A conversation with… Johann Moxam

Next month, Johann Moxam’s term as president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce will come to an end.   

No Chamber president, at least over the past decade, has been as visible and as vocal as Moxam. His style of presidency, which he refers to with a smile as “energetic,” earned him the admiration of some and accusations of grandstanding by others.  

Moxam says he was only doing his job, which is to represent the Chamber membership the best he could, in consultation with the Chamber Council.  

“I did things that other Chamber presidents did not do,” he said in an interview in October. “First of all, I involved council in every conversation, every discussion. There was nothing that we did, or meetings that were held, that other council members weren’t invited to. Every correspondence, every letter, every exchange was communicated to council, and they participated.” 

One of his key goals was to not make the year about himself, which he believes he was able to achieve. 

“The Chamber of Commerce is more than the president,” he said. “It’s an organization that should be representing the membership. To do so, you have to involve the council, who were elected by the membership. I just decided that I didn’t want to be a part of an organization that isn’t transparent or where the president was the only person that was clued in to what was going on.” 

Moxam understands that his leadership style ruffled some feathers of previous Chamber presidents. 

“I made a decision that as a volunteer, nonprofit organization, there was nothing that we were doing that was so clandestine, that the wider council should not be a part of,” he said. “Having sat on the council for five years, during that time there was no president that ever really opened up these forums to the council.” 

Moxam said he refused to be distracted by the resistance of past presidents. 

“At the end of the day, any of the former presidents that were aggrieved or frustrated by the course of action, they could have made a difference during their time. I’m comfortable that all the decisions that were taken, they were brought to our boardroom table and as a team… we had those discussions, and some of them were pretty intense. There was nothing to hide… and the decisions were made as a team… majority ruled.” 

Under Moxam, the Chamber was vocal on a number of topics, some of which were avoided by previous Chamber presidents. 

“I think we set the tone for a sort of revival of the Chamber,” he said. “To the credit of the organization and our CEO [Wil Pineau], the Chamber has been consistent in advocating certain positions for decades. What I chose to do was take those positions, take a good hard look at them, bring them to the council, and add a new voice, a new energy and perhaps a greater level of intensity to having that national discussion, whereas before, we were afraid to engage in certain discussions. 

“The Chamber has been very reserved and quiet on a lot of issues, but you have to understand the context as to why certain presidents chose not to engage in certain public discussions,” he said. “I’m not interested in being the darling of the cocktail circuit. I have no interest in any government contracts or bidding for government contracts.” 

Moxam hopes that he’s been able to set a new standard of what is expected from the leadership of the Chamber president. 

“If you’re representing the membership, and that’s 750 members that employ over 17,000 employees, this isn’t about what I think personally. This is about what’s best for the membership and the objectives of the organization,” he said. “The most important thing is that the membership feel they got value for money from the organization… and that the council was doing their very best to advocate and represent them and their views.” 

Moxam believes the Chamber, under his leadership, was able to help bring about progress on a number of issues, highlighting its importance in the community. 

“I think everybody knows that the Chamber of Commerce is now alive and it’s vibrant and it has views, and that those views are based on consultation with the membership,” he said. “You can’t be in a leadership position and be afraid to lead, especially when you have an organization like the Chamber that represents so many different sectors and so many businesses. We’re supposed to advocate for them, we’re supposed to lead and be at the forefront of these national discussions. I’m just proud I was given the opportunity to do so.”  

 

Courage to speak 

One of the biggest surprises for Moxam during his year as president was the reluctance of people in the business community to express their concerns and views, and instead try to get the Chamber to serve as their voice. 

“In the environment in Cayman… it would appear that people and business owners fear political repercussions for speaking out,” he said. “If you’re a business owner, you should stand up for your business, but there’s more people who are afraid than there are that are brave.” 

Moxam said he doesn’t intend to stop speaking out when he feels strongly about an issue, once his term as Chamber president is over. 

