A Precarious Future for the St. Kitts-Nevis Chamber of Industry of Commerce

By Russell Williams

Last week David Lake – Country Manager, St. Kitts-Nevis LIME became President of the St. Kitts-Nevis Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Leadership of such an organisation isn’t easy at the best of times, and we are certainly not in the best of times.

Satisfied with the selection and appointment of C. G. Walwyn as Commissioner of Police, and giving him a B+ mid-term report, the Chamber has now engaged in a Public Relations offensive against the Chinese, who are firmly in their sights.

Chamber History

The issues however are complex and the challenge far greater than it might appear. From my vantage point the Chamber’s challenge is one of remaining relevant, and perhaps its survival. The perception of the Chamber for many smaller business owners and the public at large is that the Chamber only championed the interests of the “heavy hitters” – the Horsford’s, RAMs and TDC’s – and so such businesses were reluctant to join.

For almost ten years, the previous Executive Director of the Chamber almost laboured the point that despite the multitudes crying “what is the Chamber doing?” that the Chamber actually only represented around 150 companies in St. Kitts-Nevis, many of which were fairly small in size. When one considers that TDC, has perhaps 4 or 5 companies represented one can see that even that figure was somewhat distorted. But last week, we learned that this number fell to a little over 100 companies.

The truth is that, over the years various options were put before the Chamber to change its image; ranging from hosting competitions to get young people to create real businesses, improve public awareness of key issues, internal and external outreach programmes, training, research and development. However, failure to act or execute many of these has resulted in falling membership which naturally means falling financial resources to do the Chamber’s business, which is done by just four full-time staff, two of whom are mainly clerical. This explains the outgoing President’s appeal for the membership to get involved in sharing the work of the Chamber.

The Minefield Ahead

There has been much talk about having a level playing field, however the playing field is more like a minefield, and businesses and the Chamber ought to develop a plan to navigate their way through. The argument used by the Chamber for raising concerns over Chinese supermarkets, was over an apparent concern for the smaller “superettes”, none of whom are Chamber members it should be pointed out. However, a cynic or realist would say, that again it is the interests of the heavy hitters – the wholesalers, who also operate supermarkets one should add – that are being championed. Let’s face it, if all the superettes were to close, there would be less trade at the wholesalers.

It is said that desperate times calls for desperate measures, and that necessity not only knows no law, but is the mother of invention. Perhaps these hard times has focused the minds of the Chamber’s power brokers, and brought about a realisation of the true interdependence and connectedness of all businesses in the Federation large and small.

Dire economics isn’t the only challenge ahead. Charles Wilkin QC and others have spelled out the cost of poor productivity to the nation. Add to that the burden that poor levels of competence of our school and university graduates places on businesses. Again, however it is unclear how effective a role the Chamber has played in shaping education policy nationally.

A Truly Competitive Market Place

It’s odd that amid the increasingly louder calls for improved productivity and efficiency in the workplace that we’re seeking to stifle a key driver of efficiency; that is a truly open and free market! We don’t really have a free market; we have monopolies, duopolies or plain and simply cartels. Let’s take legal services for example, all lawyers charge the same fees for specific services – set by a cartel known as the Bar Association – regardless of efficiency and professionalism.

Bank interest rates and services to businesses are a sick joke, yet when have you ever heard an utterance from the Chamber about the availability of affordable finance? Or calls for better support for start ups or smaller business sectors? I could give other examples, however I’m sure you get the point. When the Chamber remains silent on these sorts of issues the greater good goes unserved, and later calls for protection in certain areas lack credibility. These are the real challenges the Chamber must wrestle with and successfully navigate and it can’t do so if it is being distracted by a debate about Orientals.

If over the past 10 years, greater effort had been spent developing its membership and building strong local businesses, providing value to customers based on strong, loyal, equitable relationships which would have allowed superettes to expand to mini-marts, no one would be losing any sleep over Chinese businesses.

The hour is at hand now not only for a symbolic change of leader but for a meaningful change in attitude, leadership and modus operandi; because business as usual, isn’t working!

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