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Lawrence Duprey: Looking for redemption

Published: 
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Lawrence Duprey, right, speaks with former Guardian editor-in-chief Owen Baptiste in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. PHOTO: RHONA BAPTISTE

Last month, veteran journalist Owen Baptiste, former editor in chief of both the T&T Guardian and the Trinidad Express, spent a week in Florida talking with Lawrence Duprey. This is the first of an exclusive five-part series by Baptiste, based on their long, frank discussions of Duprey’s past and his vision and hopes for the future.

 

 

Fort Lauderdale, Fl Thursday,  March 21—It was not possible, after spending a week with Lawrence Duprey, the disgraced chairman of the Colonial Life Insurance Company Ltd and of the CLF Group of Companies, to come away not wondering if the anointed successor to Cyril Lucius Duprey had not been a lucky and skilful entrepreneur so much as a colourful adventurer, a sweet-talker and a bloody idiot. 

 

 

This would not be the confusion one would have had about Sidney Knox and Thomas Gatcliffe, rivals in the business world of the Caribbean and business leaders he would criticise for having a narrow vision of their entrepreneurial role in T&T. But Walter Lippmann had warned that “when you come to international affairs confusion is compounded” and Duprey had mounted this stallion for more than 20 years and had stood in the arena like a colossus until the world’s financial crisis put an end to his image of omnipotence. 

 

Day after day, the legendary Duprey talked to us about the business and political world he had lived in since the elder Duprey’s death in 1988 and now one in which he hoped for “redemption” and for the opportunity to return to Trinidad to put Humpty Dumpty Together Again.

 

Since returning to Trinidad in December 2010 I had been trying to make contact with Duprey and it was not until January 2012 that I was given his e-mail address by Cheryl Netto, who had been Cyril Monsanto’s secretary and whom I had worked with in 1986 when I was writing Duprey: The success story of Cyril L Duprey and the Colonial Life Insurance Company. At the time I was editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Express Newspapers Ltd and I had met the elder Duprey in Miami quite by chance.

 

 

Over dinner he had told me of his attempts to write the story of his company but had abandoned the project. Before this I had collaborated on just one book, Crisis: The story of the oil and sugar strikes of 1975 with Kit Roxburgh, night editor of the Express. 

 

However, I offered to help and he turned over the manuscript, the 17 pages he had written, to me. We had agreed that I would work with Cyril Monsanto, who was managing director of Colonial Life, a loyal friend and employee and a gentleman. 

 

The book, Duprey, had a disastrous ending however: Cyril Duprey was offended by something in the book and when we delivered the 5,000 copies to him, he ordered that the books be destroyed. But copies that were not destroyed can be bought today on Amazon for US$134!

 

I was never told explicitly what had made Cyril Duprey so furious that he would take such drastic action. Neither Monsanto, who had read every word, sentence and paragraph before the artwork of the 396-page book was sent to the printers in Miami; nor Peter Salvary, one of the Colonial Life directors who I was often told was a man with a phenomenal memory of everything Colonial Life, offered me an explanation and instead insisted that they had no idea why Duprey had acted so irrationally. 

 

But that, it seemed to me, was not the end of Duprey’s rage and in 1988 Monsanto retired from the company and went to Florida where, according to Lawrence Duprey, he died broken in spirit and wealth. “I took care of him,” Lawrence said, “and just before he passed away, he sold me his shares in the company. He made me the largest single shareholder in Colonial Life.”

 

It took more than a year for me to get a favourable response to my appeals to contact Lawrence Duprey. On January 13, 2012, I heard from Cheryl Netto. She wrote me on Facebook: “Hi, Owen. Not sure if you remember me but I worked with Cyril Monsanto at Clico in the days when you were doing CLD’s book and then with Lawrence Duprey for 23 years as his assistant up to Dec 2008. I live in Florida now and Lawrence would like to meet you.”

