For Alasdair Foster, working the cockpit controls and casting a bird’s eye view are necessary for setting the course of his next challenge.
“I definitely have a sense of adventure and am always looking for new horizons to reach,” says the private pilot. It’s why he believes his full-time job as President of Dart Enterprises’ Active Investments keeps his sights aligned. “The portfolio comprises a very diverse set of businesses and there is no room for boredom.”
Foster, who previously worked as a barrister and has an MBA under his belt, first came to Grand Cayman on holiday in 2006 and realised he was about to embark on his next challenge.
“I was at JP Morgan in London working in investment banking at the time, but fell in love with the island on my first visit,” he says. “When I arrived, I worked initially as a
hedge fund director at Walkers, then at Maples.”
Eventually, his path led him to Dart and Active Capital, which falls under the purview of Active Investments. He now has oversight over 11 businesses that range across a spectrum of industries. The Active Capital umbrella covers retail and hospitality businesses across the three islands: Cayman Distributors Group, Island Companies, the Regal Camana Bay Stadium 6 cinema, Books & Books, North Sound Golf Club, Cayman Islands Yacht Club, Paradise Villas, the Hungry Iguana and West Indies Wine Company. Active Investments includes the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa. There are also a biotech company and finance companies.
Although the companies are diverse, they are unified by Foster’s business management, which guides the balance of logic, opportunity and inspiration regardless of sector or whether the focus is to incubate, maximise operational efficiency or drive growth.
“This role at Dart has brought everything together because I regularly draw upon my legal training,” he says. “My finance background and business degree are at the core of what I do. This job demands all my skills and education and doing it is incredibly rewarding.”
It’s not just his knowledge that makes Foster effective in his role. His innate problem-solving skills and ability to think strategically constantly come into play.
“I’m very logical in my approach,” he says. “But I’ve also had to evolve from just thinking logically and strategically to being pragmatic and looking at the big picture when necessary.”
The “big picture” Foster speaks about continues to expand.
“When I first started asset managing Active Capital, the portfolio consisted of Cayman Distributors Group and Island Companies,” he says. “CDG was the result of the families who owned Cayman Distributors Ltd. and the Big Daddy’s and Blackbeard’s liquor stores looking to sell their businesses. They were considered good investments by Dart and they have also proven to be good economic catalysts for the local economy. We have 80 Caymanian employees at CDG.
The companies have also proven good sources of talent for the Dart group with several of the CDG employees having been promoted to wider roles within the organisation.”Business owners sometimes look to Dart as a potential buyer of their companies, Foster says. “We have seen this in a number of cases where people who want to divest themselves of a business also want the new owner to be a good steward of that business going forward. Dart has the long-term vision and capital to be a good custodian of these companies.”
Foster recounts that Island Companies posed what he calls one of his hardest challenges. “In 2013, there were a number of tough decisions that had to be made. We had to close some stores and make significant management changes to ensure that the businesses would be successful. I learned a lot about the jewellery, watch, sunglasses and cigar industries, but happily the outcome has been very positive. The company has now had three years of substantial year-on-year growth and the morale among employees has vastly improved. In fact, we’re excited to be opening a new store at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa this month.”
For Foster, employee growth in morale and career path is tantamount to success for him. “For me, satisfaction is two-fold: there needs to be the growth of the business, but equally growth of careers for our employees. Staff need to know they have meaningful economic participation, meaningful purpose and ultimately, enjoy their work.”
Over at the newly opened Kimpton Seafire, success is being recorded and rewarded. “Last month, there was an all-staff session after five months of opening, and it was incredibly uplifting to witness a great outpouring of job satisfaction and empowerment,” Foster says. “It showed how much everyone is enjoying working at the Seafire resort. Particularly encouraging to see was the pride from the housekeeping team, containing many former Beach Suites employees, which has already been ranked the top housekeeping team in the whole Kimpton chain for January and February.”
Foster shares that sense of job satisfaction and empowerment in his own position. He cites the words of Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers,” when he says the key ingredients for a fulfilling job are autonomy, complexity and connection between effort and reward.
“For the first ingredient of autonomy, I am very fortunate to have Mark VanDevelde as a boss who trusts me to get on and do my job, and to escalate where appropriate. I appreciate that,” he says. “With the second ingredient of complexity, the nature of the industries I am involved in lends itself to that. The third ingredient, effort and reward, I see in relation to Ken Dart’s philosophy. The Dart group makes substantial donations to local charities. But perhaps more importantly, by creating successful businesses that follow the proper values, we are creating new employment and career opportunities for people that allow them to lead meaningful and productive lives.”
By staying focused on the core Dart values including profit motivation, Foster is able to position the Active Capital companies to benefit the company and its employees.
“To be able to provide the career opportunities we do, we have to have successful companies,” he says.
Recent achievements lend themselves to that feeling of purpose for Foster. “We see the benefits of Dart’s investment philosophy with Books & Books and Regal Cinema where they were set up to be anchor tenants of Camana Bay. By virtue of that long-term vision and responsible investment of capital, we are able to do things like open the new auditorium with luxury seating, 4K projection and Dolby Atmos surround sound at the cinema. With the bookstore, we have been able to bring down internationally renowned authors to speak at events at the bookstore. So, we are able to run these businesses successfully and add value to the community.”
Foster also invests his time in Junior Achievement, kindling the entrepreneurial spirit in teenagers. “I am energised by teaching business skills and managerial tips to students and harnessing their creative energy,” he says. “With tools and training, their innovation will drive this country forward, and my experiences with them refresh my own perspective and sense of purpose.”
With his gaze forward set, Foster wants to see his team continue to thrive in a sea of change.
“My greatest sense of achievement comes from building the team that we have here,” he says. “The more I practise business management, the more I see the similarities to being a football coach; it’s primarily about putting together the right team, giving direction and then let them get on with playing the game. The culture we have is fantastic. It’s a fun, engaging place to work and I want to see that grow and develop. With Dart’s commitment to innovation, there will be new opportunities and challenges and even further diversity.”
Just as Foster depends on his skill sets to excel at his job, he also is learning new skill sets to expand his personal horizons, literally. “I learned to fly back in 2008, after I moved to the island. It was not a long-held ambition; a friend suggested it might be an exciting thing to do,” he says. “So I earned my private pilot certificate, then went on to get my instrument and multi-engine ratings. I also added a seaplane rating which involved learning things like circular takeoffs and was a lot of fun. Having a private licence is great because it opens up the Caribbean for flying adventures. I was also able to fly myself to New York last year and take part in the marathon there.”
No doubt, his pilot eye will be looking for the next limit to push.