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Texan seeks change for his native Haiti

CEO seeks new job: the president of Haiti

Siméus bringing hope to Haitian boy

Siméus receives Philanthropic Award from the University of Chicago, GSB


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TSF Newsletters

Aug. 22, 2005

CEO seeks new job: the president of Haiti

BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI - (KRT) - The walls of Haitian-American entrepreneur Dumarsais ''Dumas'' Simeus' office bear witness to his success - proud photos, awards and magazine covers recognizing his $100 million food empire in this rapidly growing city in the Lone Star State.

His humble roots are here, too: a framed photograph of a two-room shack with an aluminum roof in the village of Pont-Sonde, Haiti, where he was born 65 years ago.

Those roots have inspired Simeus, one of the nation's top black businessmen and a member of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Haiti Task Force, to take on the greatest challenge of his life: seeking the presidency of Haiti.

Simeus, whose first introduction to the United States was as a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, declared his candidacy Wednesday, standing in front of that childhood home in Haiti. He says he brings more than just love of his country, where his parents still live. He brings the business savvy of a maverick CEO.

Haiti is ''a country of 8 million customers that's into bankruptcy. And you need a professional leader, a professional executive to come and get the country out of bankruptcy,'' Simeus said in a recent interview in his second-floor office at Simeus Foods International, a food manufacturing company whose customers include Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's and Burger King.

Critics say the world in which Simeus has succeeded is very different from the one he wants to take over.

''It's impossible for someone from the diaspora to maneuver through the political land mines in Haiti,'' said Marie Florence Bell, chairwoman of Bush's task force, who is among a small group of South Florida Haitian Americans who have been hosting informal ''get to know you'' sessions with Haiti's presidential candidates in recent months.

''The rules of engagement (in Haiti) are completely different; it's a mind-boggling, complex, multilayered society,'' she said.

Bell and others say that while they respect Simeus' accomplishments, he should take note of the last Haitian who tried but failed to stabilize an impoverished and volatile Haiti: longtime South Florida resident and current interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

''After seeing what Gerard Latortue has done to the country, I would rather have someone be president of Haiti who has lived in Haiti for the past five years and knows what is going on,'' said Charles-Henri Baker, a leading opponent of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who intends to run for president as an independent.

Simeus said the Haitian people have misunderstood why Latortue has failed.

''It's not the fact that he's been in the diaspora,'' said Simeus, a father of three. ``It's the fact that Latortue is not a proven leader, a proven executive. He's never had to manage and run complex organizations. That is the only reason why he has not delivered.''

Simeus faces enormous challenges before Haiti's Nov. 6 presidential election. He must get 100,000 signatures by Sept. 10 as an independent to qualify for the ballot. And he must energize a disenchanted electorate while staving off attempts by Haiti's political class to derail his presidential bid.

Many Haitian politicians have been waiting in the wings since the fall of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude ''Baby Doc'' Duvalier in 1986 and Aristide's departure last year.

They argue Simeus can't be president because he has lived abroad for the past 44 years.

Article 135 of the Haitian Constitution states a presidential candidate must ''be a native-born Haitian and never have renounced Haitian nationality,'' and have resided in the country for five consecutive years before the election.

Simeus said he has never renounced his Haitian citizenship despite being a U.S. citizen. And he argues that constitutional requirements don't apply in any case, claiming Haiti has been operating outside of the constitution since Aristide's ouster in 2004.

His attorneys have been working the phones, trying to overcome the perceived legal obstacles.

The story of how the son of an uneducated farmer and a merchant woman became a successful American businessman is about never losing sight of the dream.

Like many Haitian youngsters, Dumarsais Simeus stood on the docks of St. Marc, near his hometown, and dreamed about going where the boats were coming from.

His parents sold a plot of land to help him buy a plane ticket to attend college in the United States. He first enrolled at Florida A&M University before eventually graduating from Howard University in Washington with a degree in electrical engineering. Later he earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.

He eventually landed a job with TLC Beatrice Foods International, where he developed a reputation for being a taskmaster and ``fixing what's broken.''

He honed his business savvy as president and chief operating officer at Beatrice, the largest black-owned company in the nation.

His firm, which he bought in 1996 with a $55 million loan, is today Texas' largest black-owned company and the largest black-owned food processing plant in the country, according to Black Enterprise magazine. Through it all, Simeus kept in close touch with his homeland.

Though he brought 40 relatives to the United States, including 16 siblings, a foundation bearing his name provides healthcare, food, clothing and education to residents of Haiti's breadbasket, the Artibonite Valley.

''The bottom line is he is a native son of Haiti, clearly born and raised in Haiti, went out in the world to make a success and he has kept constant connection with Haiti,'' said Rob Allyn, the Dallas-based GOP political strategist hired by Simeus.

The firm has helped engineer victories for candidates in the Bahamas, Indonesia and Mexico, as well as for the George W. Bush gubernatorial campaign in Texas.

''Anyone would agree that Dumas Simeus has never forgotten where he came from,'' Allyn added.

Simeus' political platform includes making it easier for companies to invest in Haiti, promoting jobs, and rooting out corruption by making government accountable.

Whether Simeus succeeds, his critics and supporters agree: He is an inspiration.

''I want to create a Haiti where people are proud to stay because there are opportunities,'' he said. ``I want a Haiti where there is access to capital for the average guy, for the poor guy who was born in a hut like I was born in.''