 

I had no idea what he wanted. I wanted to write a sequel to my book on his uncle and the company he had founded and which was now in troubled waters. Maurice Greenberg had felt that he should write The AIG Story after he was unceremoniously kicked out of the chairmanship of the company he had founded, but would Lawrence Duprey see his own fate as unjustified and needing explanation and expiation?

 

“The politicians and the media in Trinidad,” he said almost naively, “have vilified me. The police searched my house. 

 

 

“They came with television cameras into my bedroom. If I had done anything wrong, they would have put handcuffs on me and paraded me in the streets. “Maybe I should not have left Trinidad as I did in 2009, but I was told that Prime Minister Patrick Manning and Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams were out to get me. I guess I panicked and I know the wrong impression went out there. The question is, how am I going to correct it?”

 

What could I do, I asked—as naively.

 

 

The media in T&T
Lawrence Duprey had it all figured out. “The media in the Caribbean have vilified my wife and me. They have said that Sylvia owns millions of dollars in property in Miami in hotels and shopping malls, and I would like to challenge the lies they wrote. Sylvia has warned me about speaking to reporters and I believe I cannot trust the present crop of journalists who work with the three newspapers in Trinidad—but I am willing to take a chance with you.”

 

On what was his trust based? In 1998 he had helped us with the publication of Caribbean Affairs, but we hadn’t been friends or business associates, and we assumed he liked what we were trying to achieve with the journal. I had in fact hoped to get his support for what we were doing at Caribbean Information Systems and Services at Frederick Street, but the help I expected was not what I got from the group’s financial director, L André Monteil, and I returned the $1.2 million cheque he sent for my shares in the company. 

 

“This is news to me,” Lawrence Duprey said about the Monteil cheque, “but I always knew that André wanted to own an IT company.” “But when he had the chance he didn’t do so. He went into sheep-farming.” “I know. I bought him his first flock of sheep.” What do you want me to do? I remembered then why Ms Netto had written. Lawrence, she had said, wants you to write something for him. 

 

It certainly was not what I had in mind: a book about the collapse of Colonial Life and the fate of the acquisitions he had added to his uncle’s empire. “I am looking for redemption,” he said. My son Simon had said that Lawrence Duprey did not look like a common thief when he drove us to Piarco Airport to catch Caribbean Airlines flight 480 to Fort Lauderdale. “He looks more like a Don,” he said. 

 

And every day as I watched the huge frame of the man—always casually dressed in slacks, cotton shirt and loafers—sitting on a high chair in the lobby of the Comfort Suites at 1800 South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale and considered the power he wielded, I figured he was right. 

 

The Comfort Suites, it seemed, was where he preferred to meet with us and not once did he invite us to visit his home. I had thought he might have done so on the Sunday, but he didn’t, even though his wife was generous enough to take us to Barnes and Noble for the Greenberg book he insisted I should read. 

 

More like a Don. I guessed that his size and calm demeanour could have given this impression but I wondered about his health. He was about 250 pounds and I wasn’t surprised when he said that he had to lose 50 pounds. There was no tension in his body, however, and in his brown eyes that always inspected the items on the table between us. “You are not taping this interview,” he said.

 

“Of course we are,” I said. “You don’t want us to misquote you on anything. Since we have met, you have not lost any time to tell us how inefficient and hostile the media in Trinidad have been to you. It is as if they conspired to rob you of friends in Trinidad.” “It’s true. I am not making that up. They want me dead. I remember when Sylvia was front-page news with newspaper reports that she had millions of dollars in Florida banks. And reporters at the three dailies in Trinidad were the ones responsible for these stories. 

 

“Even a chance visit to the Monaco Grand Prix in 2007 was reported as an abuse and not as the opportunity to network with business associates.” “Lawrence, don’t say anything more about the media unless you are going to show me proof of their bias. I am tired of the habit nowadays of slandering journalists and arrogating to them political power. That is all people seem to think reporters do for a living.”

 

“I am telling you what I know.” “You say they receive bribes? Money, Lawrence?” “Not just money. Food too. And gifts” I winced. I had no idea of the gifts the People’s National Party handed out to reporters and photographers in the years they were in office, but I knew that Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her Ministry of the People had been showering the press with hampers and I knew that it was a kind of political patronage that would undermine, in the public’s mind, the integrity of the media. 

