The Journal sits down with new Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce President Eddie Thompson to find out how the organisation intends to assist businesses in Cayman navigate the economic crisis in 2009.
The voice of Cayman’s Chamber of Commerce grows increasingly more powerful each year as its membership continues to expand and business owners fully appreciate the power behind collective thinking. Eddie Thompson is a local businessman who heads a number of businesses, including Cayman Architectural Designs Ltd (Cad Plus), Reprografix Copy Center, George Town Consulting Engineers Ltd (GCE Ltd), Caribbean Sand Property Management Ltd as well as partner in Montessori By The Sea Ltd. He takes over the helm at the Chamber and has a clear plan for the organisation’s litany of tasks ahead for this year.
The need for transparency
“Information is key,” Thompson confirms. “It is my intention that the Chamber works in partnership with the media to ensure that the business needs of those we represent are well and truly heard by the powers that be. The severity of this global meltdown may well mean that local people will suffer just as badly as the rest of the world, so I believe it’s critical to ensure that everyone is informed as to what needs to be done and what is being done. Unfortunately I think the current economic situation will get worse before it gets better.”
The construction industry in particular is going to be an area of focus for the Chamber in 2009, according to the new Chamber president.
Thompson says, “There are a slew of significant public and private sector construction projects that have now been put on hold while business rides out this current recession, including Maples and Calder’s new building. I know of other commercial entities that have cancelled construction plans in the last couple of months. Construction will therefore be an area that will be suffering significantly in the near future.”
Thompson reveals that the Chamber has come up with a number of innovative ways in which industry could seize on opportunities during this downturn, including focusing on recycling projects, and hopes for government incentives to make such ideas attractive for investment.
“The Chamber will continue its quest to protect the environment this year. The fragility of the ecosystem must be recognised and protected, yet development can still occur. It just requires a development plan from government which takes a holistic approach to the issue,” Thompson says. “There is enough green building technology out there with which we can work. We just need to shake off complacency and change the current mindset and become creative.”
A civil service overhaul
Marketing the Cayman Islands as a whole as a business friendly jurisdiction which beats all its competitors is going to be an important way forward for the islands, says Thompson. He anticipates that the civil service itself will undergo an overhaul to ensure that would-be investors feel that they are receiving a top quality service, saying “The civil service needs to be retooled to ensure that it properly meets the service levels expected. In Cayman we need to be able to roll out the red carpet when it comes to the services provided by government to ensure, for example, that when a business needs to be registered, it can expect a finite time span for this to take place. The same emphasis needs to be placed on immigration – when a business checks off all the boxes on a work permit application the process should take a limited amount of time. Customers should have their expectations properly met as with any successful organisation.”
He acknowledges the efforts of Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson and his team and hopes that the department continues with implementing more business friendly mechanisms.
Thompson sees this requirement for change in government as apart of a bigger picture: “We cannot have our cake and eat it. We actively encourage investment into the islands (we have an Investment Bureau established for that purpose) and so we need to have a civil service infrastructure which, with welcoming arms, meets the needs of businesses looking to set up shop here. We need to adopt an accommodating mentality, so that businesses are confident of the service they will receive, and not, as is the case now, where they feel as if they are treated as second class citizens.”
Thompson says that he is looking forward to speaking directly with the Minister in charge of Commerce, Alden McLaughlin in due course and says he operates an open door policy, welcoming input from all quarters.
He says, “The Chamber welcomes the opportunity to forge strong relations with the government on a variety of issues and anticipates regular dialogue with the entire Cabinet on such important matters as the Stop Tax Haven Abuse bill in the US.”
Plans for improving business facilities
The Chamber has its own bold plans to make this jurisdiction a welcoming and efficient location for business to operate here, and speaks on the subject of developing conference facilities: “The Chamber will be embarking on a serious fund raising campaign this year to finance our ambitious plans for the construction of a conference/convention centre which will also house the Chamber itself. We have lots of ideas for the use of such a facility, which could include a sports arena or concert hall as well. It will also be an excellent venue for the Chamber’s annual business expo. We also want it to house a learning facility which could provide a tremendous service to our members.”
The Chamber has formed a committee to undertake the management of the project, which includes fund raising, finding the right location for the building (current explorations are taking place along the Seven Mile Beach corridor – a natural location which could work in tandem with hotels) and the actual construction of the building.
Trade links overseas
Strengthening existing business ties overseas will also be an important part of the Chamber’s mission this year, as Thompson explains, “Diversifying our economy to create new opportunities for how we do business is going to be crucial in the coming years. We are planning our fourth trade mission to Panama in March because we continue to feel that Panama is an important business centre for trade with Cayman. There is no language barrier and costs can be significantly reduced on imported goods if shipping links are established which bypass the traditional Miami route. I would anticipate double digit savings on goods that are transported directly from Panama without the need for handling in Miami, which is currently the case. We just need to get the right volume to make shipping directly to Cayman financially viable. There has also been talk for the last few years of Cayman Airways setting up direct flights between Cayman and Panama, which would go a tremendous way to improving trade links with Panama.”
But the Chamber is not stopping at Panama and is actively looking to forge new links with other countries to create new relationships which may eventually reduce costs for Cayman consumers.
Thompson explains, “We approached the UK a few months ago but interest was not great on their part so we are looking closer to home, to places such as Trinidad, which is a huge manufacturing country. Chamber members with close Trinidad connections are currently exploring this area.”
At the end of the day, Thompson says the Cayman Islands must focus its energies on creative thinking to ensure that the competitiveness of the islands is not eroded by more forward thinking jurisdictions than ourselves.
“We have to avoid complacency,” he reiterates. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”