Highlights — 07 August 2015 — by Adele Ramos
Heritage Bank discusses impending acquisition of FirstCaribbean assets

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 6, 2015–It was confirmed this Monday that CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank has entered into an asset sale agreement with Heritage Bank, and while the ink on the document has dried, it could take a few months before the transaction, which is subject to approval by regulators at the Central Bank of Belize and the Central Bank of Barbados, is complete.

Stephen Duncan, manager of Heritage Bank, told Amandala that they want to make the transition as seamless as possible, and for those customers who are thinking of hitting the panic button or jumping ship ahead of the Heritage Bank takeover, Duncan advises them to stay put, as the intent of Heritage Bank, he said, is to honor the arrangements and contacts these customers have in place today with FirstCaribbean, as well as to maintain and even enhance the services they currently enjoy.

“Heritage Bank does not want to do anything that will reflect negatively or adversely on our country. We don’t have another country to go to. This is it for us,” he said, as he expressed his hope that the deal will pass the Central Bank’s test.

In speaking with us today, Duncan tried to address stakeholder concerns, such as concerns of the staff of both FirstCaribbean International Bank in Belize, who will be out of a job after they are severed by FirstCaribbean in a few months, and existing staff of Heritage Bank, who may fear being replaced by more experienced persons leaving FirstCaribbean.

While he declined to get into any specifics as to how the bank will decide which staff members of FirstCaribbean to hire, he did say that their first choice for new employees would be the workers at FirstCaribbean. Heritage Bank currently employs 126 persons and FirstCaribbean upwards of 60, Duncan told us.

He notes that FirstCaribbean has already indicated that all existing Belize staff will be severed, so severance payments will be made to them, and they would have to seek new employment. Heritage Bank expects to hire at least some of those staff, but Duncan also declined to say in what areas they would need more staffing.

“Clearly it will depend on where we think we have to increase numbers,” Duncan said, noting that the bank does have a strategic plan.

Clients of FirstCaribbean—some of whom also bank with Heritage Bank—are already asking questions about how their accounts will be treated.

He said that the intent is to give customers seamless service by lifting the FirstCaribbean database and uploading it into the system of Heritage Bank in an automated fashion, so that the information that is in FirstCaribbean’s database will become part of theirs.

Duncan also said that the cost of transferring accounts to Heritage Bank, such as mortgages, would not be borne by the customers but by the bank. However, if any customer tries to move their account today, they would have to pay the cost of transferring their mortgage, such as the government stamp duty, so it is best for customers to wait.

In addition to the locations where FirstCaribbean serves—particularly Belize City, Belmopan, Orange Walk, and Dangriga—Heritage Bank also serves the communities of Independence, San Pedro and Benque Viejo del Carmen.

Duncan told us that FirstCaribbean customers who will be transferred to Heritage Bank will have access to the most extensive ATM network in the country, as their ATM coverage will double to almost 50 locations by year-end. This network includes the ATMs of 6 major credit unions – an arrangement which Duncan says is uniquely established by Heritage Bank.

He also said that once the transition takes place, a FirstCaribbean customer can shop with their card everywhere they are currently able to shop. This will also mean an expanded reach for customers of both the purchasing and the selling bank.

Currently, Heritage Bank provides Visa and Master Card services through its credit card program, but the bank does not issue a Visa or Master Card debit card.

Duncan maintains, though, that with all the card services in place, “…there is, therefore, sufficient convenience that should make it easier for customers to access the services they need.”

He reiterated that, “the customers of FirstCaribbean who shop at those places where FirstCaribbean has their machines, those will still be there and they will still have access to their favorite store.”

For persons with loans, although Duncan said that there is never a guarantee from banks that terms and conditions will not change, Heritage Bank intends to respect and honor all the arrangements that are in place right now with FirstCaribbean. As an example, he said that if a FirstCaribbean loan currently carries a rate of 8%, Heritage Bank would not raise the rate to 12% when the account is transferred over to them.

One change, though, may be the location of branches where customers will do business. For example, it is unlikely that Heritage Bank will keep the San Can Plaza location when just a stone’s throw away, customers can access the headquarters of the bank. However, Heritage Bank has no presence downtown, and the location which would be vacated by FirstCaribbean could serve as a new downtown outlet for Heritage Bank.

Incidentally, Duncan is the former country manager of FirstCaribbean International Bank in Belize. He assumed the rank of top manager at Heritage Bank in 2008, after he left FirstCaribbean.

Heritage Bank, a bank managed by Belizeans, is owned by Heritage International Bank, which is primarily owned by Scorpio Limited and the Antigua Overseas Bank. Among the smaller shareholders of the bank is Home Protector Insurance.

Duncan said that the asset sale by FirstCaribbean will allow them to rapidly double their balance sheet and move up to the middleweight category among banks in Belize. However, he said that Belize Bank, Atlantic Bank and Scotia Bank will still be bigger than Heritage Bank.

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