Pan’s Global Ambition Hits Pause: Export Flagship In Choppy Waters

Michael Cooper with steelpans

As the news went viral and the ripple of shock rose to a crescendo of outrage, embarrassment and recrimination, Michael Cooper sent out a WhatsApp message: “Well… well… well. I guess we need to see things in black and white to believe.”

With the note was the news report from News Channel 5 Cleveland, a television station in Ohio, USA. There for all the world to see was a story extolling the success of Panyard Incorporated, a company in Akron, just outside Cleveland, as the recognised “world leader of steeldrums.”

On the island that had gifted the magnificence of the Steelpan to the world, the casually delivered statement landed with the force of an arrow to the heart. Across the oceans, Trinbagonians reached out for each other via social media in a global commiseration of shared loss. But not Cooper, majority owner and managing director of Panland Trinidad and Tobago Limited, the Laventille-based self-declared “panmakers to the world” and, until recently, the largest steelpan manufacturing company in the world.

As the tide of anger swelled with blame and accusations of cultural appropriation, Cooper’s sense of déjà vu morphed into the triumph of vindication.

Here, “in black and white, all pun intended”, he added with a twinkle in the eye, was what he had been trying to communicate for years to successive governments, investors, bankers and  advocates for steelpan as industry. Neither intimidated nor threatened by Ohio’s foray into the pan manufacturing, Cooper is hoping that the foreign example of Panyard Inc might be the catalyst to convince investors, private or public, about the validity of his strategy for the development of a global steelband industry based in Trinidad and Tobago and, more specifically, in Laventille, birthplace of the Steelpan. From where Panland now sits, all it requires is an infusion of TT$6 million.

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Michael Cooper came to steelpan not through music but through industry. An electrical engineer with expertise in operational management, he was the Managing Director of Neal and Massy Industries when the decision was taken in the early nineties to shut down the conglomerate’s car assembly plant in Arima. With the era of protection and windfall profits about to be blown away by the winds of liberalization, competition and cheaper imports, Cooper was charged with the responsibility of finding alternative uses for the car assembly plant.

After a global search for opportunities and ideas, the group known today as the Massy Group, settled on the idea of a new subsidiary, Ajax Manufacturing and Fabricating Ltd, which would transition the plant’s facilities into five different lines of business. One of them was steelpan manufacturing.  Quickly recognising the high potential of the steelpan as “special”, Cooper moved steelpan manufacturing out of Ajax into a separate company, Trinidad and Tobago Instruments Limited, a low-capital joint venture between Neal and Massy as majority shareholder with Metal Industries Company (MIC) and Pan Trinbago, governing body for steelbands. In 1993, as the assembly plant prepared to close, Cooper was offered the comfortable option of staying with the group. To the surprise of almost everyone, he chose to chase the dream.

“I said ‘Pan gone, I gone! And I want the pan.’ Everyone thought I was a mad man but that was the choice I made. I felt compelled to do that,” he explained.

In lieu of a cash severance, Cooper acquired Neal and Massy’s majority shareholding in TTIL and some steelpan manufacturing equipment and moved the company from Arima to Old St Joseph Road in Laventille. In November 1994, TTIL was launched amid great fanfare with Prime Minister Patrick Manning cutting the ribbon to usher in a new day for Steelpan and Laventille.

With its eye trained on the export market, TTIL quickly began conquering new horizons. Very early, Cooper discovered the lucrative, largely untapped market for miniature pans when an order came in for 8,000 miniature pans from Woodstock Percussion, a New York company specializing in wind chimes. That experience also came with a valuable lesson about lead standards for paint in the US market which would later push Cooper to invest in powder coating technology.

After four years at St Joseph Road, Cooper moved the company to its current location opposite Angostura at the corner of the Eastern Main Road, Laventille and Dorata Street. In 2006, the company took on a new investor in Dynamic Equity and changed its name to Panland Trinidad and Tobago Limited. As Dynamic came on, Pan Trinbago cashed in its shares and left.

