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THE HOYOS FILE: Amid the gloomy forecasts, Sir Richard sees blue skies

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by April 22, 2017 General
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SIR RICHARD BRANSON may never know how grateful I was to him last week.

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I suppose we could put the whole thing down to whether you see the glass half empty or half full. We could also say you don’t have to be a billionaire like Sir Richard to be an entrepreneur, an individual who, almost by definition, never lets the economy get him or her down.

Here is what I was reading at the time of Sir Richard’s intervention, getting more depressed every time as I saw little hope for the future: “The business environment in the Caribbean is becoming less conducive to private sector growth. Government policies, regulations, laws, and public services are important elements of the business environment that can either promote or inhibit firms’ performance.”

And from the woeful general to the painful specific: “In Barbados pressures are mounting in spite of improved economic growth.”

Yes, I know we have covered that already,but I was reading this in a report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Caribbean Region Quarterly Bulletin, March 2017 edition, in fact.

It is a recitation – perhaps a regurgitation – of all the things the governments in the region must do to free up business. Until we make it faster, cheaper, easier, less complicated, and so on, to do business, the private sector “engine” will never be able to get us out of the ditch. That is basically the theme of that report.

As my deadline approached for this column, my friend Sara Odle saved the day by sending me a promised press release on a conference taking place next month in Barbados. Sponsored by Virgin Atlantic, the featured speaker at the conference will be Virgin founder Sir Richard.

Here is a part of the quote attributed to him in the press release:

“I am looking forward to meeting Caribbean leaders facing these exciting challenges today. I have lived in the Caribbean for many years and care deeply about its economic development and prosperity . . . and I am keen to discuss how one can create a vibrant Caribbean economy.”

Exciting challenges, did he say? Vibrant Caribbean economy? Given the gloom of the IDB report, I had stopped, for a moment, believing it might be possible.

Until Sir Richard came along, via the Virgin press release, I was succumbing to the despair of an IDB report that, as usual, just harped on statistics about our shortcomings, as if there was some perfect world out there where doing business is like dying and going to heaven. (Please do not bring up Singapore. If you want to live there, go right ahead).

And once I had stopped gasping for air, I wondered about the other businesses coming to Barbados. Yes, I agree they do not constitute the volume of foreign direct investment we really need, but that has more to do with a general lack of confidence in an inept administration, which among many other things, could indeed work on improving the ease of doing business here.

How about the major upgrades to hotel plant made recently by Elegant Resorts, a public company traded on the London Stock Exchange, which has also just bought Treasure Beach? What about all the money Sandals is spending up there at Dover? How about the Williams Group, which has opened up Regus Business Centres here and in Trinidad as part of a regionwide roll-out that will probably go to Jamaica next? And what about the confidence shown by Ernst & Young, which just invested millions in a state-of-the-art headquarters at Warrens, opposite The Walk shopping centre, which also seems to be booming.

In fact, that whole stretch of the Ronald Mapp Highway, from the roundabout to Redmans, seems to be suddenly developing rapidly. Next to the Ernst & Young building are the new headquarters for Rubis Caribbean, which has invested close to $100 million here over the past several years.

Not to be outdone (least of all by each other), Cable & Wireless Communications and Digicel continue to invest in the region, including Barbados, with the focus now being on rolling out faster data streaming services under LTE, a 4G mobile communications standard promising data speeds up to ten times faster than a 3G network.

One of the only positives I found in the IDB report was that “firms in Barbados can be characterised as younger, smaller, locally-owned and less open to international trade than the average small economy”.

Wait, you say, that’s not good, not being open to international trade? But then it adds: “The average Barbadian firm is linked to the tourism sector and has an average of 15 years of operations, which is lower than the 17.8 year average from other tourism-based small economies.” Tourism is a part of international trade.

So they are tourism-based and younger than their regional counterparts? Sir Richard will have a lot to say to them.

Before I go today, here is a plug for that conference, taken from the press release:

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson will be the featured speaker at Virgin Atlantic’s Business Is An Adventure leadership conference scheduled for May 3, 2017, at the Hilton Barbados Resort. The Business Is An Adventure series has been held in several US cities but this is the first time it will be hosted in the Caribbean.

Interested persons can register at virginleadership.com and then purchase tickets at the official box offices, the Barbados Chamber of Commerce, Deighton Road, St Michael, or the Virgin Atlantic offices, Hastings. Tickets are $245 per person and all proceeds will go to the BCCI, a non-profit organisation. The conference doors open at 8 a.m. and patrons are encouraged to arrive early.

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