Natural entrepreneur and family man Yoni Epstein has achieved, in about half the time, what many men twice his age would envy: a successful, balanced work and home life while retaining the respect and admiration of his friends, peers and colleagues.
Affable and private, Epstein keeps to his closest circle of friends, most of them close since early school days, yet remains open and affable, eager to listen to new business concepts, and happy to give advice to aspiring businesspeople across different fields.
The founding director of the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica (BPIAJ), kick-starting that agency’s formation in 2012, currently serving as chairman of Alpha Angels – a Montego Bay-based investment and mentoring network of entrepreneurs – founder and CEO of his own Itel BPO Smart Solutions outsourcing firm, and newly minted chairman of CarRental8.com, Epstein’s commitment to growing and innovating the Jamaican and Caribbean economy is second to none.
The alumnus of Mandeville’s Belair School, and a proud — even if new! — Montegonian, shared his account of how he graduated from reselling lost golf balls to the country club set in Miami (amazingly a true story) to becoming a leading authority in one of the Caribbean’s fastest-growing industries.
“I was born in Miami, went to Belair high school in Mandeville, mainly because at the time it was an American-accredited school because of the bauxite industry [prevalent in that area] and my parents wanted me to have an easy transition to school in America. At 15 I moved to Kingston and then I went to school in Miami.[Later] I studied hospitality at FIU and then culinary arts at Johnson Wales. I didn’t finish anything and have no degree… then I came back to Jamaica working for Sandals to start a call centre for them.”
Epstein’s non-traditional academic journey may come as a surprise, but he is a clear example of how important work ethic is to achievement. Realising from an early age that academics was not his forte, Epstein demonstrated a flair for business early on, and can recall that he has been working actively from as young as 14.
“I was always encouraged to work from an early age. I can remember working summers at 14. I remember in Miami when Sandals first started, as kids we were only 8 or 9, and Adam [Stewart], myself and other siblings would work in the mailroom and pack brochures… When my Dad was working with Chris Blackwell, I would help with stocktaking. When I was 17 I would work as a playmaker/ entertainment coordinator at Sandals, and (he laughs ) my Grandma bought me my first car, but I had to work to pay back the cost of half of it AND the insurance…I’ve always been forced to understand the responsibilities of life, and that if you want cars, or toys, or a good lifestyle, you have to work hard for it.”
And those golf balls? “In Miami we lived beside a country club golf course, and my friends and I used to collect the lost balls off the green at night, clean them and then sell them by day to the golfers for extra pocket money.”
Epstein’s start in the BPO industry came by chance out of his experience doing jobs at Sandals.
“I started in the call centre business in college as a reservation agent. That’s where I learned the fundamentals of the business. In 2004 I came back to Jamaica to work for Sandals full-time…in 2005 I was sent to England for a year to restructure their call centre and operations over there… then in 2007 I was made global director of all their call centres. While I was living in Jamaica I was watching what was taking place in the BPO sector here…it’s because this is what I had focused on from a tender age and what I had developed with Sandals I knew Jamaica had the legs to develop in this industry. I had always wanted at some point in my career to run my own business, and everything in life is about timing.
“In 2012 it seemed where I had got to was the end of the road for me, especially as the call centres were not their core business. I love building: setting up new spaces, bringing new jobs, and by 2011 all that had kind of finished. I had tinkered with the process enough, so I was getting far better conversions and customer feedback. I had done what I needed to achieve – a ‘job well done’ – so decided by 2012 I was gonna launch Itel BPO.
“I left Sandals on 15th June 2012 and started this business on the 18th of June 2012. We took 5,000 square feet of space and had no clients signed. In August 2012 we signed our first client and hired 7 people, and that’s essentially when it started. Our first month of revenue was US$2,700, which couldn’t pay the rent or the internet (charges). But I had savings, a plan, and was working the opportunity. By the end of 2012 we had about 40 employees and things were on a roll.”
Today Itel BPO maintains offices in Nassau, Bahamas, and in Jamaica – both in Kingston and Montego Bay. Itel BPO is the largest locally owned and operated BPO firm from Jamaica, and later this year will count a total of more than 1,100 seats under its umbrella. This year the firm also moved from just servicing business to expanding its portfolio by acquiring a client they once serviced – the Florida- based CarRental8.com.
Managing and assessing with equal measure a combination of timing, expectations and relationships Epstein cites the following as essential to building a solid business foundation, especially within the BPO sector:
“When you start a business with your projections you think you’ll be there faster…sometimes it’s down to the right place at the right time. Also this is an extremely relationship-driven business; you’ve got to know the industry and make contacts so people are willing to give you business. You are taking the lifeline of someone else’s company, and they are trusting you to provide a similar level of service to what they have built, if not better.”
Epstein’s recollection of the early days of the BPIAJ reflects just as succinctly how, by synchronising these three elements, one can make or break success.
“Everything happens in the right time…in 2005 we tried to start [an association] and it fell flat on its face… At the time the industry was in infancy stages…leaders at that time didn’t think it was necessary so they didn’t push for it, and something like that, [in order to] gain that level of respect, really needs an industry leader to push it. I’m the immediate past president…and it did a great job putting me out there, and certainly raised my profile, but I didn’t want people to think it’s my mouthpiece, so after three years I exited the post in order to maintain a level of integrity and remain on the board.”
Epstein’s other role as an investor and chairman of Alpha Angels is mostly a reflection of his desire to give back, and his belief that supporting growth only begets more growth.
“I was approached by the World Bank after First Angels started. We invest in start-up or existing companies, giving them seed capital to start or grow their business to the next level. I know from experience as a young entrepreneur that raising capital in the first stage is not easy. It’s fun being in the entrepreneur landscape in Jamaica, seeing [it] grow and seeing other businesses develop. Once a month we see pitches, and discuss the businesses. That kind of camaraderie among business people is not common in Jamaica.”
Epstein notes he has had the privilege of keeping close counsel with major players in business – mostly entrepreneurs, and he counts their influence as immeasurable sources of support and inspiration.
“I admire [Richard] Branson – a serial entrepreneur that still takes tremendous chances…some work, some don’t! That’s what a risk taker does. I’ve met him several times… the way he operates is how everyone would want to operate a business. Adam and I spent two days with him and he barely touched his cellphone! And yet he is running several multi-million dollar businesses. Butch Stewart is an inspiration. Having had the privilege of being a senior executive at one of his companies, seeing how his business works…that was a significant learning experience [for me]. Mark Hart, I think, is a dynamic stalwart in business as well, and another young person who inspires me is a close friend of mine, Adam Stewart. For someone who was born and grown into wealth, he is not [how] one would think he is, and he is a brilliant businessman himself.”
So what’s next for Yoni Epstein and Itel-BPO Smart Solutions?
“We have a lot going on in the company and are looking at ways to continue growth in three avenues: existing clients, they like the work we do, so we make sure they continue to rely on us; acquisition of new clients – for example, the newest going live this June will fill 200 seats; and lastly, acquisition is going to be a major focus for the rest of this year and going into 2018. In order for us to continue to be a player globally, we have to have a stronger international footprint. We are looking at business in North America, Europe…seeing where they are the right fit to take us to the next step. Our goal is to get to 4,000 seats within the next three years.”