|The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 3, 2008
July 3, 2008
Shonalee King Johnson
This year the RBC Royal Bank of Canada marks 100 years of operation in The Bahamas. As the first international bank in the country, RBC opened its flagship branch between Charlotte and Frederick Streets in Nassau on November 2, 1908. The full-service bank was a welcome addition to the city centre in the days when horse-drawn carriages and donkey carts were the usual mode of transport.
Seeing the potential for financial growth from the island’s burgeoning tourism and sisal industry as well as Nassau’s status as a well positioned seaport, the bank decided to take a chance. It installed Bahamian Sir George Henry Gamblin at the helm and opened its first branch. Sir George was instrumental in RBC’s first steps in the country’s banking sector utilizing his 17 years of experience with the Bank of Nassau.
At this time, the city of Nassau was in the midst of a technical revolution and unrecognizable from the bustling hub that it is today. Only four years earlier, the first motor car had arrived in Nassau. The 1902 model Oldsmobile, owned by US Vice-Consul Henry Mostyn, drove along Nassau’s dirt roads in 1904. Up to that point the majority of merchants in the waterfront city would have walked to their Bay Street stores and so would most of their customers.
RBC’s downtown offices had some of the most advanced telecommunications on the island. The first telephone system installed in 1906 had 150 subscribers, many of whom were Nassau merchants who would later become RBC Bahamas’ original customers.
Just one year later, in 1909, electricity reached Nassau. A limited supply from a gas generator meant a strong current would be available during merchants’ peak business hours. The few residential customers with electricity in their private homes had access to power until 1am.
It took 30 years before another full service bank set up operations in the country and in those three decades RBC grew its customer base to include some of the biggest businesses in The Bahamas. Under Sir George’s direction as manager, a solid foundation for the bank was established, with it acquiring the Bank of Nassau in 1917. He remained manager of RBC until 1930 and died shortly thereafter. A public memorial was erected in downtown Nassau in 1932 in remembrance of his work in the banking and political fields.
Today, as the country’s oldest bank, Sir George’s legacy lives on with RBC now employing more than 750 persons at nearly 30 branches throughout The Bahamas.
In 1982, the financial corporation acquired Finance Corporation of Bahamas (FINCO) forming RBC FINCO. The subsidiary continues to provide financing for Bahamian homeowners. A trendsetter in local banking, RBC was the first to introduce computerized banking to the country in the 1960s.
It was one of many firsts as the bank went on to introduce automated banking machine services in The Bahamas for the local and tourist markets. RBC also became one of the first international banks to invest in a multi-million dollar head office facility in the islands.
Ross McDonald, head of Caribbean banking at RBC, and Nathaniel Beneby Jr, vice president and country head for The Bahamas, lead the bank’s regional operations currently headquartered in Nassau. With an estimated asset portfolio of close to $2 billion shared between retail banking, funds generated from its mortgage subsidiary RBC FINCO and commercial banking centre, the bank’s Bahamas operations generate 55-60 per cent of total Caribbean profits.
RBC Bahamas’ network also includes a small business unit, a newly established real estate development group and merchant banking capabilities through a recent partnership with Fidelity Bank & Trust Ltd (now Royal Fidelity Merchant Bank & Trust Ltd).
McDonald attributes Royal Bank’s success in The Bahamas to the company’s strong ties to the local economy. “The bank is really just a reflection of the economy and the people in the country where we live and work. There is no question that we are an integral part of the economy itself and so as The Bahamas economy goes so goes the Royal Bank of Canada,” says the Canadian banking veteran. McDonald is responsible for the domestic operations of eight countries in the Caribbean region. Prior to his current post, McDonald was vice president of The Bahamas and Cayman Islands at RBC.
RBC’s success in the local economy within the past century is far-reaching in the Bahamian community. In addition to the hundreds of charitable organizations benefiting from the company’s generosity, Bahamian staff members have reaped the rewards of being a part of RBC’s international family. Annual compensation and benefits total more than $30 million with 88 per cent of the bank’s employees participating in RBC’s share ownership programmes. The bank invests on average thousands in training for local staff annually and has seen the rewards in staff continuity at the middle and upper management levels.
“In this region education represents the largest percentage of our community donation budget (36 per cent),” says Beneby. “Our investment in our staff is consistent with that commitment to education and training.”
The Bahamas also benefits from Royal Bank’s presence in the local economy with the company buying goods and services from local vendors to the tune of $12 million each year.
