TT – The Panland steelpan manufacturing company rests inconspicuously among other commercial buildings on the Eastern Main Road, Laventille. But behind those walls some of the country’s greatest pan tuners have plied their trade and the steelpans produced have journeyed across the world.
Business Day met up with Panland president Michael Cooper at his office for a history on the company and the future of the industry.
Panland started in 1993 as TT Instruments Ltd under the Neal and Massy Group. At the time, Cooper ran the motor vehicle assembly plant but as that industry was targeted for extinction, steelpan was chosen as one of the new product options. Several small companies were set up, including TT Instruments, a joint venture between Neal and Massy (majority partner), Pan Trinbago and the Metal Industries Company (now MIC).
Steelpan manufacturing, he explained, was seen as a good business opportunity with a lot of potential and a number of attractive features, namely: it is indigenous and all the expertise, knowledge, technology and human capital reside locally; it is an industry that will grow and create significant development of people, careers, economic activities and communities; it is a high-potential foreign exchange earner; and it could provide employment in communities where the pan evolved.
Before the company Cooper was not involved with steelpan besides being a fan of Desperadoes, All Stars and Renegades. “I am not a panman,” he deadpanned.
In 1994, Cooper opted to leave Neal And Massy and the steelpan company was part of his exit package. That year the company moved to Laventille (where he is from but did not grow up).
“Being from that strata of the community and the history of Laventille with the pan and the brand of Laventille with the pan, which I saw as an asset, this was the reason for choosing Laventille as the place to be at the time and it still is.”
The original location was Old St Joseph Road, which was changed to Bertie Marshall Boulevard in honour of the late steelpan icon, and in 1998 the company moved “a stone throw’s away” to the current location opposite Angostura. Also, that year, the company became Panland as part of capital restructuring. Cooper recalled the company received venture capital from new investors and he wanted them to have a “sanitised company”. Panland was already a trademark the company had registered in TT and the US.
Tuners are a critical skill in pan manufacturing and have always been a focal point of the cottage industry.