Maxima, S.A. – Building a Better Haiti, Literally
by Josh Hills
It was hard to keep focused on what Evelien was saying. My mind kept wondering whether it was George W. Bush’s arms that were short or that the young Haitian man he had embraced was very tall. And how was it that Bill Clinton got relegated off to the side? Sensing my distraction, Evelien told me that the entire photo was unexpected. “There were no plans for the former U.S. presidents to visit me,” she said. It’s a story much like Evelien’s own – a story of a business that consistently evolved to meet the unique needs of Haitians.
Evelien de Gier is a Dutch woman with a small frame and compassionate disposition. One can’t help but sit up a bit straighter in her presence. It is a useful trait, for it inevitably draws you in to listen to her purview. It is a view not commonly seen by the West.
Where the images of ruble, dying children and tents fill our Western eyes, Evelein sees a different side of Haiti. It is a rosier picture. She believes in Haiti’s future, perhaps because she considers herself a Haitian. For more than 25 years, since she and her husband Kees moved to Haiti, she has devoted herself to redefining what it means to be Haitian.
“Maxima was started as a job creation project,” she says of her company. “We chose a factory setting because we strongly believe that only real jobs will get people back on their feet.”
Beyond a yard busy with forklifts, lumber deliveries, and hustling workers lies the Maxima industrial complex. Starting out as a cabinetry and casket manufacturer, the company now focuses most on constructing shelters for earthquake victims. Efficient and well maintained, the operation could easily be mistaken for one of the legendary furniture manufacturers of North Carolina: Thomasville, High Point, or Stanley.
But it’s not. It’s located off a dusty, chaotic street in Port-au-Prince. While many of the company’s raw materials are imported – not necessarily a drawback given Haiti’s chronic deforestation problems – its products are assembled with Haitian labor from start to finish.
It all seems so unlikely, and that, Evelien argues, is one of Haiti’s biggest problems: perception. She laments how foreign news articles all begin: “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere…”
“We have to build confidence in our businesses,” she says. “International organizations don’t know the capabilities we have so why should we be surprised that they come here with their foreign contractors? We need to get the word out. We need to show that industrial practices can happen here.”
In the months immediately following the earthquake, Maxima experienced an ironic change in priorities, and the way the company responded to crisis demonstrates the possibilities in the Haitian marketplace. For decades the company focused on manufacturing high-end caskets. The quality was such that some local funeral homes marketed them as imports because people didn’t believe such products were made in Haiti. But even though the earthquake left 250,000 dead, Maxima’s casket business tapered. Fewer people could afford them, and donated caskets from the U.S. contributed to a downturn in orders. But the company was able to adapt quickly to meet the changing environment, and with the new capacity they swelled from 60 to 260 employees.
“We used to make caskets and kitchen cabinets,” Evelien explains. “Now we make houses! We thought we’d make a few hundred, but we’ve made 5,000 now and have grown almost five times. We’ve been very fortunate to live out the post-earthquake situation as an opportunity, which helped us heal, as well as our employees.”
For Maxima, it isn’t just about providing shelter. It’s about putting people to work. The company’s philosophy is that employment is a critical element of recovery. They have also established a charitable organization, Fondation Maxima, dedicated to helping underprivileged Haitians reach a self-supporting, quality lifestyle. The organization provides education, professional training and helps Haitians find employment.
“Our whole mission is job creation,” Evelien says. “Haitians are very willing to work and capable of creating quality products if given the right circumstances. Here at our plant we have a professional and industrial level of construction that can proudly compete with importers of foreign-made shelters.”
Josh Hills was interim Communications Manager in Haiti from March-May 2011.