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Grand Bahama enters digital age

Grand Bahama enters digital age

Innovator GIBC Digital is leading the tech turnaround in The Bahamas' second city

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
February 16, 2019
February 16, 2019
Catherine Morris

Grand Bahama’s economy is entering a new era. Traditionally reliant on shipping and industry, the island is exploring new avenues of growth such as technology and stakeholders’ efforts in this area got a boost recently when global tech firm GIBC Digital set up shop in Freeport. It is an investment that is set to plug millions into the local economy, train and employ scores of Bahamians and help position the nation’s second city as an innovative technology centre.

Digital delivery
GIBC Digital has offices in New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore and plans to extend its presence to Dublin, Toronto and Nigeria in the coming year. The company’s move into Freeport is part of the firm’s wider strategic plan, according to chief executive officer Greg Wood, who says: “Instead of focusing on the major markets that are big financial centres, we are now looking to second and third tier markets where we can have a much bigger impact.”

Wood and his team met with government in early 2018 and opened the Freeport facility in June. “We moved quickly,” he says. “We mobilized and focused and had the cooperation of government and the Grand Bahama Port Authority. They seem to understand the importance of bringing in foreign investors and made the process as easy as possible.”

The company took advantage of the newly-created Commercial Enterprises Act, which streamlines foreign investment in sectors such as technology. For Wood, an added incentive was the chance to be part of the transformation of Grand Bahama. “I met with Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and started to get an understanding of where he wanted to take the country. I thought we could play a part in that and help execute his vision. We didn’t really look for incentives; it was more about being part of the creation of a technology hub and how we could fit into that.”

GIBC Digital’s Freeport offices currently employ 29 Bahamians and offer the company’s full range of services in cybersecurity, regulation and compliance, data intelligence, process engineering and automation and customer experience. The majority of its clients come from the financial services sector where forward-thinking money managers are increasingly realizing the benefits of going digital.

“Our clients have historically been big investment banks,” says Wood. “We have had that focus on financial services since I started this company in 2011. Banking has changed over the past 10 years and it is going to continue to change, making it more difficult for traditional banks to maintain their market share. You don’t have to have a physical presence for a client; they can do everything on their mobile devices, which opens up the market, but also makes it a bit more difficult because now you are competing with companies that are nimble and innovative and give customers a different experience. Traditional banks need to be willing to evolve quickly.”

Given the ever-increasing scrutiny from global watchdogs, it is no surprise that GIBC Digital’s clients are very focused on digitizing their compliance frameworks and keeping ahead of regulation. Another huge area of potential for innovative wealth managers is data gathering and artificial intelligence (AI), leveraging that technology to improve the customer experience while reducing costs.

“What businesses do with their data and how they can use AI to gain insights and provide better services to the client is becoming more and more important,” says Wood. “Data has phenomenal potential. Machines recognize patterns better than humans, so you can get more insight using AI and machine learning.”

The advent of disruptive technologies such as cloud computing, big data and AI has inevitably led to increased concerns over privacy and security. For financial services providers, the need to protect and safeguard client information is paramount to their business, so it is no wonder GIBC Digital’s cybersecurity services are in demand. “It is hard to have a conversation with people about what we do and not get focused on the cybersecurity aspects of the business,” says Wood. “That is really important and that is where the demand is right now.”

Training for the future
The Freeport offices are just the start for GIBC Digital, which plans to build a training centre and an AI and data hub within the next five years. By 2020, the company expects to have directly and indirectly generated around $50 million for the Grand Bahama economy and employed around 150 Bahamians. Once operational, the training centre will act as a feeder for GIBC Digital’s offices around the globe–bringing employees to Freeport, brushing up their skills and then sending them on to other operations. It will also be available to other companies looking to educate their employees.

Training is one of GIBC Digital’s values according to Wood, who says he is proud that the company can effect change at the grassroots level by helping young Bahamians acquire the skills they need. “Our motto is to hire and train local people,” he says. “We have a great set of people. They are motivated and smart. We were very fortunate to select the best and brightest in Grand Bahama. Young people everywhere are more and more comfortable with technology. We have to make sure that’s the case in The Bahamas and that’s why education is so important. Bahamians, and those in Grand Bahama in particular, are really looking for opportunities to participate in the digital economy.”

The third phase of GIBC Digital’s long- term plan for Grand Bahama involves establishing a state-of- the-art data centre. Wood says: “It will be a place where we will be able to hold data and share insights with customers. The challenge going forward will be finding people who have an understanding of how to use data. Instead of bringing that into your business and trying to make that your competency, we will allow companies to use our expertise. It’s a way of sharing that limited resource across multiple users.”

Wood hopes that Grand Bahama will act as a launchpad for business across the region. He is eager to capture more of the Caribbean market and hopes for steady growth. “We hope to use our facilities in The Bahamas not only for local work, but also regional work. We are having conversations with regional governments and businesses to make that happen. The key is having the right relationships, building awareness and creating brand recognition. It is a slow process, but we think we will be very successful here.”

A regional leader
The Bahamas has the opportunity to race ahead of its regional neighbours and create a hub for digital innovation, according to Wood, who believes that with support from stakeholders, an investor-friendly business climate and a focused approach, Grand Bahama can become an attractive jurisdiction for those wishing to follow in GIBC Digital’s footsteps. “Building a tech hub is very possible, but you have to act with a sense of urgency. It has to be led by government. Without the right incentives and support it is unlikely to happen. It will require a lot of coordination and cooperation between government and the private sector.”

Investing in The Bahamas is not without its challenges. Wood notes that air travel is an issue. With no direct flights between his base in New York and Freeport it can be difficult to bring down employees on a regular and timely basis. He would also like to see greater liberalization of immigration laws to encourage expertise to come into the country and generate more interest among investors. “Allowing people to come in is good for everyone because you can fill that initial knowledge gap. It will also attract other companies to come in, so you create a virtuous cycle of upskilling. It really takes some momentum. We have started it but it will require other companies to come in and participate as well.”

More companies means more competition, but Wood is happy to welcome others to the market, saying: “There are a lot of ways companies can collaborate and everyone is better off. The impact and the potential is much higher. You build this ecosystem of innovators and that momentum creates a lot of opportunities. With the capabilities of computers now, it is an exciting time to be alive.”

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