By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A leading businessman yesterday warned that a forced renationalisation of the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) will "do more harm than good" for this nation.
Sir Franklyn Wilson, pictured, who led the Christie administration's negotiations to reclaim "Bahamian majority ownership" of BTC, told Tribune Business that such calls by trade union leaders were "not an option" given the likely damage it would inflict on The Bahamas' reputation as a safe haven for investment.
Responding to suggestions that it was time to "part ways" with BTC's controlling shareholder following the outrage sparked by its chief executive's criticisms of Bahamian workers, Sir Franklyn said the ongoing controversy should not be allowed to dictate government policy towards the company.
Yet he blasted Balan Nair, Liberty Latin America's (LiLAC) chief executive, for remarks he described as "unbecoming of a chief executive". And Sir Franklyn also cast doubt on Mr Nair's and BTC's insistence that his comments had been "taken out of context", noting that the videos showed the LiLAC chief circling back to the same theme several times.
Mr Nair, at the Prime Minister's insistence, yesterday issued a public apology to both Dr Hubert Minnis and the Bahamian people for comments that questioned the productivity and work ethic of BTC staff in comparison to their Jamaican counterparts. Sir Franklyn, though, suggested that it would be better if Mr Nair physically returns to The Bahamas to explain himself.
The Arawak Homes chairman, adding that Cable Bahamas and its Aliv mobile subsidiary will be the main beneficiaries of Mr Nair's denigration of his Bahamian staff, said he thought it unlikely "there's anyone in the country who expected" BTC's 2011 to Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) to turn out as it has.
Sir Franklyn argued that the constant management "turnover" at both BTC and CWC, the latter now a LiLAC subsidiary, had contributed to the Bahamian carrier being woefully unprepared to respond to Aliv's competitive threat and the loss of its lucrative mobile monopoly in November 2016.
Recalling how "hopes were so high" for BTC's future following the agreed restructuring between CWC and the Christie administration, he added that the carrier's current situation - Mr Nair's remarks excepted - is "so far removed from what the expectations were".
Nevertheless, Sir Franklyn warned against any renationalisation moves by the Government to reclaim 100 percent Bahamian ownership by forcing LiLAC/CWC out. He suggested, though, that it would not be remiss of the Minnis administration to inquire if its partner was interested in selling what it has branded as its "most inefficient", worst performing unit.
"I would not counsel calls for the Government to take some action of some kind against them," he told Tribune Business. "At the end of the day we are a country of laws, and must show we are a country of laws.
"I saw a union leader say take it back, nationalise it, stuff like that. I think statements like that create more harm than good. That is not the option here because we are a country of laws. As offensive as the statements were, as damaging as it was to national pride, the fact of the matter is we are a country of laws.
"A company has rights, the chief executive has rights, and the fact the chief executive makes offensive statements should not form the basis for public policy in that respect."
Sir Franklyn was responding to comments by Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) president and former BTC union leader, who told Tribune Business yesterday that the Government should "cut our losses" and reclaim 100 percent Bahamian ownership in the wake of the controversy stoked by Mr Nair.
Rather than force matters, Sir Franklyn suggested the Government explore CWC/LiLAC's willingness to sell if BTC was their worst-performing unit. "The Government can go to the company and maybe make the case: Look, if you want to sell, let us know the price, but we can't renationalise it.
"If the company is performing as badly as they say it is, maybe they'll sell and maybe they'll sell at a price that reflects what he's saying or implying the company is worth."
Sir Franklyn then suggested that Mr Nair and BTC explain their insistence that his comments had been "taken out of context", given that the videos showed him coming back several times to the same themes on The Bahamas several times in mentioning the Prime Minister, BTC's staff and the company's Mall at Marathon retail outlet.
"I really believe that for the good of BTC's standing in the community it would be good for him [Mr Nair] to come here and explain what he meant, and give the country a reasonable basis to believe he's a reasonable steward and the company's a reasonable partner to give BTC any chance of being successful," he added.
"He owes that to the Government, his partner, and the people that the Government represents, with respect to the way forward and as part of that lay out what he plans to do to."
Sir Franklyn agreed that BTC's 2011 privatisation had failed to achieve the desired results in preparing the company for competition, adding: "I don't think there's anyone in the country who expected this to be the outcome.
"The expectation was that by virtue of privatising the company it would be more productive. The idea of some type of right-sizing was anticipated as a possibility, but I think it's fair to say people would have expected more investment, modernisation and systems upgrades and the like. I don't think there are many people who would argue it's turned out as expected."
Sir Franklyn led talks that resulted in 2 percent of BTC's equity being placed in a Foundation, enabling the then-Christie administration to say that this - combined with the Government's 49 percent stake - had regained majority control for the Bahamian people. CWC, though, remained the largest and controlling shareholder with just over 49 percent of BTC.
Recalling the dinner held to celebrate that agreement, Sir Franklyn told Tribune Business: "Heaven knows, the day we had that event at Balmoral hopes were so high for a new day for BTC.
"To think this has happened, aside from the hurt and rest of it that Bahamians feel, it is so far removed from what the expectations were. How did we get here? How did this happen?"