By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A CHAMBER of Commerce executive yesterday accused Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) of doing the Family Islands “a great injustice” through their continued branch closures and exits.
Roderick Simms, who heads the Chamber’s Family Islands division, told Tribune Business that while digital banking is the way to go RBC’s implementation strategy left a lot to be desired.
He added that the Canadian-owned institution, which acts as the Government’s bank, was effectively “flipping the switch” and seeking to complete “overnight” in the Bahamas what has been a 30-year digital conversion in its home country.
Mr Simms warned that the 70-80-day closure notice provided by RBC to Andros and Long Island residents was simply “insufficient” for what are still largely cash-based economies, with the branch shutdowns to take effect on March 30 and April 13, respectively.
He questioned how businesses on these islands will be able to “get cash in and out” of the formal banking system without a physical branch location, and asked whether RBC planned to leave Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) in place.
“I’m very, very concerned,” Mr Simms said of the RBC pull-outs. “I understand RBC’s decision to go digital, and digital is the way to go, but where we fell down in the implementation of digital was education.
“We did not do a smooth transition from what we have now to digital. In the US and Canada digital is not a state; it’s a journey, an evolution. RBC suddenly flipping the switch is not the best way to go about it. The US and Canada have taken three decades, and what we’re trying to do jump from zero to 30 overnight.
“I am of the opinion that the Clearing Banks Association fell down in their job of transforming the digital economy in the Bahamas. They fell asleep at the wheel. They should have started from 2007 after the crash. That was the perfect opportunity to start implementing the digital transformation. Many of the services going to digital out there they could have phased in over time.”
RBC has led the way in trying to drive Bahamian businesses and residents to its digital platform, and use the Internet and mobile apps to conduct their financial business. This is directly linked to its branch closures and consolidation strategy, as it looks to reduce costs and physical footprint, and eliminate numerous in-branch transactions to free-up clients to focus on customers.
Tribune Business understands that up to 85 jobs may be impacted by RBC’s latest consolidation, although this does not mean all will be made redundant as other posts will be found within the bank. This newspaper was also told that RBC may be planning to shift more of its back office operations, including credit card processing, to Trinidad.
Mr Simms, though, blasted the bank for the “inconsiderate” way this strategy is being implemented, adding: “It doesn’t leave the Family Islands with many options.
“I will not argue that digital is the way to go, but when people are not familiar with it they resist it. Had RBC eased us into a transition over time, the community will be a lot more accepting of it. The ‘flip the switch’ has created a backlash. You have to take the culture and people into account.
“The digital transformation in Canada has been happening for 30 years. Why do they think it will happen here overnight? The technology itself is disruptive and people have to become used to it. Right now, everyone is shocked.”
The Bahamas, especially Family Island communities, is still a very cash-dependent society despite efforts by the Central Bank and the private sector to push the country to a more digital-based, cashless payments system. RBC, it appears, has run out of patience and is effectively trying to impose and force this on to the Bahamas.
Mr Simms said RBC’s Andros exit would leave the central portion of the island without a bank, potentially forcing individuals and businesses to make a 45-60 minute trip both ways to Scotiabank in the north or take the ferry to the south.
“We should have a discussion about the way RBC went about it,” he told Tribune Business. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with what they’ve done. It’s a great injustice and disservice, especially to the Family Islands. Now the Family Islands are marginalised.
“I understand it’s a business decision, and businesses have to find a way to make money, but you have to have a cash centre. How do you get cash out of the system and into the system on the islands?
“Let’s face it. We’re still cash based, especially on the Family Islands. It will be disruptive to the business communities on these islands. How do you pay people if you can’t write and cash a cheque? How do you direct deposits? Are they going to put ATMs in Andros?”
Mr Simms questioned why RBC and other other clearing banks had not partnered with the Chamber and wider private sector to make the digital banking transition easier, saying it seemed as if Family Island communities had been left to “figure it out” for themselves.
“They’ve left the problem solving in the hands of the communities; you figure out how to get cash in and get cash out,” he added. “The technology itself is disruptive, and this is making it more disruptive. We need to have a discussion about where banking is headed.”
The Chamber executive added that the calls for action to be taken against web shops, and prevent them from participating in the money transfer business, had also narrowed the banking alternatives available to the Family Islands.
He suggested that Bank of the Bahamas partner with the Post Office to fill the void, using the latter’s locations as a base from which to service Family Island communities.