“I’ve always been brave enough to speak candidly on issues,” he said. “If something makes sense, give it all the accolades and credit it deserves. If something is negative and will be a detriment to our way of life and something that will impact me and my family and our country, I think we’re obliged to speak on that. I’m honored to be the Chamber president, but that doesn’t define me. I’m a citizen of this country and I will continue to speak on issues because I feel we have to hold the leadership, at all levels of this country, accountable. And you don’t just do that once a year by being the Chamber president.” 

Moxam said his motivation for speaking out was simple. 

“I never want to see Cayman go the way of other countries throughout the region. I never want Cayman to become the next Jamaica, the next Bahamas, the next Bermuda. I never want to have burglar bars on my windows and live like a prisoner in my own home. I never want to look back and say, ‘I should have said something’ or ‘I should have done something.’ You don’t have to be in frontline politics to make a difference in your country.” 

 

Growing Cayman 

In his address at the annual Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon on Oct. 9, Moxam spoke about the need for Cayman to grow its economy, with the understanding that population growth is part of the equation. 

“Economic growth is closely tied to the size of your population,” he said. “The more customers you have, the more business you can do. This isn’t rocket science; this is common sense.” 

He said those in leadership positions have to understand how the economy works when they’re charting the course for the country.  

“You can’t be restrictive and protectionist and decrease the size of a population and expect to have success,” he said. “What you need to do is plan towards the future that you want and the size of a population your infrastructure can sustain. That’s generally what’s missing, because in Cayman at the end of the day in 2014, we don’t have a plan.” 

Getting Caymanians to accept population growth, particularly in today’s environment, will take compromise.  

“There’s a lot of frustration on the island. There’s a lot of rhetoric and a lot of beating of one’s chest,” he said. “The seeds of division are being sown and I’m not sure people are even aware of it.” 

Moxam believes Cayman’s leadership needs to facilitate a rational and less emotive conversation on the topic. 

“Let’s look at the facts and let’s try to understand both perspectives because the reality of the Cayman Islands is, our success has been based on a partnership between the expatriate community and local Caymanians working together to build the greatest country in the Caribbean,” he said. “We’re losing sight of that.” 

Better integration between Caymanians and expatriates is vital, Moxam believes.  

“Go back to the glory years, when things were good, there were more positive relations between Caymanians and expatriates when there was a greater degree of integration and fellowship,” he said. “Right now, Cayman is too segmented and people feel that that’s acceptable, which I find disappointing because that’s not how we are as a people. Listen, we’re all just people and I think we get ahead of ourselves instead of trying to understand each other.” 

For Cayman to be successful, Moxam thinks the country has to use its talent, regardless of its origin. 

“We are failing to leverage the knowledge and expertise available on island because what supersedes doing the right thing is the loyalty issue, political affiliation and protection of old antiquated systems and empires,” he said. “That, apparently, is more important than doing the right thing. So you have different persons at different levels playing different games and carrying out different agendas instead of focusing on one thing: What’s in the best interests of the Cayman Islands.” 

The way Cayman’s political parties function plays a role in why the primary focus is not what’s best for the Cayman Islands, he says. 

“Successive governments… have now become fascinated with listening to the party loyalists and their party supporters at the exclusion of subject matter experts,” he said. “Until we can mature politically and mature as a people, and our leadership can demonstrate greater objectivity, we’re going to continue to run into these same issues. 

“You either want to fix this place or you don’t. Red or green, it doesn’t matter.” 

 

Government 

During his year as president, the Moxam-led Chamber of Commerce rankled the government on several occasions, leading members of the Progressives-led government to fire back. Moxam said the stances taken weren’t personal. 

“The PPM-led administration of 2013… walked into a situation that you really have to empathize with them,” he said. “I think the premier has done a fair job under some very difficult circumstances. If he or any member of this team are distrusting of my intentions, that’s on them; that’s their prerogative. I don’t try to make friends. I try to do a job and represent the membership.” 

Moxam said he holds no ill will toward any of the members of government. 

“This is what politicians don’t understand; the election is over. The campaign is done. You are our government and we all want you to succeed because if the government is successful, the country is successful,” he said. “But for whatever reasons, I don’t think they ever get out of campaign mode, and so there tends to be some level of insecurity and paranoia that comes with the role of being a leader or an elected official in the country, and they react accordingly. Not every comment and view expressed is directly a criticism of them.” 

