Daily Business Review staff writer Paola Iuspa-Abbott recently accompanied South Florida construction executive J.R. Bergeron to Haiti, where he launched an intensive effort to obtain reconstruction work in the earthquake-torn nation. In this first in a series of articles, she describes how Bergeron established ties with a Haitian business partner who will be critical and help him gain a role in rebuilding.
When construction executive J.R. Bergeron climbed the steps of a chartered jet at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, he was less than two hours and 720 miles away from meeting his future business partner, one of Haiti’s most prominent businessmen.
DBR TV: J.R. Bergeron positions himself to gain contracts to help in Haitian reconstruction
Bergeron had never before felt compelled to visit or do business in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. But things are different now. Bergeron — like other American business owners and executives — hopes to land a contract to help rebuild the nation devastated by a Jan. 12 earthquake.
It’s still uncertain how successful he’ll be, but the two-day trip in late February called for every bit of luck, diplomatic skill and business savvy that he could muster.
After the earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people, left 1.2 million homeless and destroyed thousands of buildings, the international community pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild the country. On March 31, donor nations will gather in New York to unveil a reconstruction plan that is expected to launch a scramble for contracts.
When that happens, Bergeron wants to have a Haitian partner in place to help him navigate the complex Haitian political and business systems.
“If you are not tied in with the way Haitian people do business, you won’t be able to do business here,” Bergeron said. “Doing business in Haiti is very difficult.”
Bergeron, the 40-year-old president of Bergeron Emergency Services in Fort Lauderdale, wants to build 150,000 temporary residences to shelter families while their homes are being rebuilt. Eventually, he would convert the temporary structures into permanent offices and government buildings.
He is also seeking a contract to offload donated rice and sugar from ships arriving at Port-au-Prince. The U.S. military is transferring that job to civilians.
Soon after the Haiti earthquake, Bergeron, also owner of Bergeron Land Development, looked to partner with other U.S. companies in various fields that would complement his businesses. He has since lined up asphalt providers, home builders, engineers, architects, crane operators and other construction-related companies.
Bergeron briefly considered chasing international funds to temporarily house about 1,000 children on a cruise ship and to build schools. He dropped that plan in favor of helping to rebuild more than 150,000 homes, office and government buildings destroyed by the earthquake.
He quickly discovered that vying for contracts would require a big investment and that there are no guarantees — even with a Haitian partner. He says since mid-January he has spent more than $150,000 ramping up his Haiti initiative — with more spending ahead.
“You are looking at well over half a million dollars’ worth of personal investment to get to the table and [you] may not ever get a job,” he said.
As the corporate jet landed at Port-au-Prince’s airport, Steeve Khawly — a member of a prominent Haitian family and soon to be Bergeron’s partner — waited by a folding table that served as an immigration counter. A half-hour later, Bergeron and his entourage of eight hopped aboard Khawly’s two SUVs.
The convoy headed to Khawly’s downtown Port-au-Prince office over bumpy roads filled with trucks operated by the United Nations and various humanitarian groups.
Khawly’s office complex, secured behind green iron gates, had been reduced to one building after the earthquake destroyed the second structure.
After two hours of negotiations in a room filled with Bergeron aides and Khawly’s family members, the two emerged as partners.
“I am committed to you no matter what we do,” Bergeron told his new partner. “Now, as far as getting prices and things … until we have a scope of services of what we are doing, there is no telling what they’ll end up being. But when we get a contract, then we’ll sit down and negotiate what we are going to do.”
Khawly said he welcomed the American’s expertise and needed equipment to take on the task of rebuilding the country’s most damaged areas, including downtown Port-au-Prince. He said his main goal is to hire and train Haitians to help with the reconstruction effort.
“People here need work to make money and be able to buy their own food,” he said.
The Khawly family boasts a critical asset: its own port in Port-au-Prince.
“Their port is crucial for me to get my equipment in and out,” Bergeron said.
In addition to the port, the Khawly family owns tracts of land; a rice importing business; a cement plant; a metal recycling company; a construction firm; a heavy construction equipment rental business; and three gas stations.
The Khawlys also will provide a valuable knowledge of the culture and their political ties. Two weeks ago, for example, the family introduced Bergeron vice president Brian Thomason to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
Khawly, the president of the family businesses, often commutes to Weston, where his wife and three children live. Although his Florida home is not far from Bergeron’s family ranch, the two had never crossed paths.
For his part, Bergeron has plenty to offer. He has two lobbyists reaching out to officials of the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti earthquake relief efforts and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He also has close to $25 million worth of road construction equipment, plus capital.
Other American companies seeking contracts are also sealing partnerships with powerful Haitian families. Mobile, Ala.-based DRC Group, like Bergeron’s operation an emergency services company, joined forces with the Vorbe family, which owns V&F Construction, one of Haiti’s largest road construction companies.
DRC helped recover victims from the wreckage of the Hotel Montana, where Lynn University students and faculty and U.N. workers died when the structure collapsed.
After negotiating with Khawly, Bergeron’s marathon meet-and-greet session wasn’t over. From Khawly’s office, the SUVs headed to Haiti’s central police station, one of the few government buildings left standing and the temporary office of Haiti’s government ministers. There Bergeron briefly met with Minister of Culture and Communication Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lasseque and Minister of Haitians Living Abroad Edwin Paraison.
At the station, Bergeron bumped into singer and philanthropist Lord Kinomorsa “King Kino” Divers, a self-described “representative” of the Haitian people.
Divers said many American companies are headed to Haiti to sell services but few offer any concrete solutions.
“Why don’t you build 75 houses so the people can see them and if they like them, you can build more?” Divers asked, adding that the international community would be more inclined to award housing contracts for a product that Haitians want built.
“Let’s do it,” the brash Bergeron replied. “I am willing to make that investment. I know it’s worthy.”
Bergeron said he would fund a pilot project to be built on land Khawly owns across from the U.S. Embassy. Khawly agreed.
During his visit to Port-au-Prince, Bergeron also met with members of USAID and the U.N.’s World Food Program, which are helping distribute rice and sugar to Haitians left homeless by the quake.
Bergeron and Khawly want to take over port logistics for food distribution when the U.S. military leaves. One of Bergeron’s team members is Beyel Bros., which has an office in Riviera Beach. Beyel already provides barge, crane and tug boat services to the U.S. military at different ports across Haiti.
“That’s why we pick team members like Beyel, with strategic connections,” Bergeron vice president Thomason said.
A LUCKY BREAK
How Bergeron got to Haiti had more to do with luck than a calculated move by the construction executive.
Last month, he placed a newspaper ad seeking experienced construction workers to go to Haiti to help with the cleanup. That got the attention of Miramar resident Guy “James” Vulcain, Khawly’s cousin.
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Paola Iuspa-Abbott can be reached at (305) 347-6657.
J.R. Bergeron photo by Paola Iuspa-Abbott
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