Lyla Kissoon is an engaging, talkative woman who thrives on recounting her sixty years in business. She is 77, looks a decade or so younger and appears to have lost none of the passion for business that has made her, arguably, the most prominent businesswoman that Guyana has ever known.
Her life too- her privileged tuition at Bishops’ High School, her extensive travels and her seemingly endless traipsing of the social stage – is a remarkable adventure, the memories of which are articulated in hoarse, authoritative tones.
Her working day, now reduced to five hours, is spent at her desk perched on a pedestal inside her Camp and Robb streets furniture store, beady eyes alert to less than diligent attention by store attendants to the needs of customers. The store may have a manager but everyone defers to her.
After Bishops’ High School she went to work at her father’s hardware store on Water street, Her ambition, she said, was to become a doctor “but the physics and the chemistry were too much for me.” Instead, she married Alston Kissoon, worked with him to establish one of the most durable businesses in Guyana then lost him in February 1966 to an Air India disaster that left no survivors.
Her husband, she said, had gone to India with an official British Guiana delegation dispatched by Premier Dr. Cheddi Jagan. He had remained behind to pursue his own business interests and had broken a promise made to her not to make his return trip to London by Air India.
Widowed at thirty five she refused to fade away into protracted mourning. Three months after the loss of her husband she was meeting the Queen in Georgetown during Guyana’s independence celebrations wearing a sari – the first one she had ever worn – bought by her husband in India and sent to her specifically for the occasion before his ill-fated flight. Her celebrity status was consolidated during the post independence years, partially on account of her singular prominence as a businesswoman managing considerable assets and equally on account of her appearance at almost every occasion of national import.
She scans the business era that she herself helped to fashion with lightning speed, relating the peaks and the troughs of her career. At the best of times AH&L Kissoon, still the largest furniture makers in Guyana, thrived under its slogan – ‘we are never knowingly undersold” – a slogan she said that she had borrowed from another business enterprise during a visit to London. Among the worst of times, she recalls, were the successive fires, most of them during elections-related disturbances, that destroyed her business.
Then there was the sudden devaluation of the Guyana dollar that dramatically dwindled the savings of those who, like her, opted not to move themselves and their earnings overseas. It was, she believes, a price that had to be paid for patriotism.
Her experiences are articulated without any trace of bitterness and even the acquisition of two properties Takuba Lodge and Echilibar Villas by the Burnham administration at prices well below the market value – occurrences which she concedes upset her immensely at the time – are no longer cause for bitterness and recrimination. What appears to have sustained her is the fullness of her life, a life spent perpetually in the social limelight and amongst a circle of friends that included the most influential politicians of her time. For each major encounter with a prominent public figure she produces a photograph that chronicled the memory and each photograph – some of which are published with this story – is attended by an absorbing tale of her personal encounter with “high society.” She possesses a warm, storyteller’s tone that captures the excitement of the event and appears to transport her back in time.
What has changed over the years, she says, is the quality of the commercial culture. If business was about profit it was also about service, about pleasing the customer. She believes that what passes for business these days is a kind of glorified ‘hustle’ that has marginalized customer service and eroded what was once a satisfying pursuit.
Nor does Lyla Kissoon accept that she is ‘yesterday’s woman’. She believes that whatever else may change the basic rules of thumb for managing a successful business never really do. And to make her point she draws attention to the resilience of the Kissoon interests which have survived the worst ravages of a shaky economy and an erratic political culture and have grown into the bargain.