Matthew Wight is involved in ownership of so many businesses, it’s hard for him to keep track.
“I think there’s 19 or 20,” he says, starting to count them all:
There’s eight separate entities in the NCB Group; three restaurants – Karma, Da Fish Shack and the Papa John’s franchise; there’s Watler & Hislop Services; Millennium Equipment; Fluff n’ Fold; the Security Centre; Premier Wine & Spirits wholesale; Premier Wine & Spirits retail; and his newest venture, the Minus5 ice bar.
The other one or two slip his mind.
“My days are pretty long at the moment,” the 33-year-old admits. “I start between 6:45 and 7 a.m. every day, on site, in my hard hat and safety vest. I normally get to the office around 10, after I’ve done all the rounds from my site visits and made sure I’ve laid out all the day and given the appropriate direction.”
Mostly during the day, he’s focuses on his main job, as managing director of the NCB Group of companies. But he still has many other companies to tend to, even if he’s not actively involved in the management.
“I have management meetings, once a week, pretty much with every business, at different times,” he said. “A lot of them I try to schedule after 5 p.m. if they’re not NCB related, but if important, I’ll do during the day as well.”
Technology is key
Technology helps him manage.
“I’m on email all day long, and I probably process 250 emails a day, and I would imagine 50 to 100 phone calls,” he said. “Even though I have managers and people in charge, a lot of it falls back on me making decisions…Every problem, every situation, or even day-to-day stuff, requires a decision that I have to make.”
With so many businesses, problems are a normal part of his life.
“…There’s not a day goes by that I don’t have a problem,” he said, adding that while having daily business problems isn’t an ideal situation, he has learned to take them in stride and work on them one at a time. “I work toward solutions, and I constantly try to be proactive versus reactive.”
If being involved in so many businesses weren’t enough, Wight also has to try to balance his family life with wife Stephanie, two young children and two older children.
“I try to have dinner at home every night with the family, but it’s usually closer to 8 p.m. these days,” he said.
Despite the long days and many problems, Wight said he stays even-keeled and, not surprisingly, loves what he does.
Being the son of former Deloitte Cayman managing partner and entrepreneur Ian Wight certainly has helped Matthew Wight, but he said that in his family, everything has to be earned.
“My parents were big believers that we had to find our own way and that nothing was given to us,” he said. “There was a saying that Dad used to tell us, that when he died…if there was anything left over, he miscalculated, and he’s an accountant, so the chances of that happening is minimal. He was honestly a believer in that, and whilst we were given opportunities, we weren’t given anything, and we had to work.”
Wight started working, and owning a business, before he was 18. He opened the Jailhouse Café in George Town when he was 17, during the summer of his last year in boarding school in England.
His dream was to become a professional golfer and to attend university in the United States on a golf scholarship. But before that, he wanted to take a year off, train for golf, manage the Jailhouse Café and make some money.
“My first job was at the Blue Parrot [bar in South Sound],” he said. “A lot of my friends were working in banks making $1,600 per month. They had to work 8 to 5, dress up in a tie. I wanted to play golf during the day.”
Wight spoke to one of his father’s good friends, Naul Bodden, who was an owner at Blue Parrot, and he was given a job there.
“I worked there in the evenings and I had a shift from 5 to 10 p.m. I made about $150 in tips, I could still go out and party with my friends, and I’d wake up the next day and play golf. So I did that for a little while, and the Jailhouse evolved at the same time. I never worked physically in the Jailhouse, I was managing it, but I had to do all of the cash-outs, all of the scheduling and all the logistics of the operation.”
Eventually, Wight also started working at Deloitte, where his father was a partner.
“I was in the HR department,” he said. “I worked from 8 a.m. to noon. I could still play golf in the afternoon, and then I worked at the Blue Parrot from 5 ‘til 10 p.m. and I still found time to meet my friends.
Just out of school, as Wight was working two jobs, trying to prepare himself for a career in golf and owning a business, something had to give. Within a year, Wight realized a career in golf wasn’t the best choice for him.
Path to entrepreneurship
Instead, he embarked on a path of incredible entrepreneurship.
But first, he had to finish his education. With the golf scholarship plans scuttled, a business to run and what became a full-time job at Deloitte, Wight chose to go to school in Cayman, first at ICCI for his associate’s degree, and then at UCCI for his bachelor’s. Wight worked full-time during the day and took his classes at night. It took six years to earn his degree, partly because of the delay caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
“I think my parents were a little disappointed,” he said. “They wanted me to go away to university, but I don’t have any regrets.”
He added that although he believes he had a good education, he thinks he learned more working full-time and owning a business during the six years than he did in classes.
Wight said his college education wasn’t about where he went to school, but more the need to show people that he could do it, and that he could finish what he started.
Ultimately, he said, his father was fine with his career decision and supported him.
“He doesn’t like laziness or procrastination, so if there was any sign of that, then he would put you in shape. But career-wise, it was whatever I wanted to do, and it’s the same for my other three siblings.”
From an early age, Wight got a taste of the restaurant business from his father.
“My dad has always had an interest in restaurants,” he said, noting that his father owned two while he was growing up – The Landmark and Sage. “In those times, I wasn’t actively involved in the day-to-day operations, but being involved in restaurants and hospitality has kind of been in my blood from [a young age].”
The Jailhouse Café had a pretty good run, lasting six years before the landlord decided to do something else with the space.
“It gave me a real introduction to scheduling, having limited staff… opening and closing duties, cash-outs every night, banking, paying the bills – everything,” he said, adding it was like taking a Restaurants 101 course. “It was a nice challenge. It wasn’t a big endeavor, but just in understanding what customers want, appreciation for having landlords, responsibilities and payments and all of that, it was great.”
After that, Wight became involved, with his father, in a restaurant at Westshore Plaza.
