New Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce president Chris Duggan said he’ll try to put his personal mark on the business group’s activities during his one-year term, but that the Chamber’s continuing activities are much bigger than any single person.
Duggan, who works for one of the country’s largest companies, has a markedly different background from immediate past-president David Kirkaldy, who has his own business. However, Duggan said Kirkaldy’s initiatives focussed on small-to-medium-sized enterprises will of course continue.
“Small business drives employment and economic growth within the country. Just because I work for a large company doesn’t mean we’ll abandon small businesses,” he said.
In his opening address as president, Duggan announced the creation of a small business award programme, that will be led by the small business committee formed during Kirkaldy’s term.
“We’re working on behalf of our members. We’re not working to drive our own philosophy. Certainly whatever you feel strongly about, you’re going to want to drive forward. However the broader goal of the Chamber is to serve our membership,” Duggan said.
“And the membership doesn’t change. The membership’s goals and objectives, from the smallest member to the largest member, their needs remain fairly consistent, so we’re obliged to run the Chamber and ‘support, promote and protect’ the environment that every member operates in, not just the Massive group of companies that David owns, or Dart where I work, or Butterfield where I worked before,” he said.
Like the small business programmes, the initiative to create a health plan for Chamber members is still active. Duggan said one of the things that he finds it most difficult to accept is when someone loses his health insurance upon retirement, after working for a company for however many years. “Arguably at the time you most need health insurance, it’s gone,” he said.
The Future of Cayman initiative is also still a top priority for the Chamber. Duggan said it’s going very well to this point under the direction of steering committee chair Shayne Howe.
Duggan started his professional career working for Deutsche Bank, then Barclays, where he was part of the integration team when Barclays merged with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to become FirstCaribbean in 2002.
He then moved to Butterfield, where he eventually set up its private banking division. After nine years, he left Butterfield at the end of September. He is vice president of investment operations for Dart Enterprises, which is part of the Dart Group.
At Dart, Duggan is in the active investments groups, primarily on the acquisitions side. Duggan says his group deals with some assets locally, but the overwhelming majority is overseas. “We’re focussing a lot on real estate at the moment, not so much in Cayman, but then again I’ve only been here just over two months,” he said.
Duggan’s father Nick was president of the Chamber from 1985 to 1987. Chris Duggan grew up in Cayman, attended St. Ignatius Catholic School and finished his education in the UK. He lived in Spain for a year to learn Spanish, before returning home to the Caribbean to work.
“These days you have to have another language under your belt. The world is becoming so small and Spanish is one of those languages that is fairly universal, especially in this part of the world,” he said.
In the past, the Chamber has actively fostered relationships between Cayman and Spanish-speaking neighbour Panama through a total of four trade missions since 2006, including at the beginning of 2012. Duggan said the fruits of those efforts can now be seen, such as the direct flights offered by Cayman Airways.
“Those missions have been successful, but that’s run its course. It’s time we focus on another area,” he said.
Accordingly, the Chamber in coordination with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is planning a trade mission to Cuba, perhaps toward the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter of 2013.
Duggan said for years and years Caymanians have been told that opportunity awaits to the north, when Cuba’s socialist economy finally thaws.
“Inevitably it is going to have to open up,” he said. “We feel that the prospects in Cuba are very good.”
Chamber leaders think that Cayman has a lot to offer Cuba, in terms of expertise in areas such as financial services, tourism and development, whenever the nation begins to participate in freer international trade.
“Obviously that has not happened yet. It is important we lay the groundwork to identify opportunities, so when the time comes we can take advantage of it,” he said.
Another of the Chamber’s initiatives that will carry special weight this year is the group’s informational sessions. In addition to the Be Informed series, where Chamber members can learn about and discuss important topics of the day, the Chamber will again be hosting its candidate forums in anticipation of the May elections.
With the number of Legislative Assembly seats increasing from 15 to 18 this year, the Chamber will probably host more than usual.
“These forums are going to be critical in helping the electorate to decide who they want to vote for,” Duggan said.
“We’re going to get them out. We’re going to test them. We’re going to find out what they want to do for the country. The country needs a lot of work in pretty much every area, and we’re going to find out what they’re going to do,” he said.
Casting a shadow over the end of the ruling United Democratic Party’s term in office was the arrest of then-Premier McKeeva Bush in December on suspicion of theft related to the alleged misuse of a government credit card, and on suspicion of breach of trust, abuse of office and corruption in connection with the alleged importation of explosive substances early in 2012.
That resulted in lawmakers approving a no-confidence motion in the government, Governor Duncan Taylor revoking Bush’s appointment as premier and allowing five members of the UDP to constitute a minority government, rather than dissolving parliament and calling elections early.
“We would have liked for the premier to step down and resign and that’s by no means an indication of whether we feel that he’s guilty. It’s more to allow the business of the government to carry on without any distractions,” Duggan said.
“Inevitably, being arrested, whether you’re guilty or innocent is irrelevant at that point. The point is you’ve been arrested. There is a distraction. In order for government to continue to operate efficiently you need to be able to eliminate that distraction,” he said.
If Taylor had dissolved the Legislative Assembly and called elections, to be held within two months, then Bush would have remained as premier in the interim.
“We fully supported the governor’s decision to use his discretionary powers to relieve the premier of his duties and to appoint the minority government,” Duggan said.
“We are supportive of the new government but disappointed it took so long for the five to make that decision,” he said.
In the months before his arrest, the premier’s antagonistic behaviour toward the UK and Taylor (including at one point saying that the governor should “go sun his buns” at the beach) was worrisome, Duggan said.
“There’s no benefit to slamming the governor or slamming the UK. All it does is potentially cause irreparable damage. I think we’re lucky that we have a very, very reasonable governor,” he said.
Even if Bush thought the governor and the UK were playing a too active and unwanted role in local affairs, he should have handled it more tactfully, Duggan said.
“There are ways to deal with it, and public abuse of the UK and the governor is not the way to go about dealing with it. That does no favours for anybody. It’s a shame that he chose that route,” he said.
From the standpoint of the business community, the most important topic of discussion in 2013 is the state of the economy, Duggan said.
“The economic downturn in recent years, obviously Cayman has not been immune from that. We’ve all had struggles. That’s why I feel it is so critical for projects to get off the ground and provide investment,” he said.
Projects the Chamber supports include Dr. Devi Shetty’s medical tourism hospital, Cayman Enterprise City, cruise berthing, airport expansion and For Cayman Investment Alliance between Dart and government.
In addition to new projects, a major concern is the cost of doing business in Cayman.
“It’s a constant issue that our membership brings up. We’ve seen the departure of companies who go to other countries where it’s cheaper, moving whole departments of international corporations or outsourcing roles,” he said.
“The world is getting smaller and smaller. Technology is getting better and better. The ability to outsource is getting easier,” he said.
While government fees play a big part in the increasing cost of running a company, the Chamber understood government’s need to raise fees in order to make its budget workable. However, increased fees should be accompanied by reduced costs on the part of government, he said.
“I don’t think direct taxation is the answer. Also, the civil service has to make some big decisions as well. It’s all very well to identify new revenue streams, but we’ve also got to cut costs. It’s not a one-way street. We have got to have a give and take. The civil service needs to look at cost-cutting initiatives. What those are remains to be seen,” Duggan said.
“While the Chamber can’t make those decisions, through our membership we can provide consulting and resources to assist in identifying the ways costs can be cut.”