• Banker: Gov't must discard 'lawyer brain'
• Brands BPL, Cable, BTC as digital 'jokes'
• Entrepreneur: Doors close if name 'not right'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas "is as far from becoming the Singapore of the Americas as a fifth division soccer team is from the UK's Premier League", a prominent banker warned yesterday.
Gregory Pepin, Deltec Bank & Trust's chief executive, told a webinar organised by the TCL Group that while this nation has the potential to achieve such status it has much work to do before realising such lofty ambitions.
Arguing that it remains "a struggle" to gain approvals for any form of investment and business outside tourism, Mr Pepin said he had personally experienced such challenges over the past six months "to bring new business" to The Bahamas.
While COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to "reinvent" the Bahamian economy by reducing its dependency on tourism, the Deltec chief said this can only be seized if the Government "stops thinking like a lawyer and thinks like a businessman".
He also warned that The Bahamas' digital economy and "technology hub" aspirations were currently built on extremely shaky foundations, describing all three of Bahamas Power & Light (BPL), Cable Bahamas and Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) as "a joke" for offering services that were either unreliable or too costly compared to regional and global rivals.
While The Bahamas' proximity to major consumer markets in the US and Canada, and connectivity to other key jurisdictions such as the UK, remained critical strengths, Mr Pepin said this nation lacked "the right policies to take advantage" of this.
He described this as being akin to "a bad house in a rich neighbourhood", where the investment climate and regulatory framework were not sufficiently efficient, robust and business friendly to attract major foreign direct investment (FDI) and capital flows.
"The biggest problem with The Bahamas is not position," Mr Pepin said. "You can be the Singapore of the north, the Singapore of the Americas, but knowing how Singapore works we're as far from Singapore as a fifth division team is from the Premier League.
"The challenges you have to go through to get there are discouraging. The reality is if you want to do business here other than tourism it's challenging.... anything else is a struggle. That's a fact. Whoever the Government of The Bahamas is I don't care. Invest in the population, invest outside tourism.
"I've been trying to do some things for the last six months to bring new business here, and it's a challenge, it's an effort. That shouldn't be the case. Hopefully the Government will take away their lawyer brain, and thinking like a lawyer, and think like a businessman. Stop thinking like a lawyer and take decisions to make things work."
Urging The Bahamas to break away from dogmatic thinking, and the bureaucracy and red tape that continues to strangle private sector-led growth and job creation, Mr Pepin also called for initiatives to "inspire" young entrepreneurs who he described as the country's future.
With The Bahamas' relatively young population providing hope for post-COVID-19 prospects, the banker said incentives to encourage Bahamian and foreign investment in small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) were sorely lacking.
One such entrepreneur, Robbyn Thompson, who started her hair and beauty business in 2012 to finance a college education, told the webinar that successive governments had not been effective in meeting the Bahamian people's needs or providing "a conducive environment for business to thrive".
With politicians tending to cater to the interests of the elite from which they are drawn, she said policies lacked input from younger persons while often also widening the gap between rich and poor in Bahamian society.
"As a young person and entrepreneur I feel the Government has failed in its mandate to provide opportunities for young entrepreneurs and people," Ms Thompson said. "They want seats at the table, they want to have a role in policies. They're tired of having other people speak for them. How can you design a policy for young people but have never asked us" for input?
She criticised the composition of the Government-appointed Economic Recovery Committee, whose role it is to generate a road map for The Bahamas' short and longer-term recovery post COVID-19, arguing that its members all came from "elitist positions" while the interests of start-ups, entrepreneurs and persons under 30 years-old were not represented.
"Until young people are given an opportunity to have a piece of the pie, there will always be a gap in our country in terms of economic growth," Ms Thompson said. She argued that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were already "under-appreciated and under-assisted" prior to COVID-19, with the sector's two main weaknesses involving access to resources and networking.
Recalling a speech she gave in London, where she "bragged" that The Bahamas is investing $25m over five years in SMEs, Ms Thompson said: "Somebody came up to me after the speech and said that number was a joke.
"Twenty-five million dollars is a lot, but we're only now beginning to take SMEs seriously and pay attention to them when other countries recognised long ago that SMEs were the backbone of the economy and key to driving growth."
Recalling how she had applied for an initiative under the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC), Ms Thompson continued: "Many of these organisations sound wonderful in theory but bureaucracy and red tape makes it difficult to access resources.
"We need more accountability and transparency in these resources, and make sure people in these organisations realise what it means to have $1 and a dream..... It honestly seems that when you knock on doors in this country, and they ask who's there, if you call a name they don't recognise the door doesn't open.
"Our government has to do a better job of making sure no one gets left behind, and that every entrepreneur regardless of background, name and colour of skin is given equal opportunity access to resources in this country."
This prompted Mr Pepin to exclaim "great read out of the situation", adding that "if you don't know someone" who is able to facilitate the necessary permits and approvals then someone who does invariably jumps ahead.
"That's not how you build an economy, that's how you destroy an economy," he added. The Deltec banker also warned that the Bahamas Bar Association's effective closed shop, and restrictions on international and regional law firms setting up affiliates here, was further undermining the country's competitiveness as business was directed to other jurisdictions.
He added that a "big trading firm" had approached him about the conditions for setting up in The Bahamas during the webinar, but were already questioning the feasibility after being told they had to use a local law firm, along with BPL's unreliability/pricing and the costs of Internet access.
"BPL is a joke. That's a fact, sorry. Cable Bahamas is a joke. BTC is a joke," Mr Pepin added, when it came to The Bahamas' digital economy and technology hub prospects.