“We took over the Post and made it Dolce Vita, so it was Italian flair,” he said. “Then we fell out with the partners on that and we went separate ways. Then we created Karma.”
Karma opened in October 2010, the week before his wedding to Stephanie Foster. It took a while, but Karma finally took off, ending a string of failed restaurants at the location. The majority of its customers are residents, Caymanians as well as expatriates.
“We’ve got that balance between food and nightlife that makes it a good spot for locals to consistently come to,” Wight said. “It seems like people use this for special occasions a lot and not necessarily day-to-day, so we get a lot of … birthdays, events, and such. We do a fair amount of tourist trade in season, but the reason our doors are still open is because of the loyalty of the locals to us.”
A little more than two years later, the Wights opened Da Fish Shack in George Town.
“We were trying to create a melting pot where you can have a casual environment on the water that served fresh fish caught daily and all the local foods,” he said. It’s really taken shape. Last year we had a great year. This year, we had a better year, in the second year of operations.”
Unlike Karma, where getting a consistent lunch crowd is difficult (as is the case with most other restaurants not in central George Town), Da Fish Shack attracts cruise ship passengers for lunch.
“We have the advantage of the cruise ship passengers… so it gives us a really good start for the day,” he said. “It works better for us with staffing as well because no one is dreading working the day shift where they have less going on.”
At night, the locals, and increasing numbers of stay-over tourists frequent the restaurant.
“I think the locals really appreciate it, as well as the expats,” he said. “We never did a big push with the tourists and the hotels and now we’re finding a lot of them are recommending people to us… because it’s become a good spot where it’s a local place, on the water, where tourists can feel comfortable going.”
The Wights also own the Papa John’s franchise in Cayman. Wight said he thinks that’s enough restaurants to own, and he doesn’t have any plans to own more.
“My dad always had the passion for owning his own restaurant more than me,” he said. “Restaurants are a lot of work. People don’t appreciate how much has to go into a restaurant because there are so many different elements of it. Cooking the food… is just one aspect of it. You still have staff to manage, you still have vendors to deal with, customers to please, and then you have the whole government side of operating businesses – trade and business licenses, work permits and all of that. It’s a lot that goes into restaurants. People only look and see on the outside.”
However, Wight said restaurants are one of the most educational experiences a person can have.
“There’s high risk and minimal reward, to be honest, but from a [learning] standpoint, it exposes you to everything.”
In 2002, while still attending college, Wight was convinced by Naul Bodden to help him out in what was then a small company called NCB Project management.
Fourteen years later, the last six of which Wight has served as managing director, the NCB Group incorporates eight companies offering full-service construction services that include everything from design, to construction and project management, to post-completion management.
Much of the growth has happened during Wight’s tenure as managing director as a result of his vision for the company.
“I didn’t think the company should remain just as a project management company,” he said, noting that he wanted to offer “one-stop-shop” construction service and also wanted to be involved in the ownership aspect of development. “From 2008 to now, I think we’ve done a good job of identifying NCB as a group as one of the premier developers on the island.”
He’s particularly proud of NCB’s two latest developments, the housing community known as Cypress Point North in Crystal Harbour, and the under-construction commercial project called Cayman Technology Centre, a 38,000-square-foot office and retail complex in George Town.
“We’re trying to make this one of the greenest projects in Cayman. A big passion of mine is creating sustainability,” he said, adding that the Cypress Point North project also incorporates many “green” construction elements.
He said the Cayman Technology Centre is going to be unique throughout the Caribbean.
“I’ve been told there’s nothing like it in the Caribbean in terms of sustainability, efficiency and the quality of workmanship,” he said. “We’re planning on taking it off [CUC’s electricity] grid, so it will be a completely self-sustained project.”
In addition to vast solar arrays, the project uses geothermal energy for its cooling.
“The project has been one that has definitely taken a lot of creativity and effort to force through the passion we have in terms of creating the sustainability,” he said. “The end product to the tenant there is going to be that they’re going to be proud to be in one of the most environmentally friendly and green buildings in the Caribbean, not just Cayman.”
Operating one small business can be a challenge in Cayman, so Wight is well aware of the difficulties of running more than a dozen.
“I think it’s very difficult to operate a small- to medium-sized business in Cayman because of the bureaucracy, because of the costs, particularly,” he said. “We don’t have direct taxation, and we don’t want direct taxation, but the pressure is on the employer. You have pensions, you have health [insurance], you have business fees permits, license fees, company fees and for a small- to medium-sized business, to be able to absorb these costs, still able to deliver a quality product at a reasonable price to a consumer – in no matter what industry you’re talking about… it’s very challenging.”
Getting staff in today’s environment of high unemployment among Caymanians is difficult. Getting Caymanian staff for his restaurants is particularly difficult, Wight said, and he thinks it relates back to ideas of servitude.
“I remember through high school, the teachers kind of joked about whether you wanted to become a banker, a lawyer or whether you wanted to work in the restaurant industry, as if it was a bad thing because that was you failing, and servitude was frowned upon,” he said. “I don’t understand that. Caymanians are some of the friendliest people, and we have an opportunity like no other to be able to occupy positions in the service industry, and it’s relatively easy to progress in them, to end up owning a restaurant, to be able to manage staff, or even to make decent money in the service business. There’s a reason a lot of expats are coming to Cayman to work in them because there’s good opportunities.”
Wight said it has been a struggle to hire and retain Caymanian staff for his restaurants in particular. However, he said hiring Caymanians is still very much his preference.
“In all of my businesses, there isn’t an exception. If there is a Caymanian who is available and who can do the job, I will hire them, because the cost of hiring an expat is much more,” he said. “So if I can have the same position filled at reduced costs and help my people and create opportunities, I’m going to do that every time.”