Growing with the company
Nathaniel Beneby Jr, the highest-ranking Bahamian in the organization, has benefited from the bank’s commitment to staff development. He joined the bank straight out of high school, taking an entry level clerk position in 1973. The young banker sometimes filled in for the company’s messenger. His work style soon caught the attention of human resources manager Jeffery Albury who enrolled Beneby into a fast track management programme.
This path has given Beneby deep insight into the bank’s inner workings and a breadth of knowledge that has held him in good stead throughout his career. “There are clear advantages of coming from the ground up,” says Beneby.
At 19, he relocated to Grand Bahama for the post of officer in charge of foreign exchange. Throughout his 35-year career with the bank, the executive held various middle and upper level management positions. He took advantage of professional development initiatives through the bank, earning both his bachelor’s and masters degrees.
Between 2002 and 2006, Beneby worked for RBC FINCO as general manager of lending and business development before being appointed managing director.
On his watch the bank’s subsidiary experienced unprecedented growth and profitability. He believes that success was a “springboard” into his current position as country head, the first time a Bahamian has held this position in the bank’s 100-year history in The Bahamas.
The father of four attributes his success to his faith and family support from his wife of 28 years, Eulease.
Beneby is the first to admit he never planned on a lifelong career in banking. “I thought I would work for a while and then move on to my own business. But what motivated me to stay is the culture of the organization. RBC continually redefines itself. The organization is bigger than any one person.”
McDonald, like Beneby, never imagined a long career at Royal Bank. “When I joined the RBC, I thought first of all it would be excellent training and that I would be with the company for a couple of years and then I would go off on my own,” McDonald recalls after 31 years with the company. “What I did find was because Royal Bank is such a large company, whenever I felt I needed a change and a different challenge, I got a different job within the company.”
From his start with the company in London, Ontario, McDonald went on to work in Montreal and Toronto. In 1995, he worked as vice president of business banking at Royal Bank Plaza and later as VP of personal and commercial banking before moving to Caribbean operations. “Ultimately, working in the Caribbean market is not much different than working anywhere else,” says McDonald. And while Nassau’s traffic is as busy as any mainstream metropolitan, “as a Canadian I certainly appreciate the winters here.”
Throughout the years McDonald picked up a simple rule—that truly listening to customers and employees is the key. “If you listen to what they tell you and if you act on it you’ll be successful.” For the Canadian-born executive, life in The Bahamas, has great rewards. “I was surprised and pleased that people work so very hard here. I think there is a real dedication.”
Nassau’s cosmopolitan feel is also a big draw for McDonald and his family. Together with his wife Nancy, their three children and golden retriever Monty, the family takes advantage of life in The Bahamas. “Unequivocally this is the best job that I’ve had in 31 years at Royal Bank,” says McDonald. “The sun, sea and the beaches are just very beautiful and the people are very genuine and welcoming.”
“Without a doubt we are very competitive,” McDonald contends. “I would say if you look across the region nobody is more competitive than The Bahamas.” Both executives stress the need for Bahamian workers to remain top competitors in the region.
Beneby encourages young banking professionals to seek out overseas training opportunities within their organizations as a way to move into upper management. “Overseas training adds real value and helps us as a developing nation. In the banking industry we [Bahamians] are getting a little thin at the top. We need to be sure that we accelerate the pace to ensure that the gaps that exist don’t widen.”
In 2008, the bank showed a strong commitment to the future development of the financial services industry with a $1 million donation to The College of The Bahamas to help fund the school’s Graduate Business Centre. RBC’s donation is the single largest donation by a private corporation to the college. Royal Bank’s commitment to staff development and employee satisfaction is based on a structured system of recognition and rewards.
“We set benchmarks. Where gaps exist, branches are asked to develop action plans,” says Beneby. “The management is held accountable if improvements are not made and they are also rewarded if improvements are made.”
The bank also initiates two independent staff surveys each year for honest feedback on management performance. “We spend a lot of time and attention in the management ranks on communicating with our employees and also in listening to what they say,” says McDonald. “We are quite disciplined about how we deal with this information. We have the best employees in the region and there is a reason for that. We work very hard at keeping that relationship real strong.”
Staff satisfaction is as important to the company heads as customer satisfaction. To ensure staff concerns are heard Beneby organizes periodical round table discussions with ten random staff members including messengers, customer service representatives and branch managers to get raw feedback on employee working conditions and the success of customer service initiatives.
