Monday, April 15, 2024

THE HOYOS FILE: Miller masters the art of non-speak


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I AM FASCINATED by organisations which do so much to bring the latest tech into their meetings with the Press, but then fall down at the last mile, to use an old telecoms term. It’s like ending the bedtime story you are reading to the kids with “And they all lived . . .”

Last week I went to a Sagicor Press conference, which had a “free” lunch for the first course. We were then invited into the adjoining boardroom of the Wildey head office (yes, still, for now at least) to speak to chief executive officer (CEO) Dodridge Miller about the group’s 2014 performance.

Except that he was in the Trinidad and Tobago head office in Port of Spain. The two boardrooms look almost identical: very big board table with journalists all around it, Miller at the head. For our part, Ed Clarke was at the head, being the head of the Barbados operations. We could see Miller and our Trinidad and Tobago journalism colleagues on two large screens about 20 feet away. The mikes on the table were just little hi-tech blobs – much more elegant than the big microphones on creaking gooseneck stands.

Then it came down to the last mile: We couldn’t see Miller close-up, as there was no zoom camera. So he remained a distant figure at the back of a large room on a screen twenty feet away. The effect would have been the same had he been on a conference call without the video part. The few charts put up on screen could have been done by a laptop using PowerPoint at our end, as I know for a fact that Sagicor also has that new email thing too.

I wish I could have seen Miller’s expressions, or lack of them, as he moved through Sagicor’s performance and activities over the past year. This may have helped me to get a better understanding of how the CEO was really thinking about some issues, as the audio part of the Press conference, while technically perfect, was somewhat, shall we say, content-challenged.

Surely, the slightest hint of a smile, the curl of a lip, the winking of an eye or other subtle facial expressions would have fortified me in the sense I got that Miller was having us on at least part of the time. I mean, from hearing him repeat so many times that he didn’t really know the details or full story about things that are all over the news in great detail you might gain the impression that the Sagicor CEO currently lives in a penthouse cave in the Maroons and gets his information solely from smoke signals and messengers who die of thirst and starvation after blurting out just a few words: CIBC . . . you . . . wanna . . . buy . . . ?”

To be blunt, Miller said almost nothing new. He has mastered the art of non-speak, that is, delivering a whole lot of confident-sounding words designed to calm the listener (shareholder, policyholder) but which boil down to very little.

Let’s see: I can probably summarise the main points in a few paragraphs: Jamaica operations going well, despite expected restructuring losses of US$5 million on RBC retail banking network purchase. That purchase valued at US$114 million but bought for $84 million. First quarter profit of US$2.2 million augurs well for future. Jamaica now accounts for half the operating profits of Sagicor – around US$75 million.

No final decision of where the new head office will be. Are they going even? Barbados Farms Inc. losing money, and although expected in the first few years, has not shown signs of turning corner. Anticipated land sales for housing not successful due to poor economy. Decision to come by year-end on if Sagicor will stay in agriculture. If it goes, that could be a final blow to the already almost-dead sugar industry.

Net income for 2014 was US$74 million, well up from the US$4 million earned the previous year. Total revenue almost exactly the same at just over US$1 billion. Return on equity a healthy 11.2 per cent, up from 7.2 per cent in 2013.

The Lloyds debacle has cost the company around US$100 million, with a quarter of that being intangible revenue, or book entries instead of cash. Still, the actual cash loss is very pretty penny. Sagicor maintains a “watchful brief” and “could be interested” in buying some of CLICO’s Trinidad and Tobago assets. No clarity on CLICO Barbados yet, so “can’t say anything”.

Although it has bought RBC’s banking operations in Jamaica, Sagicor has no plans to buy anything else in the banking sector at present. This despite Republic Bank buying RBC Suriname recently, and hints that the three Canadian banks could be interested in selling parts of their respective regional operations.

Today, I have no clear idea of what the heck Sagicor is planning to do except that it really wants to expand its empire, in large part, I think, because Miller does not want his tenure to be overshadowed by the Lloyds disaster. But he merely said that the goal was generally to reduce the group’s dependence on government paper, and it had done so, moving down from 80 per cent of investments to 50 per cent. So, if a deal seemed right, no matter how big it is, the money could be found or borrowed, he said.

Having said all that (not), Miller spent almost as much time telling reporters that he didn’t say something they were paraphrasing back to him. I was frankly surprised by the new, more cagey, more reticent public persona of Dodridge Miller. It is a far cry from the gung-ho days which led Sagicor to almost ruin (well, maybe not that far) at the hands of Lloyds of London.

And with everyone volunteering your group’s name as the buyer of last resort for this or that failed enterprise, you would expect some reticence on the part of Sagicor to say too much. But while it was nice to meet up and have a chat with Miller via Sagicor’s well appointed and still head office boardroom in Barbados, it did occur to me that I could just as easily have missed the opportunity to engage in the non-speak that permeated most of the verbal, shall we say, exchange.

But then I would have missed that great “free” lunch.


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