 

“You cannot be serious, Lawrence,” I said. “When I worked at the Guardian and the Express I too accepted invitations to lunches from politicians and businessmen.” “In your time there were rules of conduct or combat, a certain respectability among members of the press and a reticence about accepting gifts from anyone in the belief that they would compromise their relationship with members of the public, the credibility that journalists strive to maintain. 

 

“But the firewall has now been removed and young reporters do not recognise their commitment not to be influenced by their sources of news. I am sorry, but that is how I see it today.” “And what about you? Isn’t it what you are trying to do with me?” “I am not worried if you think so, but you don’t belong to the mainstream press, and I don’t think I could bribe you. It’s not in keeping with the man and journalist I know. 

 

“Cheryl did tell you that I wanted you to do some writing for me. When you went to see Tommy Gatcliffe with your idea for The Story of Angostura, did you have any uneasiness that he would misinterpret your purpose?” “The truth is, Tommy had the wrong idea when I went to see him. He thought, he said, that I had come to see him for help in starting an investment fund. I had no idea how he had come up with that idea, but we assured him that that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted him to know of our plans to write your story. ”

 

 

“So how is what we are discussing so far away from what you discussed with Tommy about writing The Angostura Story?” “I am sorry. Are we talking about The Lawrence Duprey Story?” “No. Not yet.”

 

 

The internationalist
In Drift and Mastery, Walter Lippmann speaks about “A Big World and Little Men” and Duprey invokes this memory when he insists that West Indian politicians were bent on pauperising the Caribbean islands. “There was never any real plan to educate and lift their constituencies out of the squalor of slavery and indentureship.

 

 

Their prayers every day must have been, God, keep them stupid and dependent on us for everything. But this was not the way I tried to move and you will see that we gave a lot of scholarships, not just to members of the United National Congress but also to members of the People’s National Movement.”

 

“I don’t remember that this was Cyril Duprey’s way. I am sure that he supported political parties but he didn’t brandish it as you have done. He was as discreet as most white businessmen in Trinidad are. Why? Didn’t you think that there would be repercussions?”

 

“Firstly, I was drawn to Basdeo Panday by the socialist principles he espoused. I didn’t see Eric Williams and the PNM in the same way. Panday spoke about lifting people from poverty and ignorance and his philosophy was something I shared, which had developed from years of working as an insurance person with Neil Jones and Harry Harnarine.” “Harry Harnarine?”

 

“Yes. Harry was a very good insurance man. But he got greedy.” “You remind me of a Chinese idiom. That is, becoming black in a black dye and becoming yellow in a yellow dye. Or, as we say, he who lies with dogs will rise with fleas. But it is obvious that you never sensed any wrongdoing on anyone’s part. And yet, isn’t it strange that none of the well-known CEOs whose work you don’t place as important as yours retired without the controversy you brought to the Clico empire?”

 

“What’s so strange about that? Their successes were ordinary. They didn’t make any waves. They didn’t take T&T and the Caribbean outside to global markets.” “You mean they never put their hand in the fire for the welfare of Caribbean people? You don’t equate their quiet lifestyle with the wish to separate business from politics?”

 

“I don’t, because the success or failure of big business relies so much on politics and the political bed you find yourself in.” “But is it on record that they were not as richly rewarded as you were? And as a businessman and the head of such a powerful group of companies, was it necessary to publicly embrace the United National Congress as you did?

 

“It could not have been a surprise to you that Manning and even members of your own staff like the group financial director resented this public demonstration of political affinity and could have seen it as inimical to the interests of the company. And then you had to go cap in hand to the very Prime Minister you snubbed for help.”

 

“We gave Panday’s daughters scholarships as we gave 2,500 other people scholarships. We went to court and I showed the court that having a long vision meant that we needed to help people to help themselves. 