Most of the changes to enhance customer service, employee relationships and overall operations come from the suggestions of front-line staff at these informal, open agenda meetings. “They live our vision and our values and are really in a great position to give very meaningful feedback as to what we can do better.”
Since 2001, The Bahamas served as headquarters to Royal Bank’s Caribbean operations. In October 2007, the bank announced plans to acquire RBTT (formerly Royal Bank of Trinidad & Tobago), a move that will make the Canadian bank the second largest in the English-speaking Caribbean. The buyout will expand Royal Bank’s Caribbean portfolio from eight to 21 countries and increase its employee base from 1,500 to just over 7,000. By the time the full acquisition is complete (estimated to take three years), Royal Bank’s Caribbean headquarters will relocate from New Providence to Port of Spain, Trinidad.
“From a specific transaction point of view it is a marriage made in heaven,” says McDonald. And while the acquisition signals growth for Royal Bank’s Caribbean banking base, local analysts expressed initial concern regarding the impact this expansion will have on the bank’s Bahamian operations.
According to McDonald, the move “doesn’t mean that there will be a diminishing role for The Bahamas.” Instead, “The Bahamas will continue to be a crown jewel in the broader organization. We’ve already stated publicly that no employee is going to lose their job because of the acquisition. Certain roles may end up being redefined but the acquisition is all about growing our presence across the region and beyond.”
With the recent partnership with Fidelity Bank & Trust International Ltd and an April 2007 launch of a special real estate market team, Royal Bank’s Bahamas operations continue to strengthen and expand to meet market demands.
McDonald and Beneby see these new operations as a way for the bank to increase the scope of services offered to RBC’s 100,000-plus customers in The Bahamas. McDonald describes the necessity for the development of a specific real estate team in particular. “The Bahamas has the most real estate development of any country in the region so we are very excited about that team and that opportunity,” he says. “The team has a regional mandate, to develop business in the offshore international mortgage sector.”
The real estate team will deal “more with infrastructure development and high-end commercial development,” explains Beneby. “We are now extending the terms from five to seven years to up to 15 years for the commercial real estate loans. That’s a significant improvement.”
For director of real estate markets Lester Cox, the main motivating factor for real estate development in the country is based on client needs. “Our clients really wanted us to learn about their business. That drove us to set up this specialized group to sharpen our focus on the clients’ needs and respond to them in a more helpful way.”
The five-member team offers clients solid lending options by focusing on industry standards when structuring loans. Half of Royal Bank’s real estate market team looks after the commercial development end while the other half focuses on the individual residential financing for the developments. Initial objectives will focus on the secondary home market, condominium developments, office buildings for lease and a concentrated real estate portfolio.
“If somebody is developing raw land, making it serviceable and then building homes on it, we can finance the developer and the individual mortgages on both ends,” says Cox. “Our success in the market has really been based on RBC’s ability to respond quickly to opportunities.”
While the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States is cause for concern for The Bahamas’ largely American second home market, Cox is optimistic about future opportunities among foreign investors.
“We are encouraging our teams to stick with the basics and make sure we take care of the relationship management end of the business. We stick to tried and tested standards.” In 2007 when RBC partnered with Fidelity Bank & Trust to form Royal Fidelity Merchant Bank & Trust Ltd, it broadened its product offerings in the local economy.
“We are now able to bring to our customers a full range of financial products including brokerage accounts, trust and asset management,” says McDonald. RBC customers will also have access to innovative financial products and the move will allow Bahamians to invest in the global marketplace. “It’s a 50/50 partnership. RBC is really benefiting from this expanded service on the corporate, commercial and personal banking side. That is a great benefit to our customers,” adds Beneby.
On the leadership goals he and McDonald share at RBC, Beneby describes it as the best working relationship of his entire career. “Ross is a visionary leader. He empowers you by creating an environment for you to flourish,” he says. “There’s lots of collaboration. I couldn’t be happier at this point in my life.”
McDonald sees communication as key to his working relationship with Beneby. “We have a very structured and disciplined approach to how we communicate,” says McDonald. “I think success in any organization is really driven by common alignment on what the goals are, what the vision should be and the road map that is going to get us there.
“We’ve accomplished great things in The Bahamas and built a wonderful management team here. Our success is really attributed to the people here in The Bahamas.”