvy, the level of experience in terms of modelling, in terms of forecasting, in terms of even writing a compelling business case, all changed very quickly,” he said. “It went from being very much ‘we need this because no one else is doing it and because the market is exploding’ to ‘we need this, yes the market is still growing, yes it’s exploding and here’s why we think spending a million dollars here, even though we have three or four competitors… is going to make a difference and here’s why it makes sense.”  

C&W also learned it had to do more with less, and part of that meant reducing its staff size. Back in the early 2000s, Cable & Wireless’s staff had grown to about 260 at its peek.  

“Today in terms of the number of staff running the local business, we’re easily down by 100,” he said. 

C&W learned it had to do more with fewer people, something that required better efficiencies, innovation and the use of technology. 

“Going back to the old days with our larger staff numbers, it was rare that you didn’t see two guys show up in a van,” Ritch said, referring to installations and repair jobs. “What we’ve gone to… pretty much, is one guy driving in, he’s got all the right tools, he’s got a small bucket truck and he’s got the ability to cordon off his own area so it’s safe. He gets into his bucket, the truck has been stabilised, he gets in there, he pulls his controls up, he does his thing there, the same guy comes to your house, nicely polished… ‘Good afternoon sir, I think all is fixed now, can I come in?’ So we’ve changed quite a bit in terms of the tools, the techniques and the training…” 

 

Customer service  

Perhaps the biggest change – and the biggest challenge – was a change in the company’s customer service culture. 

The methods of the past – referring customer complaints and queries to customer services – don’t work in today’s world. 

“What we have come to realise rather quickly is that across the business, we now speak more in terms of what we call touch points,” he said, adding that the company has identified multiple touch points that incorporate every employee that interacts with or has access to a customer. 

“And very few don’t,” he said.  

As a result, the company started giving customer service training to all its touch point employees. The company also holds them to a higher standard, which has meant coming up with better ways of measuring performance. 

“In the old days, our measurements were around things like… how long it took us to install a phone from the point of being requested,” he said, noting that before liberalisation it didn’t really matter. 

When customer service began to matter very much, the company had to develop measurements for a variety of job descriptions. 

“In terms of installations, we would say ‘here’s the customer charter, here’s the promises we would have made the customers. We expect that when they come in and place an order, that order is going to go through our systems in X amount of days… and it’s going to be delivered to their home… in X amount of days’ and we’re going to measure it and have a system in place to tell who touched it every point along the way.” 

If the measurements fall short, Ritch said the company looks at ways of improving. 

With the access to technology that people have today, good and quick customer service is essential, Ritch said, noting that with social media and Internet forums, a disgruntled customer can express dissatisfaction for thousands of people to see in a matter of moments.  

“We live in an era where we’re no longer able to pace ourselves when it comes to customer experiences and in many ways it’s actively reshaping what we’re going to have to do with customers – they’re driving us,” he said.  

“So it’s a changing game, I think one of our most challenging,” he said. “I think the most important message is… getting that message through to the entire business that we’re all in customer services.”  

 

Main course  

Grand Old House Executive Chef Andy Trilk personally took our main course order and asked if we wanted anything special. Grand Old House is one of those places that if you don’t see it on the menu, ask for it and they’ll try to accommodate. 

I didn’t really want anything special, but when Trilk offered to go off the lunch menu to serve me a duet of a flame-grilled freshwater jumbo shrimp and bacon-wrapped smoked fresh wahoo, I couldn’t resist. 

The dish was served with truffle mashed potatoes, ginger plum sauce and grilled asparagus. The shrimp was tasty but the bacon-wrapped smoked fresh wahoo was divine. 

Ritch again went more traditional – an 8-ounce Certified Angus Beef filet with vegetables and no fancy sauces.  

Again, Ritch ate slowly, sometimes taking as much as five minutes between bites while he talked. It took him more than a hour to eat the filet.  

We started our lunch early, before there were any other diners, and by the time Ritch finished his steak, the entire lunch crowd was gone.  

