BELIZE CITY, Wed. Jan. 13, 2016–CIBC FirstCaribbean recently confirmed that it will be closing down its offices in Belize at the end of January, after it received approval from the Belize Central Bank to sell its assets to Heritage Bank, a local bank. So, Friday, January 29, will be the last working day at the bank for nearly 60 employees, and some of them don’t know where their next paycheck will come from.
President of the Christian Workers Union, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, told Amandala that while an agreement has been reached on the terms of severance from FirstCaribbean, the deal has not been signed and the terms won’t be disclosed until that happens.
Meanwhile, Stephen Duncan, managing director of Heritage Bank, told Amandala that two-thirds of the staff of FirstCaribbean had applied for positions with Heritage Bank, and after they were interviewed, thirty of them were offered jobs with the bank.
Duncan notes that the workers of FirstCaribbean are the ones with the institutional knowledge of its existing customers and accounts, which Heritage Bank will take over as of February 1.
New credit cards and debit cards have been mailed out to FirstCaribbean customers, and persons with queries can call 223-5698. Duncan said that they want to have all the cards ready for use next month.
The bank manager told us that they intend to transition all the accounts between Friday, January 29, and Monday, February 1.
“We plan to open on Monday the 1st with everything being in place. Now that will include taking down signs, it includes reconfiguring ATMs, it includes reconfiguring point-of-sale terminals, it includes moving assets and moving equipment, it includes moving over all the accounts and making sure they are in place … it will be automated and everything will have to be tested,” Duncan said.
Even before that weekend, though, Duncan wants to bring over some workers from FirstCaribbean, including those who will be manning the call center, which will be the central point for receiving queries, which he anticipates will come mostly from the customers they would be assuming from FirstCaribbean.
“We are going to set up a call center where all the phone lines will be connected to that,” said Duncan.
He believes that FirstCaribbean would be amenable to allowing the workers who will join Heritage Bank to leave a few days early without any adverse conditions, since an early departure will help both banks, Duncan told us.
Banking does come with a risk, and so too does this kind of buy-out: “We do recognize that we do not know all the accounts of FirstCaribbean. So one of the ways we have tried to mitigate the risk is to employ persons from FirstCaribbean who know those accounts,” said Duncan.
He told us that Heritage Bank’s responsibilities and legal obligations under the Banking Act do not change, and so they still have to meet those prudential guidelines that are set by the Central Bank.
Even after assuming the assets of FirstCaribbean, Heritage Bank will still be the smallest commercial bank in Belize, apart from the National Bank of Belize.
Financials published by the Central Bank of Belize in December 2015, with figures tallied as of September 2015, indicate that Heritage Bank has roughly $285 million in assets, while First Caribbean has about $305 million in assets. Duncan said that the buyout will raise the asset base of Heritage Bank to over $500 million.
He said that not only will Heritage Bank’s asset base more than double, but the customer base will likewise expand more than two-fold.
“This is an opportunity we are not sure will come again and we have to try and jump on it…” Duncan said.
We asked him what would be the biggest challenge: “My biggest challenge is to make sure that as an organization, we stay within the capacity of and capabilities of our human resources,” he told us.
How good of a deal is this for Heritage Bank? We asked Duncan to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, and he rated it with an 8.
“The level of growth that we will have over a weekend, from a Friday to a Monday, would normally take years to achieve,” Duncan said, but added that the real test will come “when the rubber hits the road.”
Still, his outlook is optimistic. The banker told us that Heritage Bank’s priority after the transition period would be keeping all those accounts being transferred from FirstCaribbean: “We now have the task of servicing those accounts, to retain them, and we do not want to take our eyes off the ball. That is very important to us. Our big prize in 2016 would be to retain those [FirstCaribbean] accounts,” he concluded.