Vernon Hassell, a Saba Pioneer
By: Will Johnson
Once in Parliament during those long budget meetings which lasted sometimes all night, we were sitting in the coffee room as we called it, making jokes and talking politics. The Prime Minister Boy Rozendaal, several members of his cabinet as well as some of the Senators were sitting around talking about elections past. Some were telling stories of tough past political battles. The Prime Minister laughed and piped up: “Our friend Will does not have those problems. Vernon Hassell calls him and tells him: ‘Will you go ahead and win this one and I will win the next one. That is how elections are conducted on Saba.”
It was useless to explain him how mistaken he was. The elections in 1990 were so fought out that many foreigners left the island a few days before the elections as they said that “this election is not going to end well.” In the Azores on one of the islands where they only had 45 voters the Portuguese army had to be sent in to keep the calm in an election there, and many people must have thought that the same would happen on Saba. There would be violence and the Dutch army would have to be sent in.
One thing I remember clearly from that election is that during the election Freddie Charles one of Vernon’s big campaigners at the time came to Scout’s Place where I used to hang out and asked to speak to me. He said:” Johnson everyone is wondering what has got into you. No one has ever seen you campaigning like this.” I told him: “It is only because I intend to beat you all.” He laughed and said: You know that is not going to happen.” So after some small talk he left, laughing at the idea that I was of the opinion that I could win that election
The day before the election at the same venue Freddy was back and asked to speak to me privately. He said:” Johnson I am concerned. Saba is going to lose a leader tomorrow. I am not supporting you this election but I recognize you and Vernon both to be leaders. I know that whoever loses the elections tomorrow will leave politics.” I saw how serious he was and let the opportunity pass without teasing him. With a handshake we parted. The next day I won the elections. His prediction came to pass. I heard rumours that Vernon was pulling out. I met him in front of the Windwardside Post Office and when he came over to shake my hand, I tried to talk him out of quitting. I told him that in my political career I had some setbacks but had ploughed on. But after considering all I could not convince myself that he was wrong. The popular tune is that politicians exploit people. But those who have run for office know the impossible demands people put on you around election time and even when you comply with all the demands, many go and still shaft you out of envy or for whatever reason.
But this article is not about the political struggles Vernon and I had which left many scars which I hope have now healed. For those who might not know, Vernon’s mother was a sister of my mother, his father a second cousin of my father and he was also my godfather. In Vernon’s parents wedding photo the baby they are holding is me. We lived as one family until politics tore us apart. For me that is history and I have been successful in life by not allowing grudges to hold me down. Many of my former political opponents like Carl Anslyn in the end ran with me and we stayed close until the end when he died on Aruba.
This article is about the successful construction company HESCON N.V. which Vernon started but I could not forego giving some insight into the political history between Vernon the successful contractor and me the lifelong politician.
On August 7th, last I was driving around John Peterson and his family. He is the son of John George Peterson of Saba who was the CEO of the Cargill Company. One of the largest privately owned companies in the world. In the history of the Company the first non family member to run the company was John G. Peterson who at age twelve ran away from Saba, educated himself at Brown University and climbed up to become the Vice President of Chase Manhattan Bank and from there CEO of Cargill with 120.000 employees.
In pointing out the various buildings on Saba to John Peterson Jr., I told him that they had all been built by a local company owned by a Saban. He remarked: “Well it seems that besides my father there are Saba pioneers in other fields.” I told him that I had been thinking about writing an article on Vernon Hassell and his construction Company Hescon N.V.
The very next day I wrote to Vernon asking him if he would mind if I did that. That same day he replied that he would be honoured and wrote that, by the way, the company was established 25 years ago. This past June was the 25th anniversary of the company. He agreed to send me some statistics to go with the article I was intending to write. In all the Dutch West Indies the construction companies are usually owned by continental Dutch people. I remember in the past that on Aruba there was a company Petronia and Croes. Petrona later became Prime Minister. I don’t think that the company lasted many years. There was also a Portuguese contractor Carvallho who lived on Curacao and did some jobs in the Windward Islands. In the more distant past there was Lionel Bernard Scot who was contractor on all three islands. My father worked for him as a foreman on Saba in the nineteen thirties when he carried out certain jobs here. He was still active as a contractor in the nineteen fifties. The Frenchman Jacques Deldevert also did a number of jobs on all three Dutch Windward Islands.
On Saba we never had a big contractor before Vernon. There were and still are a number of small contractors as well as small builders consisting of two friends or family members who work together on small jobs, repairs, maintenance, building and so on. But in our history the first big contractor is HESCON N.V. which could take on big contracts and challenge the Dutch contractors and even win some big contracts. And it did not come to pass through favouritism or so. Many times I personally favoured the Dutch Contractor as my belief was that that the Dutch Government would quicker approve a project if one of their own would benefit. Being in government I wanted to get projects approved and things done quickly so that when election time comes around I would have something to point to. And of course the thought did cross my mind that “Vernon is not going to support me anyway so why should I play favourites to him?”