By 2007, Panland’s production was exploding. When an order for 6,000 pans came in from First Act, a supplier of toy-sized musical instruments based in California USA, its staff of 75 had to work round-the-clock.

“It affected all my customers,” recalled Cooper.

Later, when First Act came back to Panland with a sales projection of 40,000 pans, Cooper said he just “ran”, such demand being far beyond Panland’s capacity. For First Act, Panland invented the 10-and-a-half inch steelpan, broadening its range of pans which also includes an 8-inch, 12-inch, 15-inch, 18-inch 22-and-three-quarters-inch. As it broke into one market after another, Panland picked up entrepreneurial honours, including the Prime Minister’s Exporter of the Year Award.

From the beginning, Panland had trained its lens on the export market with customers in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, the Caribbean and elsewhere. While it produced, maintained and tuned pans for the domestic market, Cooper said the objective was never to replace the industries that had developed around the annual Panorama steelband competition.

In September 2008, when the global economy went into meltdown, Panland was luckier than most. Just the year before, the Trinidad and Tobago government under the Patrick Manning administration had introduced the IDB-funded Pan In Schools programme for which Panland had tendered and been awarded a contract to supply 16-pan ensembles for some of the 500 primary schools in the programme.

While the order for a substantial number of big pans allowed Panland to retain its staff and stay in production, Cooper said the opportunity brought into stark relief the capacity problem created by the limited pool of high quality pan tuners. “We learned early that there was not the tuning capacity to go beyond a certain level of production,” said Cooper.

Panland ended 2009 with what Cooper describes as a “tidy” profit. And then, the bottom fell out of the business, affecting not only for Panland but for the nascent industry that was beginning to develop around the school market for steelpans.

In a dramatic policy shift on music education in schools, the People’s Partnership government halted the Pan In School programme in 2010 with only 93 of the planned 500 schools having been outfitted with steel ensembles. In the two years that suppliers waited for a decision on the programme’s future, businesses collapsed and jobs fell away. Panland held out, hoping for a rebound, and paid the price.

“By 2011, we were crawling and in a big hole that we weren’t able to come out of. It affected everything,” said Cooper.

When the new music programme eventually emerged in 2013, the 16-piece steelband ensembles had gone, replaced by a multi-cultural programme requiring only two tenors pans among a range of instruments representing different cultural traditions such as the cuatro, njimbe, tabla, dholak, chac-chac, triangle and so on.

The unexpected collapse of Pan In School triggered a domino effect that reverberates to this day. At Panland, the once humming workshop in Laventille fell silent as employees were laid off. Cooper’s dream of an industry with an assembly line of continuous pan production offering full-time employment to technicians, tuners and the supporting cast of professionals required for a global business, dissipated. The jobs that came its way had small margins and required ad hoc expertise. Eventually, said Cooper, the company fell so deeply into the hole that it could not even summon the resources to take advantage of the substantial orders for export that began coming its way again as the global economy stabilized and recovered.

Surveying the operation last week, Cooper conceded that he may have held on too long, beyond the point where business sense would have suggested that he chuck it in. But he finds it even harder to walk away and turn his back on the dream, on Laventille and on the capital of knowledge built up over a quarter of a century in scouring the world and understanding the global market for steelpans.

For the briefest of moments, he is overcome by emotion. Then he finds the words: “I wouldn’t be able to face myself if I didn’t hold out for as long as I could.”

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Panland vs Panyard Inc

Secret of the Miniature Steelpan

Michael Cooper harbours no rancour about Panyard Inc’s foray into the steelpan market nor is he troubled or particularly threatened by the US company’s boast of being the “world leader of steeldrums.” He sees its success and the efforts of other non-Trinidadian initiatives as important in whetting the international appetite for steelpans and building out the global market in which, he insists, brand Trinidad and Tobago still holds pride of place.

He has known Panyard Inc’s two founders, Ron Kerns and Ron Drouin, for about 20 years, from the days when they were young music graduates following their fascination with pan to the panyards of Port of Spain, weaving in and out bands, scoring the music and selling the sheets. Panland sold them their first shipment of pans and Cooper remembers how they teased him when they first saw his miniature pans at the Laventille factory.