 

“We were educating people so that they would come back and buy policies from us. My job as chief executive officer was to do just that. They would be lawyers and engineers and they would have fine jobs as island people. It is said that the first generation starts it up and the second generation mashes it up. My job was to make sure that we did not mash it up but that we were passing it on to qualified people.”

 

“Why was Manning so hostile to you? You said that he had declared his intention to destroy you. There were other members of your staff who were known to support the PNM as much as you supported the UNC but there was no newspaper report of them pulling down UNC banners in Diego Martin or elsewhere.” “That was one of the lies the newspapers told. I never pulled down any banners! 

 

“And yet it is the point I am trying to make to you. We have to grow up and move away from our petty positions. I don’t think for example that Knox and Gatcliffe have done enough for the people in T&T and the Caribbean. They offered employment but they did little to improve the quality of workers. The car-assembly plants were a disaster and did not develop the kinds of skills we need to compete with other emerging markets. 

 

“It is only Butch Stewart in Jamaica who was prepared to break new ground. His Sandals brand could be better known today than Angostura Bitters, which was one of the challenges I took up after our purchase of Angostura.” “I am still trying to figure out the source of all the animosity to you.”

 

“We had grown too big. Through Neal and Massy, Angostura, Republic Bank and the other subsidiaries, we controlled the whole country. It was fear and envy. They wanted to break me and make me persona non grata in all my companies. I was even barred from entering the group’s hotel in Florida. 

 

“But nothing they have done with Colonial Life has worked. None of the people they brought in to correct the company has been successful. The fact is, Colonial Life is not today the village enterprise that Cyril Duprey started in 1937; it is a global company. “It is not going to be put together again by men who do not have a world view. You have seen it happening. They have tried Assam. They have tried Yetming. They have tried Tewarie.”

 

“So what happens to Clico’s policyholders?” “They are the ones I am thinking about.” “Isn’t it too late for that?”

 

 

An example in Pope Francis
TIME magazine of  March 25 featured the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Latin American to head the Roman Catholic Church, and the new Pope Francis, its editors say, brings to the Vatican a concern about the spiritual slickness that can afflict the church and the hope that under his rule the mistakes of priests, bishops and cardinals of the church could be corrected. 

 

Lawrence Duprey seemed to be caught up in this public orgasm of forgiveness and redemption. 

 

 

He was born and grew up, Lawrence Duprey says, in a Roman Catholic family and he finished school in Trinidad at Fatima College before going on to McGill University in Canada, where he studied mechanical engineering. It was in Canada that he met and married his first wife, who bore him two sons, who are lawyers, one practising both law and medicine in Washington DC and the other in Toronto, while engaged in farming. But he doesn’t say more about them or about their families. 

 

His third son is a ten-year-old. “You know, what impresses me about our new Pope Francis,” he said, “is his dedication to serving the really poor of the world. He talks about the poor in Argentina not in an abstract way but as someone who is familiar with the lives of people at the bottom of society. This was how I had viewed the work we were doing at Colonial Life.” 

 

But he ignores the luxury lifestyle he and his princely officers lived. Unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, there was no warning light to stop the insanity and greed that had overtaken the inheritors of Cyril Lucius Duprey and Cyril Oswald Monsanto’s hard work and frugality. As the editors of TIME concluded, there was no concern about what could befall a church or a company when its leaders seemed to care more about themselves than about the public they serve.

 

“So what went wrong? The visionary in you seemed to have worked very well and all your associates seemed to have profited from your investments until the money-crunch came. In fact the only people who appear to have suffered from the extravagances in the company were policyholders and taxpayers in T&T and the rest of the Caribbean. 

 

“But there is the urgent need to correct this public view of malaise and malfeasance if you are to continue, as you say, with your lecture and investment work in China and Africa. Bad news, as you know, travels fast.” “I know, and I know that if given the chance, I could bring Colonial Life back to what it was. And I am willing to do so for no money, for the time it would take me to correct the mistakes of the past.”

 

 

• Continued in next week’s Sunday Guardian

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