Food, music and good vibes — three elements that when combined, create a fantastic Jamaican lounge experience. Out & About STYLE Magazine caught up with Gary Matalon, the Director and CEO of KLE Group Limited, who owns and operates Fiction Lounge and Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records. In this exclusive interview, he spills the beans on his business and on working with the champion.
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR UPBRINGING.
My name is Gary Matalon. I’m a Jamaican businessman and philanthropist with a couple of businesses under my guidance.
My upbringing was pretty normal. I was fortunate enough that my family is very close-knit. We spent a lot of time together with plenty of dinners at the table every night and family holiday. My parents were separated during my childhood and they both worked full-time jobs. My younger brother was 4 years at that time. We played football, went to school and essentially had a relatively normal upbringing.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THIS BUSINESS?
When I got out of university I worked in the construction industry. I worked in the construction industry. My family — father and cousins were all into construction business. I liked the industry and learnt a lot from working with family members. Being a family business, I had the advantage of moving through the layers easily and working with different departments. I didn’t initially get a managerial role. My family thought that it was important that I start at the very bottom. Many times, I was on the construction site, rolling in the back of a pickup truck with all the other construction workers. I think it was a great experience which helped build my foundation.
I did my undergraduate degree and was working in Jamaica when I decided to study my masters online with the University of Liverpool. There, I met a lot of different types of people and started to have my own ideas. As my family business was old and large, they weren’t willing to do things differently by trying all the new innovations. And I wanted to do something different.
So, I submitted my resignation which didn’t go down so well. And then I started my first business which was a project management company. It was rough at the beginning because I had all these great ideas and nothing materialised as intended. But fortunately, it all worked out well in the larger picture. The greater part of my company is in Jamaica right now. My partner is running it on a day-to-day basis. He’s involved in the operations level while I still serve at the strategic and board level. And it’s doing great.
In 2008, I got in an investment with some friends in the nightclub business. We started the Fiction Nightclub in Kingston. For me, it was a fun thing because I had my project management business and it was doing very well. It wasn’t a massive investment. So in the worst case scenario, we were going to have some fun, even if we didn’t make any money.
The nightclub turned out to be a tremendous success and caught everyone’s attention. What we had projected it to do — it was doing it multiple times better. And the nightclub became a blessing which brought in a lot of cash.
It was because of that investment that I got drawn into the food, beverage and hospitality industry. I started to love the industry, mixed with the fact that I was forced to learn and understand it. I ended up becoming very passionate about the scene. I’ve also been very passionate about Jamaica. So we took the success we’ve been having in the nightclub business on to the next brand or concept, which was Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records, which is where I spend a lot of time now.
HOW DOES TRACKS & RECORDS COMPARE TO OTHER SIMILAR BRANDS?
This restaurant was born out of this nightclub which was doing really well financially. It offered some infrastructure, and as a company, we felt we could leverage that. Of course, the passion for Jamaica and its major elements were key players in the concept. We thought that we could standardise that concept, package it within 4 walls and export it as a franchise model which could do well in other markets around the globe.
Starting out as a young person with limited experience and resources, it was difficult to go out and compete with the likes of multinational restaurant groups like Yum!, Darden and Whitbread. For us, we needed an edge to go out there and do what they couldn’t do. Then we started to talk to people like Usain Bolt, with whom I had a good relationship earlier. When we came up with this idea for the business, he just jumped all over it — he loved it! And his team was on board. Working closely with him really helped shape me and the restaurant to be more dynamic while being something that people would be drawn to.
HOW INVOLVED WAS USAIN BOLT IN THE ACTUAL BUSINESS?
Up until recently, Usain was training for the Olympics so that was the ultimate priority. We didn’t try to get in his way. At the beginning, we asked him for his ideas about the things we were creating along the way because, after all, we wanted the brand to reflect him — because he himself is an exceptionally dynamic person that people are drawn to. So we tried to capture that in his restaurant. That was a defined goal of the business in all stages.
He was very involved at that point of creation, and since then, for marketing and PR. Also, you do not find many restaurants that are heavily hinged on one person. You shouldn’t overuse it either, because the place is really about the food. About Jamaica. The vibe. The energy. It’s more about all that than it is about a person. We understand that sometimes, because Usain is larger than life, it’s hard to get that point across. It works to our advantage. We just have to be careful as to how we communicate it.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HIGHS AND LOWS OF RUNNING THE BUSINESS?
For sure, there have been a lot of highs, for which I was very fortunate and grateful. There have been equally as many lows, if not more. A lot of people don’t realise that there are some extremely challenging times in business. These are probably the worst feelings and experiences that anybody could go through in life. But the truth is that I don’t think we would be having some of our successes without having those lows. There were times when we were virtually done for.
If I could pick out one low and one high, the biggest low would be a few years after we went public, we listed the company on the stock exchange in 2012. That itself was a big high for me because as a young person, to be the CEO of a listed company and getting the company listed through the IPO and getting it oversubscribed was tremendous news. Everybody else whose companies were listed, was 20-30 years my senior. That was an amazing feeling.
But on the flip side, see it like this — you’re a listed company, you have annual general meetings at which shareholders sit there looking at you and everything is just going in the wrong direction. This happened to us. Literally, sales were tanking. We were going through tough times of growing too fast too soon. Our expenses could not be matched with our growth on the topline side. We got into a really sticky situation where the business was haemorrhaging.
