By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A BAHAMIAN e-payments provider is planning to more than double its staff by adding 100 employees in 2018, believing it is “in the right place at the right time” for nationwide expansion.
Harvey Morris, Omni Financial Group’s chief executive, yesterday told Tribune Business that it plans to open four new physical locations before end-March 2018 as it bids to “fill the void” left by continuing commercial bank withdrawal from the Family Islands.
He added that the group, which celebrates its 13th anniversary this April, has established a foundation from which it can rapidly expand to solve the Bahamas’ problems of ‘financial inclusion’ by bringing services to communities that are either ‘unbanked’ or under-served. Disclosing how Omni had grown from four employees and one location at its 2005 founding to 68 staff and 14 offices now, Mr Morris revealed: “The proposal on the table with our expansion plan for this year will probably add another 100 [employees].
“The current branches will be open by the end of March. We’re opening them as we speak. Four new ones are coming on stream now, and the others will follow right after. We’re going into all the islands with an on-the-ground physical location.”
Mr Morris said those locations are in Abaco (Marsh Harbour); two new ones in Freeport; and another in Exuma, as Omni moves to exploit the vacuum created by the Canadian-owned commercial banks’ exit from numerous Family Islands.
Besides these departures, epitomised by Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) decision to close its Andros and Long Island branches, Mr Morris said the Central Bank and other regulators were firmly behind the expansion of e-payment services providers such as Omni to fill the gap.
The Central Bank passed its e-payment provider regulations in mid-2017, and the Omni chief said the regulatory pressures on the web shop industry to cease its involvement in money transfers would further ‘open the door’ for his company’s planned expansion.
Describing the potential opportunity as “huge”, Mr Morris told Tribune Business: “We think we’re in the right position, and in the right place at the right time. Omni is poised to fill that void right now.
“We have quite a lot of products that, as we expand the economy, will provide solutions to these challenges of the Family Islands and the banks leaving.”
Christof Fox, Omni Money Transfers general manager, added: “We definitely want to be able to provide financial services to those islands that are left without them by the closures and departures of the commercial banks.
“Through our expansion plans we’re looking to go into a lot of them, especially the far-flung ones that have nothing but a Post Office. We’re looking at what to do to fill some of the void left with product offerings such as accounts, payment for services.
“In addition to that, the regulators are putting pressure on the web shops with money transfer.”
Mr Morris and Omni’s management team said the company’s steady, phased group to this point in its history had provided it with the necessary expertise, technology and human resource platform to expand its growth more rapidly.
Omni Financial Group is now the ‘umbrella’ parent company for four subsidiaries that all represent an individual business stream. Its roots remain in Omni Money Transfers, the money transmission segment that also offers utility bill paying services, and top-up for Bahamian and international communications carriers.
The group is also well known for its Mango ‘stored value’ card and e-wallet business, launched in 2008-2009, which partnered with entities such as the Ministry of Tourism and Club Grand Bahama.
“When we launched it we were definitely ahead of the curve then,” Mr Morris told Tribune Business of Mango. “E-money, e-wallets, that was pretty new to the Bahamas and we were in that space for quite some time.
“We scaled back that operation, but we intend to relaunch it in the very near term. The cost of the technology has dropped so much now.” Mr Morris declined to go into detail on the relaunch plans, but added that Omni was working on the development of multiple new products and services that it aims to finalise very shortly.
He said its FlashCash lending business was working on “introducing some innovative products geared towards people who have recurring expenses”, bolstering a suite that includes in-house financing for the likes of wholesalers, micro lending and “emergency” credit to provide persons with temporary cash flow.
Mr Morris described the latter service as “a safety net”, with loan amounts typically ranging from $250 to $2,500 and secured by salary deductions. The loan duration typically lasts for no more than one year.
“If someone has an emergency, they can have funds available to them in a 24-hour period,” he said. “One person told me that long ago people would turn to family members, getting $100 here, $50 there. Now, because so many people are cash-strapped, they find it easier to come to us and get a very quick turnaround.”
Christine Turnquest, Omni’s FlashCash general manager, said its client portfolio had expanded to more than 5,000 since its launch just over four years ago in November 2013. She added that the company “provides ourselves on being a prudent lender”.
Mr Morris, meanwhile, revealed that Omni’s fourth and final business segment - small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - will be unveiled next week when a $1 million project in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Multilateral Investment Fund will be announced.
While Mr Morris was reluctant to go into detail, due to IDB protocols, the bank’s website billed the project as ‘Expanding access to finance for SMEs in the Bahamas through Factoring combined with a Digital Platform’.
The only other details provided by the IDB were that the project involves “the introduction and mainstreaming of a financial product through a digital platform in the Bahamas that can efficiently provide access to finance for small and medium enterprises”.
“That opens a lot of doors for us, opportunities,” Mr Morris told Tribune Business. “The relationship with the IDB has actually led us into meetings, and we’re going to be working with the Organisation of American States (OAS) because of that relationship. There’s a lot of things happening because of it.”