|The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 3, 2008
July 3, 2008
Contrary to common belief financial services aren’t about money, they are about people. Without skilled professionals managing them, all the complex instruments and innovative products in the world aren’t going to boost your portfolio. It’s the people that provide the security; it’s the relationships that build trust.
In the past, many talented Bahamians have left the sun and sea of their homeland to pursue what they perceive as greater opportunity in the world’s bigger financial centres. But there is a new generation of leaders that are choosing to return to the jurisdiction after studying abroad and practice their newly found skills here in the land of their forefathers. There are now over 6,000 professionals in financial services in The Bahamas, covering every aspect of the sector from investment fund administration to accounting and legal services.
The Bahamas Investor interviewed three prominent Bahamians who are leading the way in financial services and inspiring the jurisdiction’s next generation of talent.
Born to bank
For some, entering the financial services sector arose by chance; others were born to it. “Now that I think about it, my interest in banking started when I was very young,” says Annamaria DeGregory, retail banking director for Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands at FirstCaribbean International Bank, an affiliate of CIBC. “My mother worked at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and I would play ‘banks’ with my sisters.”
After graduating high school, DeGregory worked at a bank and was inspired enough to go on to study economics at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “It was a lot to do with seeing the success that my mother achieved in her career. I guess it was in my blood.”
But like many talented Bahamians who study abroad, DeGregory found it difficult to settle once she returned to her homeland. “I just couldn’t see the opportunities here,” she says. “I had a hard time coming back. I felt I wasn’t settling in too well and couldn’t see my future here.” But once again it was her mother who inspired her to stay the course. “My mum talked a lot about late gratification. In America the promise is that you can get whatever you want, professionally or personally, immediately. But in The Bahamas it’s not quite like that. You have to be patient and work at it.”
DeGregory joined RBC in 1987 and, under a series of forward-thinking mentors, worked her way up through the ranks. “Most of my career has been on the lending side of the banking business, which is a way of helping people,” she says. “I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing people achieve their dreams, especially small business owners and kids just out of school.”
This conviction led DeGregory to become heavily involved with youth work through the Rotary Club while she was working at RBC. Weekday evenings she would meet with young people to help mentor them in life and career choices. She also helped orchestrate a tutoring programme, encouraging fellow employees to get involved in helping young people with their homework and other concerns. “We need to introduce young people to positive role models, particularly young women,” says DeGregory. “We have to realize how fortunate we are and give something back to the community. At the end of the day it is all about helping other people.”
It is a philosophy that pervades DeGregory’s professional life as well and is an engine behind her efforts in her relatively new role at FirstCaribbean, a position that she assumed in September last year. “A lot of young people don’t feel they get the respect from the business community and in the industry there is still a lot of work [that] needs to be done to change the mindset of senior managers,” she continues. “We need to take risks and get those people into positions where they can grow and develop. We need fresh ideas and we need to be more creative and innovative. The younger staff are telling us what we need to do. We just need to listen.”
To this end DeGregory holds regular roundtable meetings with junior staff to get their input on the bank’s services, products and client relations. “Younger people are more likely to think outside the box and see what needs to be done.” This is particularly true in the field of information technology and e-commerce. Young people are less intimidated by new technology says DeGregory and are more willing to find solutions to old problems. “We have a lot of work on our hands convincing people both within and outside of the company of the benefits of using modern technology such as the Internet so they gain confidence in new systems.”
FirstCaribbean is in the process of introducing a series of seminars to help educate clients about the benefits of using online services such as banking and payroll software. The customers will be able to use the systems and learn about data security and other procedures.
Of course to educate the clients you have to educate the staff first. Training is central to DeGregory’s vision for her team and the bank’s development in general. “You have to keep the talent involved, otherwise they’ll leave. And training is a key element of this. FirstCaribbean has excellent in-house training facilities that cover everything from etiquette to technical and leadership programmes.”
DeGregory believes that greater attention to education is essential for the industry and the nation as a whole. “We have a lot of challenges in the education of our young people and we need to listen to those with new ideas who are working in the education field who have talent. We need to give people the tools they need to get ahead. And that means we need to invest more money and produce more qualified teachers.”
One of the ways to do this, she continues, may be to introduce a form of taxation. “It’s very easy here to make a difference in the community because it is a very small country. But the onus lies with the individual. We are here to help. It’s my fundamental philosophy: you can’t receive if you are not giving.”
Craig ‘Tony’ Gomez
A similar sentiment is held by another leading light in the financial services sector—Craig ‘Tony’ Gomez, managing partner of Baker Tilly and Gomez Chartered Accountants. “Both professionally and privately it is essential that you treat people the right way. In most cases you get back what you give out.”
The desire to contribute to the community led Gomez to become involved with the Kiwanis Club of Nassau AM when he returned to The Bahamas after graduating from Minnesota State University at Mankato with a degree in accounting in the early 1980s. “It enabled me to help the less fortunate members of the community and made coming back much easier.”
Through his involvement with the Kiwanis, Gomez has continued to contribute to the development of the country and the financial sector through, for example, giving talks on accounting and business. “There are a lot of opportunities for professionals to teach young people and encourage them to learn about the opportunities that are available to them.”
