Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 23rd 2017 Contents 2 | business in focus
July 23 . 2017
Opening international doors through T&T’s culture
In the early 1990s, facing the closure of Neal
and Massy Automotive Industries and the loss
of hundreds of jobs, then Managing Director
Michael Cooper started looking at ways to use
the assembly factory in Arima to diversify and
bring in new income.
One of those options was the manufacturing
of the steelpan, and so in 1993 T&T Instruments
Limited was formed as a subsidiary of Neal and
By 1994, the worldwide opening of markets that
allowed the importation of foreign assembled
vehicles led to the eventual closure of vehicle
assembly plants in T&T, and with it, the loss of
But the closure of one door, meant the opening
As part of his separation agreement with the
company, Cooper negotiated for ownership of the
steelpan manufacturing company he had started.
“I saw it as an excellent opportunity,” Cooper
recalled while sitting in the office of his Laven-
tille-based factory last week.
“At the time I saw the advantages that we had.
The steelpan was an indigenous technology and
all of the expertise in the manufacturing process
resided locally. We didn’t need to import anything
and I saw it as something that would earn foreign
Cooper said he found those things attractive.
In the 23 years that has passed, the company
has changed its name to Panland T&T Ltd and
is an industry leader in terms of exporting this
country’s national instrument.
“I like a challenge and I saw the manufacturing
of the steelpan as a possible industry but as one
that needed to be built and structured so that it
The steelpan manufacturing industry at the
time consisted of mostly sole traders.
“There were critical skills in steelpan manu-
facturing that were not available in abundance.
The skilled people had not been familiar with a
“We ended up doing a tremendous amount
of on-the-job training. I believe we have trained
more tuners than any other local entity.”
Cooper was born in Laventille but grew up in
San Juan. He returned to Laventille in August of
1994 to open his steelpan factory in what is wide-
ly regarded as the birthplace of the instrument.
“It wasn’t easy at all. My intention was to grow
as a commercial enterprise and never a cottage
industry. We had a major launch. The then prime
minister Patrick Manning attended. I was very
serious about the business.”
Currently, Panland T&T earns about 80 per
cent of its revenue from exports to distributors in
the US, UK, Japan, China, Germany, the Maldives
and France, to name a few countries.
Panland manufactures all of the traditional
pans used by musicians around the world from
the normal 55 gallon oil drums.
The company has also published two books
and makes accessories for the instrument.
The company introduced colour coating tech-
nology to pan in 2003, replacing painted instru-
The factory makes steelpans ranging in colours
from dramatic pinks to forest greens.
What makes Panland different from other man-
ufacturers, is its toy steelpan products which is al-
ready sold around the globe but will be launched
on Amazon soon.
Cooper sent his first shipment to Amazon last
The miniature pans, a 12-inch, 10-inch and
8-inch playable version of the larger instrument
recently won an award at the North American In-
ternational Toy Fair, held in New York in February.
It is one of the most popular products Panland
While Cooper continues to enjoy his work and
expand his markets, he expressed hope that peo-
ple would see that one of the ways to earn foreign
exchange was through culture, but not necessarily
in the traditional ways.
“When you talk pan you see Panorama, Len
“Boogsie” Sharpe on the stage and so on. My
business is the hardware, the steelpan, accesso-
ries, stands, sticks and cases and teaching aides.
It’s the kind of business that really earns foreign
exchange for T&T, exporting our culture.”
Cooper said the industry had a lot of room for
growth and many other opportunities for reve-
nue. He noted that repairing, refurbishing and
servicing the steelpan was an area of demand
internationally and that T&T had the expertise.
“Every year we send a tuner to Japan, and we
have been doing that for the last 15 years, to service
a distributor there. We get requests for people
with pan servicing skills and our tuner services
pan there for about a month. We’ve sent tuners
to the Maldives and Seoul in South Korea. The
markets are there but we need to ensure that the
industry is structured in a way that can see growth.
Cooper clarified that “we” meant all stake-
holders, noting that the thrust would likely come
from private businesses but that government and
interest groups needed to formalise a plan for
“I think it is necessary and important that we
sustain pan as a national instrument and as an in-
dustry for which we already have the advantage.”
“There needs to be a coming together, some
kind of thrust that will allow us to create a vision
for the national instrument.”
Founder of Panland T&T Michael Cooper. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR
at the Tia Toy fair
in New York
earlier this year.
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