We were forced to dig deep and come up with courage. We had to make sure we were working with our credentials and make good on everything that we owed. It was very challenging. year. The year of 2014 till 2016 end was the lowest low period. Fortunately, we were able to work our way out of that.
HOW HAVE YOU GROWN THROUGH THE PROCESS?
As you go through the emotions, challenges and successes of starting a business, all of them really start to shape you. Obviously, if 6 years ago, I knew what I know now, then I would have saved myself from a lot of headaches. But I would not have known what I knew if I didn’t go through what I went through.
In school, through my education, I got a great foundation, which is truly important. But there is nothing that can replace experience. The school of experience is the best teacher.
I have certainly grown a lot. And I’ve learnt that you never really know everything. You’ll always need to continuously learn. Mentally, I’m a more mature person because I know that I don’t know. Once you get your head around that lesson, you start to approach things differently. You start to open your mind and look for ways to garner knowledge. You’ll also surround yourself with worthy people who you may work with. With an open mind, you will be able to take other people’s experiences and expertise and leverage them on to your business.
WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION FROM?
My grandfather was a big business person in Jamaica. He had a lot of different things going on. He was my idol. I followed him around as a child and wanted to do everything he was doing. I think I got a lot of inspiration from him. He was one of the early influencers who shaped my thoughts.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU?
What keeps me going is that I really believe in what we are doing. I knew that going forward, this was going to be a much bigger plate than what was being done at that point.
As a young person in business, you don’t want to disappoint anybody. There are over 100 employees who are dependent on me to take home pay for their families. They were right there with me along the way. A lot of the core that started with me on day one is still there today.
I have an employee who started as a server at Fiction Nightclub in 2008 and is now a manager at Tracks and Records. She’s been through school on us. We’ve seen her grow and develop. She’s on of our most valuable employees. She’s been through the highs and lows with us. And there are a number of others like that as well.
Another aspect that gets me going is the people we do business with. You owe people money, you can’t turn your back on that and move on. That’s not how it works. I’ve had people owe me money too. So I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I believe if you’re having trouble, you need to be honest and accessible. You need to communicate. A cardinal mistake done by a lot of people is that they go into hiding because they are ashamed and don’t want to face the consequences.
And that’s been one of my biggest learnings. When I think of the challenges and the high times, I credit this sense of honesty. As a person of trade, it affects our reputation. Sometimes, we are on the receiving end. I even try to advise people about this — because you need to talk to your sponsors and partners. It’s a giant partnership and everybody has a different role. You need to look at the business like that and nurture everything. You need to pay attention to reputation and relationships or they will finish you off.
WHAT BRINGS YOU TO DUBAI?
I’m here in Dubai, looking for opportunities for the business. We opened in London in November last year. The success of that location has got us exploring other areas. We are going to continue to expand in the UK. UK has its own challenges with regard to site and property selection. Here in Dubai, we are learning more about the area. We have partners who live out here who understand the market.
This particular trip is to look up 2 particular areas in Dubai and make a decision. The hope is that before the year is old, we might be in a position to secure a site and actually expand into the UAE.
WHAT ARE YOU BRINGING THAT’S DIFFERENT?
Our concept was to design our own emotion that we are trying to achieve for a customer — a unique customer experience.
There are 5-6 Caribbean-influenced options that we’ve looked at so far that we think will fit that category. As a Jamaican, it’s a very proud feeling to be able to come to Dubai and hear our music and see people enjoying the food — it’s really exciting! What we bring to the table is a uniqueness in the form of a casual dining concept and a bar concept which is not very similar to other options. I think we have gone a slightly different route in trying to contemporise the brand.
Also, our fusion is a bit different. Everybody sort of just does their thing their way. The Usain element brings a whole different dynamic to it. As a partner in our business, having Usain on board is huge, not just for Jamaica, but for the Caribbean nationals in those markets. You start to appeal to a wider cross section of people because of it.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS OR SOMEONE LOOKING TO START A BUSINESS?
There’s no silver bullet answer. There’s no single way of doing it right. Without sounding too cliche, what worked for me is that you have to be passionate about what you are doing as an entrepreneur.
If you are going to get a job with somebody, you have to be the best, but you can get away without being very functional. When you start your business, and if you don’t love it, have a passion for it or believe in it, then when those tough times hit (which they will), it will be a hard fight. And that fight is not for the faint of heart. You have to be able to dig deep and find the energy and the mental state to pull through that. It’s very very difficult.
I would say that don’t go into business trying to make money or find a job. It’s not about that. If that’s what your business is about, then I don’t think it will end well. That’s what worked for me. I didn’t calculate things to be the way they are. Experiences came at me. And I started to shape the direction I went. But at the end of the day, there was always that underlying passion — that drive that allowed me to reach where I am now. That doesn’t mean I’ve reached. I still have so far to go. With respect to what I’m looking at — the bigger plate, I’m just scratching the surface.
Some of my colleagues are very successful business people in different parts of the world. Those experiences and that knowledge base is also going to help to grow the business. That’s another piece of advice — you never do anything by yourself. There’s no success that I’ve had because of my own doing. It’s always going to be about people, all your relationships and networks. By all means, you’ve got to keep that in mind if you’re going to play the game and up your scale.