When the waiter came to clear his plate only to see Ritch had half of his steak left and was still eating, Ritch looked at him with a smile. 

“I’m a slow eater to start with and talking doesn’t help,” he said. 

When he was finished, Ritch looked down at the plate with contentment. 

“That was good,” he said.  

And I knew he meant it. 

 

Competition  

With time, the telecoms players whittled down to a handful of players, with Digicel being LIME’s key competitor in the consumer space and TeleCayman and WestTel – trading as Logic – competing more in the business space. Ritch said WestStar is becoming a bigger competitor in the telecommunications sector. 

But it’s been LIME’s competition with Digicel, which has over the years featured some very acrimonious court battles, that has defined the competitive arena.  

Ritch said while LIME and Digicel are still fierce competitors, tensions are lessening and “we don’t fight as much”. 

Although he wouldn’t say LIME is now being accommodating, he said the company had been trying its best to make sure it is being fair. 

“But we’re not about to roll over and play dead either,” he said. “So I think for us where we feel we have to make a stand, we still will.” 

Ritch said he thought both LIME and Digicel have matured and that the approach LIME now takes toward its biggest competitor has changed.  

The turning point, Ritch thinks, was on the issue of local number portability, the ability of consumers to change telephone companies without changing their number. 

“In the case of local number portability, it is something that we feared for some time and I recall some… effort on our part to argue that it perhaps wasn’t necessary,” said Ritch. “Clearly the [Information & Communications Technology] Authority, through the public consultation process, saw it differently and it was introduced. But what we know is by the time it came around, the market share that our competitors have here, which is also fairly significant, also gave them the jitters.”  

All of Cayman’s telephone service providers were forced to sit at the negotiating table as a consortium to hash out the details.  

“While it took us probably two years too long, we eventually had to come to agreements on pretty much every aspect of it – who are we going to chose as a technology provider, how do we go about that process… and we all had to agree this is how we should treat each other, this is how we think we should shape the customer experience when a customer walks into any of our businesses and says to us ‘I want to leave you’ – should they have one experience on your side that somehow stymie’s the process, or should it be an experience that’s fairly consistent with what we think is best for the industry and what we think was intended when the Authority put the mandate out there and said that LNP shall happen.” 

Ritch said he thinks the process brought a level of growth and maturity to the local telecoms industry that ought to bode well for the future.  

“It doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements,” he said. “We disagree on some stuff right now that’s likely to hit the public pretty soon around what we call local loop and bonding, which is a fairly advanced step for liberalised markets, one of the last boundaries.”  

Ritch said LNP’s impact wasn’t as bad for LIME as was feared.  

“Right now, I’m not afraid to say to you that Digicel has gotten a few more customers than we have, but what I’d say for us as an incumbent, some of the larger concerns we had about potentially having hundreds of customers or even thousands of numbers leaving us… that has not taken place. That hasn’t taken place at all.” 

Ritch said some of the customers that left LIME for another company have already returned.  

“They try it for a few weeks or a few months and say, ‘the grass wasn’t as green as I thought it was’, and they’re coming back.” 

In the end, Ritch said he thinks local number portability forced both LIME and Digicel into becoming better organisations. 

 

Rebranding  

In late 2008, Cable & Wireless rebranded its Caribbean operations with a new trading name: LIME, an acronym for Land-line, Internet, Mobile, Entertainment. 

“I would say it was customer driven more than anything else,” Ritch said. “Cable and Wireless as a brand had been absolutely trashed in some of the markets. Clearly in terms of the competitive forces facing us, we weren’t being viewed favourably, we weren’t being viewed as a dynamic, agile organisation, in fact we were viewed more as a stodgy, slow-moving monopoly.” 

Cable & Wireless decided to rebrand all 13 of its regional operations, to give it a fresh, dynamic and exciting new look. The brand launch took place right here in Cayman, with a lot of fanfare.  

Ritch said the rebranding hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped. 

