By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The prime minister’s attack on business owners “has no merit” in most cases, a prominent entrepreneur argued yesterday, adding: “We’re not living in ivory towers.”
Robert Myers, who has multiple business interests, told Tribune Business that it was “dangerous” for Dr Hubert Minnis to make “such broad brush generalisations” about the eagerness of some proprietors to lay-off long-serving staff when many had used their own finances to provide support for as long as possible.
Still, Mr Myers said he was willing to give the Prime Minister “a pass” on his criticisms given that immense frustration and pressure he and the government are facing as the COVID-19 pandemic takes an ever-increasing toll on the Bahamian economy and society.
He also argued that Dr Minnis’ comments applied more to the commercial banking industry on the basis that its loan deferral initiatives were simply allowing borrower clients to delay payments until they and the economy recover. This, Mr Myers suggested, meant that deferred interest payments are merely being added to the borrower’s debt with the end result that the banks “are not missing a beat” as interest is being charged on interest.
Turning to the prime minister’s national address, in which he went off-script to slam the seeming haste with which companies temporarily laid-off long-serving staff in response to the pandemic, Mr Myers suggested he may have reacted “to some emotional story” concerning how one firm had treated their workers.
“I haven’t spoken to every business person, and I’m not the Chamber of Commerce, but I haven’t spoken to anyone in my sphere that’s being unreasonable with their employees,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s not factual, certainly in our case. I’ve spent a considerable amount of earned capital on expanding businesses in this country, and frankly I don’t want to hear it.
“Most of us are spending considerable sums of money propping them up, and that’s a big concern to us because we don’t know when the end date is. For my companies we’re providing six to eight weeks outside of the National Insurance Board (NIB), so once NIB is finished we will provide an additional amount of stimulus.
“But just as there’s only so much the Government can do, there’s only so much we can do. We provided six to eight weeks of stimulus for employees but we don’t know if it’s going to be enough. That’s all we can afford. If this goes longer we will have significant problems because we’re taking on debt to pay for that. We’ve got debt to pay, bills to pay, and risks that are significantly more than employee risk.”
Mr Myers is not only in his criticisms. Arinthia Komolafe, the Democratic National Alliance’s (DNA) leader, alluded to the Prime Minister’s outburst in a statement yesterday in which she said: “It is unwise to pit employees against employers at this crucial time.
“We need words that unite us as a people not comments that divide us. We will need the private sector, civil society, workers and the whole Bahamas to rebuild our economy. This is not the time for pandering or comments that raise tension.”
Mr Myers, whose landscape maintenance, nursery and retail hardware businesses have been given permission to re-open by the Government over varying hours, said staff payroll was often the largest expense for companies.
While it was not the single largest cost item in the retail sector, he pointed out that other expenses such as inventory, rent and insurances all had to be serviced during a time when most businesses in the industry have earned zero revenue for the entire month they have been closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Our most important assets are our people,” Mr Myers added. “We put a lot of money into training our people, providing them with health insurance, and they’re fairly compensated and paid more than the minimum wage.
“On the whole any good company values their employees. But that has limits. We have the risk of all our inventory hanging out there with no income. We have our machinery and equipment out there with no income and duty paid. We’re suffering as well.
“It isn’t like we’re sitting in our ivory towers drinking a cocktail and having a good time. That’s not the case. We all have to take the high road here. If he’s [the Prime Minister] got concerns about certain businesses he should talk to those companies,” Mr Myers continued.
“That’s dangerous, making a broad brush generalisation. I hope he’d back down some from that as most businesses are working very hard to get themselves and their employees through this. Let’s stay rational and try to work together and not point the finger. Everybody’s trying to get through this.”
Mr Myers suggested that Bahamian commercial banks needed to recognise all elements of the economy “are suffering” and go further than simply offering loan deferrals, as this will ultimately result in interest being charged on the accrued interest added to a borrower’s debt.
“We’re all taking it on the chin, taking a gut punch,” he told Tribune Business. “We’re all down on our knees. Share the load. The banks can’t sit back and say pay interest in top of interest. That’s hardly a gift.”
He argued that the Central Bank needed to examine the feasibility of reducing its benchmark discount rate to provide some relief to troubled borrowers as the Bahamian economy continues to nosedive.