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Saturday 7 December 2019
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Amcham more TT than American

Chamber's local membership outstrips US firms

Patricia Ghany, president of the American Chamber of Commerce TT.
Patricia Ghany, president of the American Chamber of Commerce TT.

Just five minutes into a chat about the American Chamber of Commerce in TT is more than enough to underscore that her passion and enthusiasm for the business organisation is genuine.

She’s currently in her second year as the group’s president and after spending 24 years as a member, with several of those being a part of various committees as well as the executive board, Patricia Ghany is well-versed in Amcham’s structure and has a clear vision about what its mission should be.

“We recognise we can’t just sit here in isolation. We are more local now. We have nearly 300 members but now only 25-30 per cent are US companies. The rest are TT companies so we have to be able to relate to them,” Ghany told Business Day in a recent interview at her office in San Fernando. Along with her work with Amcham, Ghany is also the chief financial officer at her family’s business, Esau Oilfield Supplies Ltd.

She notes the distinction between her small family-owned and operated enterprise and the giant multinationals that formed the freshman crop of Amcham members when the organisation was formed 27 years ago. Then, it comprised primarily American businesses with operations in TT, but now that dynamic is shifting and more and more local companies, many of them small to medium-sized operations like hers are joining because of the unique opportunities for networking that only Amcham can offer.

“People know we are the American Chamber. That is who we are and that is what we want them to know. We are about TT and US companies doing trade. It’s no longer US visa facilitation, which is what it used to be back in the day. It’s about coming and meeting people you know who you would not meet in your ordinary circle,” Ghany said. It’s why she joined.

She recalled being encouraged by a colleague from another small south business.

“We saw it as a way to change how we engage with oil and gas networks compared to the traditional networks that my parents had built, so while my dad (Esau, who founded the company 42 years ago) might have dealt with a lot of the local companies and Petrotrin, we tried to do something else. It gave us a chance to meet all these players and a way to tap into the foreign network.”

It’s not just TT-US business that Amcham can facilitate; it’s a useful conduit for members looking for markets where there are other established Amchams. The TT arm of the American Chamber is part of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA). So if an Amcham member in TT wants to move into, say, Colombia, the regional Amcham network can facilitate an introduction.

And now, Amcham also sees the potential of small businesses and young, entrepreneurial ventures, as well as special training for middle managers, free of charge, to help nurture the next generation of leaders.

Beyond networking, the organisation is also broadening its scope, being more visible and vocal on international trends and commenting on local economic, social and political issues. “Amcham has taken up a different space in terms of the business chambers. We’ve gotten a lot more vocal in commenting on social issues. As we’ve grown, people are beginning to recognise the work we do and the value we bring to the economy.”

It’s also how Amcham maintains is ethos to give value to its members beyond a couple of signature events every year.

“In current economic times, we need to always be relevant because we are very much aware when you have to sign a cheque deciding between the three major chambers, you want to know which is giving value for money, so everything we do is value-driven. Yes, we have our marquee events, including the women in business conference, health, safety, security and environment (HSSE) conference and the annual budget review.

"But am I really only coming to those things? People could just come as a non-member so that’s why we try to keep the programmes exciting.”

At its core, Amcham wants to build that network where people can share information for businesses to grow, but the secretariat always tries to make sure it’s on the cutting edge of trends.

“We have taken on a very forward-thinking approach to find what are the big ideas happening in the world, so we’ve become very proactive.”

Amcham was among the first to recognise the importance of HSSE in the workplace, she said, launching a conference long before the trend went mainstream in TT. It’s doing the same with its Tech Island hub digital transformation conference, launched this year.

“We were very happy with that conference,” she said, noting that once the idea struck it took the group just six months to make it happen. Probably the most challenging thing, ironically, was convincing the heads of businesses that a forum on technology wasn’t just for the IT department, but for them. These trends, data-mining and sorting, new software and e-governance are trends of the future being implemented now, so businesses need to stay on top of them if they want to stay competitive.

“We realise we are not very well represented within the technology sphere. People don’t have Amcham on their mind when they think tech.

"But we wanted to be relevant to more sectors. We can’t be there for all, but we decided we needed a new space, for us to reinvent ourselves because we don’t know about digital transformation so we (want to learn too) and we are bringing (the experts) to Amcham (and our members).”

The organisation understands the importance of creating that awareness, and Ghany believes it has made great strides to adapting itself to maintain relevance but also, become a point of authority. “There have been times when we got a little stagnant but we had great leadership all the time…I am seeing this organisation changing, but it’s recognised as a different voice, not just as the American Chamber.

"We’ve been called before Parliament to present (on the Cybercrime Bill). That was an honour to be called upon to give our opinion. We make contributions to the budget. We are a respected voice at the table. And we are always willing to be part of the conversation as a (public) stakeholder.”

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