The current debate about the takeover battle of Banks Holdings Limited (BHL) is one that has to take place in earnest on this occasion.
Barbadians have often expressed a desire to hold on to symbols of nationalist pride and the moment that there is a threat to such symbols, howls of protest go up and we hear all kinds of talk about outsiders taking over our country.
It has happened before. The Barbados National Bank, Insurance Corporation of Barbados Limited, and Barbados Light & Power are examples, as is the case of Barbados Shipping & Trading, which has now morphed into the ubiquitous Massy brand.
If we want to keep these companies in Barbadian hands, then Barbadians must use some of the massive savings lying in the commercial banks and invest in the combined ownership of these companies. We must put our money where our mouths are.
But apart from the talk, the nine-day wonder kicks in. Then things return to normal and life goes on until the next time. This time we think the debate must be more far-reaching. We cannot only lament the loss of an iconic Barbadian company; but we must try to discover why such situations exist and do something about it.
Entrepreneur Ralph “Bizzy” Williams is right when he says that Barbadians are risk-averse. They prefer money in the bank to shares in companies. So commercial banks and credit unions are a safe bet and a company, even one as successful as BHL, is too risky for their purchase of its shares. The irony is that Banks was a game-changer when it started. Or so we hoped!
We were a few years out of the dark ages of non-adult suffrage when the promoters of the Banks company, in a far-sighted move, involved the small man and shopkeepers as shareholders in the newly formed company. It was an act of faith totally against the risk-averse nature of our people and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. A Guyanese national started it!
Perhaps the full story of the Banks company needs to be told for if there is an experience which should have shown the value of investing in shares, then Banks is that experience. But we need a change of culture. Education about the world of business and the ways in which companies can be operated with shareholder power holding directors and managers of the company to account would help.
We are now a people more exposed to the developments in commerce in other places; and if our grandparents were wise enough to invest in local companies, with our enlightened approaches we should appreciate the wisdom of following in their footsteps.
We must also stop the demonising of corporate Bridgetown. Perhaps because of our history some of us take cheap shots at the commercial sector and use the words “corporate Bridgetown” as if business is a collection of enemies operating from within. Such characterisations can scare the living daylights out of potential investors.
Without investors, the shares are not bought or traded. Their value remains low, and sensible outsiders quietly acquire our shares and ownership and control of our companies. Foreign investment is welcome but the majority of shares in most Barbadian companies can be owned by Barbadians. It is an ideal for which we must fight, and education about business is a major key to changing our risk-averse culture.