“It’s been fairly bumpy, a bit of a roller coaster I would say,” he said. 

After the rebranding, which came with a significant investment cost, Ritch said some in the company thought it would lead to new pockets of business virtually overnight. But the euphoria soon waned as each jurisdiction realised a lot of things still needed to happen for the company to stop being Cable & Wireless and start being LIME, Ritch said, things ranging from changing staff uniforms, the names on buildings and vehicles, and even legally at financial institutions.  

“But as far as I’m concerned, that was really the small bit,” he said. “Because from the very outset, clearly was what we really needed more than anything else, a cultural change. We started this on a high, thinking ‘wow, we’re this new thing’. Well, are we? In terms of a few short weeks, it became clear that much more emphasis had to be put… on the transformation. This is what the name represents, these are our new values, this is what we’re going to stand for, this is what we’re going to expect in terms of pace, in terms of treating customers fairly, in terms of setting expectations, in terms of the values that we have and our respect for each other. So we went through this whole phase of finding ourselves again, and there is where we started to realise, OK this thing…is going to take some time.” 

Ritch said that he’s heard it from consultants, in leadership courses and in management courses that changing the culture of an organisation is one of the most difficult things to do. 

“So I have to sort of speak to a mission, a legacy and what I want to, two years from now, three years from now, have behind my name, as to ‘well, what did Tony stand for, what was Tony able to achieve?’. “It’s nice to be able to say, you got 4G, you got TV as well – I want to do those things – but I think that more than anything else I want to stand for, being in the business at a time of cultural transformation that actually got – with a much smaller group of people – the most out of people and people actually believing with a very small group with limited resources, with the right investments and technology, that they are actually now in a position to better serve customers and… drive the business forward in a way that they see fit. So I really believe in empowerment, I believe in transformation and the customer service aspect of it is on the top floor list.”  

Part of transformation can be harsh. 

“Over the years, I’m not ashamed to say, when we find individuals who don’t… if you don’t have a passion for serving customers in our business, a utility like ours, particularly as it has been evolving, your days are numbered,” he said. “There are very few roles in our business that you can actually tolerate [employees] like that. If you’re absolutely not a customer service-oriented person, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be absolutely lousy at supporting someone who needs to be. So we tend to basically weed those people out and that’s just the way our business has evolved.” 

Another challenging aspect of the rebranding has been its effect on corporate customers, some of whom see LIME as focused toward the consumer market. 

Ritch said that a couple of years ago a lawyer stopped him and complained about a promotional Christmas jingle that featured Elephant Man and other musicians from Jamaica. 

“He said, ‘Look, I don’t like what you guys are becoming…That stuff you’re doing, that’s not for here. That’s not for Cayman. We in the corporate space, it feels like you’re ignoring us, you’re forgetting us, you’re just focusing more on the consumer space. Is it that you don’t want our business’?” 

Ritch said nothing could be further from the truth. 

“I really believe that we’ve tipped the balance far too much with regards to the rebranding to looking on the surface of things like a huge consumer-oriented business, when if fact, I would argue as much as 50 per cent of our business today is still coming from the corporate space,” he said. “What we’ve done with the rebranding is, and I’ve had it in some cases very pointedly told to me, we’ve given up on one of our most powerful assets, which was, here in this country, Cable & Wireless was rock solid, more so than in other countries, and in the business space it stood for something that was credible, predictable, something you could bank on. If you wanted quality in terms of the services we offered, if you wanted equipment and a business that would be able to back that up time and time again, that’s what Cable & Wireless stood for.” 

Ritch said it’s now up to his team to prove that LIME still stands for those things. 

Regardless of the bumpy ride, the LIME brand isn’t going away anytime soon. 

“As [LIME Caribbean CEO] David Shaw said to us about a year and half ago, the only thing worse to do now would be to change it back,” he said. “The view we have is we’ve made a huge investment, we’ve made the shift, now let’s make sure we do the things that make the name mean what we think is right for our business.” 

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