Moxam also believes the government should be more open to feedback from others. 

“Those 18 people who have been elected are not saviors and they don’t have all the answers, so they shouldn’t feel so offended when persons question or offer an alternative to what they’re proposing,” he said. “That’s what the democratic process is about.”  

Past Chamber presidents have tried a different approach with the government, advocating behind closed doors. 

“I look back at my time as a [Chamber of Commerce] councilor, at all of the clandestine meetings, all the quiet diplomacy, all the private one-on-one conversations… does anyone remember what was achieved from that? My job was this: to represent the members, not to represent myself. I’m not interested in being accepted by the superstructure. We’re there to do a job. We’re there to represent the membership, and so it’s a combination of being aggressive and knowing when to have a quiet conversation. But if those quiet conversations aren’t yielding anything, you’ve got to use another strategy.” 

Grandstanding…or not? 

Moxam noted that whenever the Chamber came out in support of the government, he was never accused of grandstanding. 

“It’s only when you question, disagree or offer an alternative perspective that you’re grandstanding, and that is the irony of politics,” he said. 

Too often, the government is only interested in hearing from certain people on issues. 

“One of the problems that I see in Cayman is you have a very loud minority who have a myopic view on things in Cayman, and that appears to be the audience that the leadership of the country look upon for guidance,” he said. “There are thousands of people in the Cayman Islands that have views, but very few express them. What I would encourage, whether you’re a new Caymanian, a multi-generational Caymanian… this is our Cayman, and the only way we can protect it and make it the sort of place we want to live in is to speak up, stand out and let your voices be heard.” 

 

Accountability 

During his address at the Chamber’s Legislative Luncheon, Moxam spoke about the need for accountability in government, something that did not go over well with many of the senior civil servants and Cabinet ministers in the audience. The lack of accountability in government is an issue Moxam feels very strongly about.  

“Accountability in this country is long overdue,” he said, adding that accountability is lacking at multiple levels in government. “There needs to be a cultural shift in the way we operate as a country.” 

He said that it seems that people in government have become comfortable with the lack of accountability. 

“Complacency and [poor] decisions and the maladministration costs us all,” he said. “If people were to run their ministries and their departments knowing they were going to be held accountable, we’d see different results, but it’s a very complacent environment where you don’t have to be a high performer, you just have to be there and you have a chance to be the head of that eventually.” 

Commenting on recent remarks by the Ministry of Finance’s Chief Secretary Ken Jefferson that shame was the only consequence for chief officers and chief financial officers not abiding by their obligations as set out in the Public Management and Finance Law, Moxam said the lack of accountability is systemic in the public sector. 

“If the only recourse is to embarrass somebody by naming and shaming and there is no real consequence for not performing, nothing will change,” he said. “There has to be a consequence and sanctioning in order for there to be a shift in the attitude and the way things happen, but that has to start from the very top. You can’t hold a guy on the lowest rung accountable, but the individual earning the most money in the department or the ministry is out to lunch for six hours of the day or not performing.” 

Moxam said reform of the public sector is essential because Cayman can’t afford for the current system to continue. 

“Hold people accountable – chief officers, CFOs, deputies, [heads of department], everyone in statutory authorities and government-owned companies,” he said. “That level of accountability has to extend beyond our friends. Everybody needs to be held to the same standard. It needs to be fair. It needs to be transparent, and it needs to be applicable to all persons in the system, not just those we don’t like.” 

Without public sector reform, Moxam sees a bleak alternative. 

“In my personal opinion, if the current status quo and model continues, there’s a certain inevitability to direct taxation,” he said. “Just look at the numbers; the numbers don’t lie. Anyone who runs a business, or has any form of common sense, can tell you there’s a life span on [the current way of doing things] given the level of debt we have as a country, given how money is spent and how budgets get allotted.  

“We need an alternative or a new vision for economic survival in Cayman because there’s a shortfall that nobody’s addressing.” 

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