It was 1974 and Trinidad was very poor. To earn spending money, a 14-year-old student of Queen’s Royal College started a paper route. Every day at 5:00 a.m., he would ride his bicycle around Federation Park, throwing The Trinidad Guardian into neighbours’ yards. His route ended at the St. James Army Barracks where recruits would shout “Papers!” to say hello. Many of them still see “Papers” today, and they often approach him to say “Boy, we are so proud of you.”
Long before he became one of the Caribbean’s most recognisable businessmen, Gerry Brooks was “Papers”. Expanding his route and earning tips from neighbours was his first brush with entrepreneurship. Brooks worked throughout his university life as well, sometimes working up to five jobs to pay his way through the University of the West Indies (UWI), the Hugh Wooding Law School and Columbia University. Looking at the former Ansa McAl Group Chief Operating Officer (COO), now the Chairman of the NGC Group of Companies, it is hard to believe that he once worked part-time cleaning toilets. Trinidad is far more familiar with Brooks’ successes. In 2003, when he became COO of the Ansa McAl Group, the Group was earning TT$225 million dollars in annual profit.
We’re sitting in Brooks’ living room, surrounded by the cornucopia of colourful pictures that adorn his walls. Booming drum beats and cheerful horns punctuate our conversation; the music Brooks has chosen is much like the man himself—– energetic and warmly welcoming. As we delve into Brooks’ history, I learn that he came from a long line of hard workers. “My grandfather was a policeman,” Brooks says. “He won two medals for bravery in World War IITwo.” When I ask about his father, a former judge and Senior Counsel who was awarded the Chaconia Gold Medal, Brooks’ smile stretches all the way to his eyes. “I am very, very proud of him,” he declares.
In fact, Brooks’ law training began at eight years old when his father prepared for trials. The elder Brooks would pace around the room dictating his address while young Gerry wrote out his father’s judgements,– his words carpeting the page to keep time with his father’s speech. Indeed, his father served as a role model when Brooks had his own children. As we discuss family, I have to ask how Brooks is able to balance his copious commitments with family life. After all, in addition to working with Ansa McAl for twenty-five25 years, Brooks has served as the President of the Family Planning Association, the President of the Rotary Club, the Vice President of the Law Association, the Deputy Chairman of the Caribbean Court of Justice, and a lecturer at UWI.
“Honestly, I got the balance wrong at times,” Brooks he admits soberly. As an avid golfer, weekends often found him on the greens, unwinding after a week of bBoard meetings, strategic planning and spearheading corporate acquisitions. Despite his love affair with golf, Brooks says, “I stopped playing because my wife said to me, ‘you need to spend more time with your sons.” All three of Brooks’ sons are footballers and he tells me, “I would go with them to the game. I would go with them from the game. Sometimes, during the game I would go back to my car to do teleconferences.” Although it wasn’t easy, Brooks credits his wife with helping him balance family life and career.
Anna-Maria Garcia-Brooks is herself a business titan, – now the General Manager of Human Resources at Republic Bank. Not only has the couple raised three sons, but they have supported one another through their meteoric rise up the corporate ladder. Garcia-Brooks explains:, “Because we were both in a similar position, where our careers were growing at the same time, we understood each other.” In fact, both Gerry Brooks and Anna-MariaGarcia-Brooks were awarded the title of “Distinguished Alumnus of the University of the West Indies”, the only husband and wife to receive the honour.
“An L-shaped desk!” Brooks interjects. He is still as excited as if he has just found the perfect piece of furniture. As the couple tells the story of Garcia-Brooks’ MBA journey, her appreciation of his efforts illuminates the tale. Even though their eldest son was studying for the SEA exam at the same time, Brooks managed to minimise strain on his wife. After dinner, Brooks would work with their son while supervising their two other rambunctious boys so that his wife had time to study.
Indeed, Brooks’ dedication to partnerships is seen both in his successful marriage and in his teamwork-oriented corporate slogan: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”. Brooks has been a team player for his family, his companies and his country. So much so that I wrote multiple drafts of this article and was still unable to describe the myriad of ways that he and his teams excelled. But then, the hallmark of Gerry Brooks is excellence. And while it is easy to look at him now and think that he has it made, it is his work ethic, integrity and commitment to lifelong learning that made him. He went from being “Papers” to being the COO of the company that published those very papers— and he’s far from finished.