Time in office
In a more general sense this is also something Gomez hopes to achieve through his work with the Bahamas Financial Services Board (BFSB), of which he has recently been elected chairman. “One of the main issues I think we have to address at the BFSB is to sensitize Bahamians to the opportunities that abound in financial services. We need to get ourselves up to the mark.”
Another objective for his time in office at the BFSB is to continue to promote The Bahamas and close the gap between how the jurisdiction perceives itself and how it is actually perceived by the rest of the world. “The Bahamas must be seen to export itself and make the world understand who we are. There is a misconception in the tourism and financial services sectors, and in the wider community, that the rest of the world knows who we are. We must target [overseas markets] and attract them to our country.”
Gomez believes this has never been more important than in the present economic climate as the entire “global village” feels the chill of a recession in the US. “If we do nothing it will get worse. We are attracting a lot of direct foreign investment at the moment, but we have to market our tourism to other regions such as Europe and Canada. We have to keep the number one pillar [of the economy] strong. We cannot sit still and hope the US rebounds quickly.”
Things are changing in the world of chartered accountancy as well. The industry has become more weighted down with a greater need for in-depth reporting, says Gomez, and to many the profession has become burdensome. However, Gomez says he is still enjoying his work because he is still learning. “There is a great deal of cross-fertilization of services now in the sector and you have to know the inner workings of many different fields, as you are not only reporting, you are helping investors achieve their goals.”
After cutting his teeth with what was then Price Waterhouse and five years with Ernst & Young, Gomez established Gomez & Gomez with his brother in 1990. In 2002 he branched out and formed Baker Tilly Gomez. The partnership, based in downtown Nassau, has enjoyed steady growth and now employs 20 people covering a raft of accountancy services.
Building such a successful business takes careful planning, dedication and a lot of time. “There were times when I wanted to give up or could not see the opportunities that were in front of me. It was then that those close to you can really help,” says Gomez, who has four children and attributes a lot of his success to the support and “constructive” criticism from his family. “They applaud you when you do things right and let you know when you do not. If you are not careful you can become a workaholic and not dedicate enough time to your family. I have been fortunate enough to be able to set aside a couple of hours each day to spend with my kids and, as things have become more settled, Sundays are for the family only nowadays.”
Lisa de Gregory
The work-life balance is also something that is key to the success of another high-flyer in the financial sector: Lisa de Gregory. At the age of 37, the Nassau-born financial professional, who is distantly related through marriage to Annamaria DeGregory at FirstCaribbean, took over the role as chief trust officer with Cititrust. “It is difficult to balance career and family life—the hours at work are long but I keep weekends for the family,” says de Gregory who has two young children. “I think there is a lot more pressure on mothers to look after the children but I have an understanding husband and an understanding boss who realize I need support.”
As chief trust officer, de Gregory’s role involves reviewing legal opinions, analyzing transactions and looking at the risk issues involved for the client. “I am constantly asked to stretch the norm because a lot of deals are non-standard,” she says. “We have a lot of clients that want to do things differently than traditionally how it was done ten or fifteen years ago.”
The job utilizes her training at a US law school although she cannot practice in The Bahamas. “I never thought I would be in banking or back in Nassau because I trained as a lawyer in the US,” says de Gregory. “It is interesting to see how your career and life evolves. When I came back I thought I would be here for a year or so—it’s 16 years ago now.”
On joining Cititrust, de Gregory became a management trainee then progressed to trust manager. Her latest promotion was a big step up. “I was surprised to find myself in this position so young and it is a real challenge. I believe you make your own opportunities through the way you work.”
From the age of 13 de Gregory attended boarding school overseas and from a very early age, she says, she was taught that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. “No matter whether in your career or in your private life, I don’t believe in doing things by halves. You have to be dedicated to whatever task is put in front of you.”
This attitude and a constantly enquiring mind have allowed de Gregory to keep ahead of a continually changing economic and legislative environment. “We are not given a lot of notice when countries change legislation that affects The Bahamas. We have to keep on top of compliance issues and product creation. As a nation it is essential that we employ creative thinking and structures so that we can be sure that the country can position itself ahead of the curve. We have passed a lot of legislation to keep us competitive but we have to be even more creative to get new products out. It is difficult because when you are the first one to put something forward you may be attacked even if they are valid structures.”
According to de Gregory, the next generation of trust beneficiaries will have a major impact on the way trust managers do business. “I think when my generation starts inheriting from their parents the industry will have to become more complicated. These people are much more sophisticated as far as being familiar with the stock market and investment strategies. Society is also much more litigious. The changes I have seen in the last 16 years are nothing compared to what will happen in the next twenty.”
It’s an era in which de Gregory’s own children will be growing up in and that is shaping her view of the future. “Spending time with kids alters your perspective and puts a new angle on life. You realize there is more to life than just driving your career because you are shaping these kids and you want to get them on the right path. I still value my career but it may not be the number one thing anymore.”
Leading by example
Professionals that lead by example are key in attracting young upcoming talent into financial services and opening their eyes to the opportunities available to them. The Bahamas is making sure that a continued supply of high-calibre professionals is being sustained to drive development of the sector, whether they are educated through domestic programmes such as those run by the Bahamas Institute for Financial Services or are drawn back to the country after graduating overseas. By producing such home-grown leaders who can inspire the next generation, the jurisdiction is building a sound platform for the future of one of the primary pillars of its economy.