Mr. Michael Chastanet (also called THE BOATMAN) is one of the Caribbean’s foremost business leaders, a man who epitomises Caribbean industriousness and entrepreneurialism. For over 40 years he has built a business empire that encompasses shipping, retailing, manufacturing and tourism. They say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and this can be said to be the case with Chastanet.
He began his business career by working with his father who operated a ferry service in St Lucia, thus sparking the genesis of what would prove to be a lucrative commercial maritime career.
At six foot six and weighing in at over 250 pounds with a Herculean physique, he must have made an impressive sight as a young man standing at the bow of those early ships he bought and managed.
Speaking with Caribbean Business Report from his home in St Lucia, Chastanet declared: " In life people should go into a business that they enjoy. It’s not just about money; one should have a passion for what they do. “Evidently the shipping business struck a chord with me and I put my heart and soul into it”, he says.
“At this time, the situation in Nigeria was deteriorating and the infrastructure, more particularly transport, was seriously compromised. An African business outfit had a flour mill in Sapele which is 250 miles up the river from Nigeria’s capital Lagos. With the roads being in terrible condition, trucking to the factories was near impossible. This provided yet another opportunity for Chastanet and extended his African adventure. He was asked to ship grain from New Orleans to Sapele, another assignment that would prove lucrative. For a year he shipped cargoes of 4000 tons of grain”.
His first venture saw him acquiring a couple of shipping rights which would allow him to build two small ships in St Lucia, a project that took a year and a half. His elder brother worked with him on this enterprise but on completing the first ship, decided to quit as the shipping business was not for him. With his brother leaving St Lucia to study, Chastanet resolutely ploughed on, learning the business and going to sea for six months.
After four years he sold both vessels for a handsome profit. Reading the National Geographic, he learnt that European governments were providing an incentive to ship owners to sell their vessels that were 15 years old to the Government in an effort to keep European shipyards going. This meant one could acquire ships at very good prices.
In 1966 Chastanet made his way to Holland in search of securing a good deal on a ship. Together with a Jamaican called Captain Reid, Chastanet was one of the few men from the Caribbean to go to Europe to purchase a ship. He bought a 400-ton boat which he took back to St Lucia and opened for a year shipping goods between St Lucia and Trinidad. He hit pay dirt shipping 400 tons of cement a week from Trinidad to Barbados. After the first year, a director of Trinidad Cement Limited (TCL) informed Chastanet that he could only use his services for two weeks of the month and that he had given fifty per cent of Chastanet’s business to another shipper.
The intrepid young commercial shipper had made it his business to build his contacts in the region and utilised them well. In Puerto Rico he met a Spaniard who informed him that a Congressman owned a block plant in St Thomas and needed a lot of pumice (an aggregate used in the manufacturing of cement blocks). An American had a plant in Dominica and Chastanet was able to secure a contract to ship pumice between St Thomas and Dominica. Not one to burn his bridges, he continued to ship cement two weeks a month from Trinidad while shipping pumice for two weeks a month between Dominica and St Thomas. In the course of this undertaking he discovered that it was more profitable shipping pumice than the cement from Trinidad.
…..His travels took him into the American territories where he laid down some roots in Puerto Rico.
"I discovered it was more profitable to be based there both socially and economically. I felt both my children Allen and Feolla would get a better education there and at the same time learn to speak Spanish. Puerto Rico was wide open because in those days it didn’t have a vibrant shipping industry.
"It was 1968 now and while in Puerto Rico I bought two ships, one at 600 tons and the other at 800 tons. This meant that I now had three ships and had gained a degree of experience which allowed me to obtain better deals. I then sold the 400-ton ship for 130 per cent of what I bought it for and with that money I went back to Holland and bought a 1000-ton ship for less money than I bought the 400-ton ship."
…..Chastanet spent five years in Puerto Rico doing business in Venezuela, Jamaica, Aruba and Curacao. Consumerism had taken off in Puerto Rico and Chastanet was in the right place at the right time. Now he was moving 7000 tons of corrugated cardboard cartons primarily used to ship bananas.
"When the cartons came from the United States, the Cubans would compress them, it would then go to Venezuela to be recycled and we would then convert that to liner board which was used to make banana boxes. We would bring the cartons down to Venezuela and then take the liner boards to places like Jamaica and Martinique.