“Before they were making miniature pans they used to be laughing and joking, kicksing on us and saying ‘allyuh ain’t no panmakers to the world; allyuh is smallpan makers to the world.’ It was a joke.”

Panyard Inc’s movement into the successful production of its Jumbie Jam miniature steelpans tells Cooper that they have now discovered what he recognised two decades ago about miniature pans- which is that they can penetrate bigger markets at a lower cost and, priced right, can deliver faster and bigger profits.

More importantly for Trinidad and Tobago, 25 years of experience has taught him that building a business from miniature pans up is not only good business but essential to the development of a steelpan industry, given the capacity constraint of the small pool of expert pan tuners.

Early on, as substantial orders came in for the regular big pans, Panland had come up against the hard reality that the number of expert pan tuners that had emerged in response to the needs of the national steelband movement was far from enough to support an industry producing pans for the domestic and export market on a year-round basis. “You cannot have a significant commercial production activity on big pans alone because you have to have the tuners to do that,” said Cooper. Tuning, he explained, is the human specialty that so far continues to defy technological innovation, including artificial intelligence.

He quickly discovered, however, that while big pans required high quality pan-tuning expertise, miniature pans could be produced at high volume with a lower level of tuning skill.

“The big opportunity these miniature pans provided us was to be able to bring steelpans into production with a shorter training curve.”

By Cooper’s calculation, it takes roughly five years of training and tuning for a tuner to begin “to catch himself”. For miniature pans, the training curve is much shorter. The penny, as they say, dropped. Going after the market for miniature pans, which took Panland into the massive global market for toys and low cost educational instruments, became the platform for building a sustainable, global steelpan manufacturing company based in Trinidad and Tobago and, more precisely, Laventille.

“These miniature pans allow entry into pan manufacture while there is production that can pay for people to be fully employed and trained on the job, rather than the big pans where you have to go and apprentice with a trainer and spoil a lot of his pans which he cannot afford.”

Using this model, mass production of miniature pan became the training ground for permanently-employed tuners who could eventually graduate to the big pans where only excellence will cut it. Of the top ten winners in Panorama 2018, Cooper takes pride in declaring “without fear of contradiction… that six or seven were tuned by people who came out of Panland.”

One week before Carnival 2016, in the hectic countdown to Panorama, the now defunct Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) headed by Dr Terrence Farrell invited Cooper to make a presentation on the steelpan industry. “They interviewed everybody in the industry and this same model that I have been proposing and which Panyard Inc is using is what I gave to them to put in the mix.” His proposal calls for connecting the dots between training and the job opportunities that would be created by linking production output to the global demand for steelpans that Panland had discovered in the markets for  toys, early music education, adult recreation and professional music.

That exercise helped inform the EDAB’s “Proposal on Steelpan Manufacturing Industry for Export” which was presented to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. Soon after, Farrell resigned in frustration and by April 2018, Dr Rowley dissolved the board. Nothing has since been heard of the proposal.

In Laventille, Cooper is still holding out, resisting the lure of tempting offers to move production to China as he waits for the tide to turn. Although the window may be closing, the export market still tells him that Brand Laventille and Brand T&T still possess the force and the power to catapult an indigenous steelband industry into the big league of the global market.

“There is something about Pan made in Laventille,” he says, noting that “Trinidad and Tobago remains the source and remains the place where you get the best pans in the world” He pauses, swallows hard, and in softer tone he adds: “This is not about money. It’s a lot more than that.”

Sunity Maharaj ♦ Photo: Maria Nunes

2 Comments

  1. The Steel pan (as a musical instrument), will continue to gain global acceptance . That is just inevitable.
    The international acceptance and appreciation of Steel Orchestra Music; now that is the challenge. All the laments and frustration expressed by TT pan lovers is rooted in the fact that Steelband music, after all these years, does not have any significant non Caribbean audience. Being the creators of Steel pan and Steelband music does not translate into a global industry.

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