When Indigenous Means Staying On Top

By Karel McIntosh

Pelican contributor, Karel Mc Intosh recently sat down with Larry Howai, UWI alumnus and CEO of one of the leading indigenous banks in T&T, First Citizens, to hear his perspective on the role that indigenous institutions like his Bank play in the region’s recovery process. Here’s that story.

No two banks are the same. While they may operate in similar ways, their efficiency, customer service, and financial products set them apart.

Banks indigenous to the Caribbean have always focused on maintaining a close relationship with customers, ensuring that no matter the decade, and the social and economic changes that may arise, people can always count on them for products that serve their interest.

Staying true to its credo of putting people first, Trinidad and Tobago’s only wholly indigenous bank, First Citizens Bank Limited, has distinguished itself as a major force in the local, financial industry, winning prestigious, international, banking awards such as the World Finance Banking Awards 2009 – Best Bank, Trinidad and Tobago 2009, Latin Finance – Bank of the Year, Trinidad and Tobago 2009, and The Banker Magazine – 2009 Bank of the Year, Trinidad and Tobago.

“The country needs a competitive banking system and First Citizens has played a very significant role there,” says Larry Howai, Group Chief Executive Officer of First Citizens Group, which includes eight companies.

Traditionally, indigenous banks have maintained a loyal customer base, since, as Howai puts it, “There is a group of people who will always bank with them because of what they stand for, and what they mean in terms of local initiative and local industry”.

“We remember where we came from,” says Howai. “We’re a bank of the people. When the core bank was formed back in 1914, it was intended that the small man who did not have access to banking would have access to banking services, so over the years we have remained true to that early beginning – making sure we provide services that could meet the needs of everyone in society.”

Taking its commitment to people seriously, the Bank’s corporate social responsibility programme has a strong community-centred focus on areas such as culture, sports, youth, and education. Over the years, First Citizens has supported The University of The West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine in various endeavours related to student development and scholarship.

“We formed a relationship with UWI mainly because the benefits come back to us in the form of students who can make a difference, and who eventually work with First Citizens or go into other fields that contribute to the richness of the country,” he says. “We need a country that is vigorous and thriving for us to be doing well ourselves, so investing in UWI is investing in ourselves; it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Finding itself involved in numerous initiatives at the national, and individual level, the Bank’s track record for excellence in banking affords it a high level of respect, even among competitors. Highlighting its key role in Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, the Bank was propelled into an even more significant role in 2009 when the collapse of financial giant, the CL Financial Group, threatened the stability of the country’s economy, and it stepped in to assist the Government with restructuring the Group. This involved acquiring the then CL Financial subsidiary Caribbean Money Market Brokers (CMMB), and financing liquidity and debt for some companies in the Group, so that they could continue to operate and sustain employment.

We recognise the level of risk in the country and the global economy has increased, but we also recognise that it’s important for us to play a role in trying to cushion the effects as far as we can on the local economy,” Howai explains. “We also have an important role to play in managing our own risk, while, at the same time, trying to find means to make a significant contribution to the ongoing viability of businesses and the success of the economy as a whole.”

In stepping in to help, the Bank also strengthened its position across the region, through CMMB, which brought its strengths in market risk management and repurchase agreements. This served the Bank well in mobilizing capital for a number of countries in the region, including St Lucia, Barbados, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where CMMB has offices.

“The intellectual capability that CMMB always had certainly fits well with our own capabilities,” Howai explains. “It has allowed us to be a big player in that market, and gain a foothold in some of the island economies, doing some additional business like government business, which we might have passed up previously. From that perspective, they have helped us particularly in underwriting government bonds in the region, and I think there is a big role for us to play in growing that business in the future. We have a significant role we can play in mobilizing funding for these countries, so they can see their way through this difficult period they face at the moment.”

Howai, who as part of his public service, also serves as a member of UWI’s Finance and General Purposes Committee believes that all regional, financial institutions have a role to play in guiding the region through these recessionary times.

“There are a number of roles we can play particularly from the point of view of helping to make an input in identifying strategies that can be utilized in the region, helping to mobilize capital, and by taking very responsible positions and attitudes on different initiatives that governments in the region may undertake to try to resuscitate their economies,” he says. “The region therefore needs the intellectual capital and capability to manage the current environment and to chart a way through the difficulties we face right now. I think UWI has an important role to play in not just developing human capital, but also in stimulating thoughts and ideas about what is the best way for us to chart our way through the difficulties and challenges that face the region.

“UWI is an absolutely important part of the region, and has a very critical role to play in the success of the island economies in the CARICOM region. I would probably go so far as to say that we cannot have success without UWI and the inputs it can make.”

This statement underscores Howai’s firm belief that regional institutions must continue to make themselves more relevant and meaningful to their stakeholders, so that they will always be a preferred choice, especially in this globalised world. As his Bank’s performance, and, even its relationship with The UWI, shows, a commitment to excellence and strategic partnerships, are key to survival.