For the past 37 years, Langston Roach has built up his company Langston Roach Industries Limited from a garage/small cottage operation and moulded it into a successful group of companies in Trinidad and Tobago; the LRI Group of Companies.
That group of companies includes Langston Roach Industries Limited, Rojan Marketing Limited, Lazuri Apparel Limited, and LRI Automotive Limited, Roach Capital Investment Ltd, Saddle Eight Limited, and Shangri La Gardens Limited.
The original company, Langston Roach Industries Limited is well known as an indigenous manufacturer of Household Cleaners and Personal Care Products in Trinidad and Tobago with brands such as Lanher, Smart Choice, Fire Bright, Soft & Silky, and Nature’s Collection. The Company now manufactures over 100 different items, employs over 200 people, owns and occupies an 80,000 sq. ft. warehouse and office complex and exports its products to 12 countries throughout the Caribbean such as Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Maarten, Belize & Suriname.
However, despite his success, Roach is aware of how unique his position is as an Afro-Trinidad entrepreneur.
“What are the other large black businesses do you see in the environment?” asked Roach, who pointed out that while there were several prominent black professionals and businessmen within Trinidad and Tobago, there were few large-scale businesses that were still owned by Afro-Trinidadian entrepreneurs.
“I don’t think we have made the kind of progress that we should have made. Let me put it that way,” he said.
Roach explained that this was due to a few reasons, but he noted the limited assets hindered aspiring Afro-Trinidadian business operators from getting financial support, as well as a lingering mentality that often saw them without the backing of their own social groupings.
Roach’s story has been one where he had to overcome both.
While his father was a well-established public servant who helped many get into business, he truly inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his mother.
“She was doing a lot of stuff, doing dressmaking, design and cake decoration, teaching people how to sew during design and doing stuff for weddings, and so on. So I grew up, seeing her working at home doing this sort of stuff,” Roach told the Business Guardian.
However, the real push for Roach to go into business came when his father could not financially support one of his dreams.
“I did chemical engineering, but I didn’t complete my course. I left in my final year and one of the reasons for that is I was studying something I didn’t want to study. What I really wanted to do when I left secondary school which was QRC is that I wanted to go to Princeton University in the States,” he said.
“I wanted to go to Princeton University to do industrial engineering and business management. And my father at that time, when I was 18 years old, said he couldn’t afford it. And I decided they wouldn’t have to tell my children that so of course, that reinforced the idea that I wouldn’t go into public service I would earn my own income. So that convinced me to go into entrepreneurship.”
From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, Roach started and folded three businesses. It prompted some reflection and unearthed a crucial lesson that would inform his future success.
“In ’85, after three of those lack of successes, that’s what I call them instead of failures, I sat down to do some analysis on why this was happening to me, and I realised that when money came into my hand, I would go liming with my partners on a Friday evening and I would spend it on everything else, except the business. So I wasn’t handling money properly,” said Roach.
That lesson about money management, was something he noted was not taught in schools, and particularly not in Afro-communities in Trinidad and Tobago compared to other groups in the society.
“Other people they learned coming up, growing up in their family, they see their family handling money. They talk business over the dining table and you don’t learn these things. The crazy thing is that they don’t learn any of this in school, in university, or even an entrepreneurship course. They just do not teach you what money really is and how to handle money. They don’t teach it,” he said.
Roach also explained that Afro-entrepreneurs were also at a disadvantage due to the tendencies of most financial institutions in Trinidad and Tobago.
“We don’t have risk-taking or venture capital type banks in Trinidad and Tobago, and then the African population does not have a history of successful entrepreneurship. The banks feel more comfortable lending you if you have property or if you have some assets that it could take a lean on, and unfortunately, a lot of black people who want to go into entrepreneurship do not have those kinds of assets,” he said.
Roach explained that on his road towards the establishment of Langston Roach Industries, he was rejected by every single bank in Trinidad and Tobago. He got the business off the ground initially with the financial support of his mother and it was only after the business grew did the banks begin to react positively to his applications. He noted not much had changed in that regard for Afro-entrepreneurs who also needed to overcome an inherent lack of support from their family and social groups as well.
He noted that often, members of the community were discouraged from following unfamiliar paths.
“The environmental landscape is not conducive. There’s something in the entrepreneurial space we call your mental paradigm, hat is the main thing that’s missing,” he said, “You tell them I want to do so also, say you see ever see anybody in your family do that, and they beat down on most every uplifting, positive, imaginative, creative thing that you got into a child or young person’s mind. After a while, you develop a mindset of what you cannot do, and not what you can do and that’s exactly what is the missing, the major thing that needs to change.”
He added, “It is not an environment which gives people the self-confidence and if it is one thing an entrepreneur needs is self-confidence. “
Conversely, he noted, several new business operators attempt to run before they can walk and invariably cripple themselves before they can settle. He noted that in a recent business class, he regularly saw business proposals that required millions of dollars for start-ups as opposed to more manageable figures.
“My advice would be to start small because there are so many things that you’ve got to learn in your early months and years that you don’t know, whether it’s accounting, whether it’s customer service, whether it’s supply chain issues, whether it is handling money, there are so many things that you need to learn especially if you learn it when you start in small group rather than trying to start big, because when you fail when you are big, it’s a big failure It’s a hole and it tends to pull you down in it. If you start small you might be held up in a place where you can still recover, well you haven’t lost your self-confidence,” he said.