"At that time there was a surplus of cement in Venezuela which meant that they would sell it at reduced prices. There were many hotels being built in the Caribbean in the seventies and I saw an opportunity here. I made contact with many hotel builders and struck a deal to supply them with cement. I would buy the cement personally and give reduced prices on the freight. I sold cement to St Lucia and St Vincent for US50 cents a bag. It was the cement that I sold that built the Halcyon Hotel in St Lucia which is now a part of the Sandals hotel chain. In fact, Courtline built both Halcyon hotels in St Lucia."
……Feeling financially comfortable, Chastanet left Puerto Rico in 1974 and went to Florida to study law at FIU. After three months at the university he got a call from his broker in Holland who told him that he had done the wrong thing by getting out of the shipping business and that he wanted him to go to Philadelphia to see a ship, a 5000-tonner. Unable to resist a good deal he packed his bags and headed for Philadelphia.
"The operators of this ship had a contract to ship goods between Newfoundland and Philadelphia five times a week. I met some people in New York who said that they could give me a two-year contract when they were finished. I decided then to leave school and go back into shipping which saw me leaving Florida and buying a small house in New York. I sent my son Allen off to school in Canada while his sister attended a school in New York.
"I ended up spending twelve years in New York. I sold the ships I had acquired whilst I was in Puerto Rico and began operating bigger ships. In addition to the 5000-tonner, I bought two 3,500-ton ships, another one at 2,000 tons and later on, I managed to get my hands on a 7000-ton boat. I started a new route moving goods between New Orleans and Venezuela. At this time New Orleans was taking off, and it was a very successful home port for us. I was shipping a lot of grain from there to Venezuela. From there we would go a thousand miles up the Amazon picking up lumber and shipping it to New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. We also shipped goods to Charlestown, South Carolina and transported lumber to Montreal, Canada. While in Montreal we would ship cargoes of 5000 tons of food to Central America. This was food donated by one of those world food agencies who work in a humanitarian capacity. We would ship these food/goods to Belize, Panama, British Honduras, Spanish Honduras and we would go through the Panama Canal looking for business on the Pacific side.
"We sought to develop a new trade because in Nicaragua, on the Pacific side, there was a lot of lumber, but it was too expensive to go through the Panama Canal so I negotiated the purchase of the lumber and would sell it in places like Trinidad. We also moved cement from Panama down to Chile and we would bring fishmeal back to Panama," said Chastanet.
……..At this time there was a shortage of coffee in Panama which again presented the St Lucian with an opportunity. Being the biggest producer of coffee in the world, Brazil had given Ecuador permission to ship 15,000 tons of coffee, a contract Chastanet won. Now he was transporting 4,000 tons of coffee per month from Ecuador to New York which proved rather lucrative.
"Every time we went into new avenues we made new friends who gave us additional business. When I came out of the coffee business, South Africa was encountering trading problems due to its apartheid practices and it couldn’t get ships and was desperate for lumber. We then took lumber from Brazil and shipped it to Capetown, South Africa. We ended up spending a couple of months in South Africa and before long we would be transporting food provisions from Durban to Angola during the civil war there. We did that for about two years and were paid premium price to go there. We did well with that enterprise though many would consider it dangerous. We saw a lot of poverty and desperation there. I will never forget seeing the Cubans shipping their dead soldiers on special refrigerated boats back to Cuba. It was a harrowing sight," recalled Chastanet.
……At this time, the situations in Nigeria was deteriorating and the infrastructure, more particularly transports, was seriously compromised. An African business outfit had a flour mill in Sapele which is 250 miles up the river from Nigeria’s capital Lagos. With the roads being in terrible condition, trucking to the factories was near impossible. This provided yet another opportunity for Chastanet and extended his African adventure. He was asked to ship grain from New Orleans to Sapele, another assignment that would prove lucrative. For a year he shipped cargoes of 4000 tons of grain.
In 1982 Chastanet returned to St Lucia, having had enough of shipping." On returning to St Lucia I sold all my interests in shipping and I looked to see what I had seen abroad on my travels that would be workable in the Caribbean. I identified three businesses: a shopping centre, storage facilities and manufacturing."