However as time went on I realized that he employed a sizeable number of Sabans some of whom were my voters. When the Medical School came into play, I forced Dr. David Frederick to buy a large piece of land from former Minister Leo Chance. I was representing Government on the board of the School at the time. I had been appointed to the board when I was opposition by the same Vernon Hassell’s party as they felt that I was quarrelsome enough to take on Frederick. When it was time to build, I was in government. The relationship with Frederick had deteriorated to the point that he financed the then opposition to get me out of government. It did not work of course. But during it all at the insistence of Max Nicholson I put pressure on Frederick to build. Long story short he came up with a plan to build fabricated buildings which looked something like containers. I told him that on my watch I would not allow him to deface the capital of Saba with a messy construction like that. He later came to my office and asked me: “What do you want?” I said to him” You see this building, the Administration Building? I had my hand in the design of that. I want something like this building, Saba style and solid construction.” I was on the board still and knew what he was making and putting away in Switzerland and the Cayman islands. I said to myself: Max is right, make him put down something that he cannot move from Saba to another island.” And so Vernon and Hescon N.V. got their foot in the door and took on the challenge to build the first building of the Medical School and all the other buildings you can admire on that site. Hescon N.V. must be admired for taking on such a challenge. They are still in the construction business after 25 years. No other Saban builder has ever taken on such a challenge in these islands, although Norman Hassell another Saban was a contractor in the United States and was successful at it as well.
Vernon was born on Saba on September 18th, 1955. He went to elementary school here then on to the St. Joseph School on St. Maarten and from there to Curacao where he graduated from the Maria Immaculate Lyceum in 1973. From there, he worked in several Government Departments on Curacao, and St. Maarten. From 1983 to 1989 he served as Commissioner and Councilmember on Saba. During his time in office he introduced the Legislation to start the Saba Marine Park, and also the legislation to change the language of instruction on Saba to the mother tongue language which is English. After he left office from 1983 -1991 he was Manager of Saba International Trust Company and supervised the start up of Saba Villas and Queen Gardens Resorts for the owners. From 1991-1996, he supervised the construction of Queens Gardens Resort and appointed Managing Director of the Resort. From 1989 to 1999 he started Hes Hardware and Construction Company on Saba and managed the company until he moved to Florida in 1999. At that time his was the largest private company and employer on Saba. From 1996-1999 he was 50% Owner of Hassell & Reda Inc. which closed down in 1999 when Hassell Free Exports Inc. started. Started Caribbean Building Solutions in 2008 and constructed Security Stations for a Caribbean Harbour. In 2004 started Hassell Free Tile & Window and then incorporated this in 2012 with Hassell Free Exports. He has been the President ever since. He resides at 2360 NW Bay Colony Drive Stuart Florida and has his business headquarters there.
His greatest visible success story has been his construction company HesCon N.V. which was incorporated in 1998. Prior to that all construction work was carried out under the umbrella of Hassell Enterprises Saba N.V. HesCon N.V. was a partnership started by Mr. Vernon Hassell and Mr. George Robert Hassell. In 2010, Reno Rakutt joined the partnership and works as the General Manager for the Company. A word is in place about partner Robby. At the age of 18 he was the idea man in the building of my home on The Level. Franklin Johnson and his father-in-law Ulric Hassell were the contractors, but when we needed to change plans, Franklin would tell me, we have to consult Robby, he knows best. And so Robby has been a planner all his life, including changing around “Brother’s Place” improving the design for the restaurant now called “The Sea Witch.” Vernon and Robby can proudly look around the island and admire the many fine buildings which their company was responsible for. The Masterpiece of which is the Medical School complex. I will mention a few others only but there are many more. The Airport terminal building, Lt. Governor’s reconstructed residence, the large new addition to the Government Administration building, Low cost housing project of 6 homes in The Range, the Fire Station in The Bottom, Queens Garden Resort, Saba Comprehensive School, Sacred Heart School and Gymnasium a large number of private homes some of them mansions and several road projects including the resurfacing of the road to the airport. Vernon’s Company employs some 33 people many of them from Saba and some have been with him since the company started up. Although Vernons schooling did not include construction he learned the trade as he went along and is one tough negotiator when talking contracts and I know as I was on the other side of the table. This article does not allow for the full story as I want it to include photos of some of the beautiful buildings his company has built. Vernon and his wife Glenda live in Florida but visit Saba several times a year. He has a total of 7 children and 7 grandchildren. His many buildings and his company already tell the history of a very successful small island boy, and I believe that he warrants a book of his own as time goes by. But for now let me be the one to single him out for the praise he rightfully deserves as a leader in every sense of the word. Congratulations to Vernon and Robby and the many workers he has employed over the years. A visionary and a Saba pioneer indeed.