First Citizens Group Financial Holdings CEO Karen Darbasie says the bank has a solid and growing client base of about 35,000 in Tobago.
“We continue to be a lender to all aspects of Tobago customers,” she told Business Day on Monday during an interview at the bank’s Canaan office.
Darbasie added the bank’s commercial clientele is also growing.
First Citizens has three branches on the island – Canaan, Scarborough and Roxborough. It has a staff of about 75 employees.
Another branch is currently under construction along the Claude Noel Highway, Lowlands, obliquely opposite to the main entrance to Canoe Bay. That outlet, she said, is expected to replace the Canaan branch because it has outgrown its space.
Darbasie said the Lowlands branch should be open to customers by October.
“When you start a branch, there is a phasing in kind of period where we start to put the staff in and allow customers to come in but not a full launch yet – kind of a trial period to iron out logistics and so on. We are hoping to do that in September and hoping to have the grand opening in October.”
Darbasie, who met with Chief Secretary Farley Augustine on Monday, described her relationship with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) as “very, very strong."
“I have met with the chief secretary on three or four occasions (since the Progressive Democratic Patriots assumed office in December 2021). We are working on many fronts with them.”
In fact, she said, “The ‘chief’ would often say we are his banker. First Citizens is the banker of the Tobago House of Assembly.”
Asked her impressions of the PDP’s $3.97 billion budget presentation on June 23, Darbasie said, “Ambitious. But I think he (Augustine) has a lot of plans for development and plans require funding. So you have to be ambitious and you have to be optimistic and you have to drive the development that he clearly is envisioning.”
Darbasie was in Tobago to promote the bank’s latest additional public offering (APO) –10,869,565 in shares at $50 a share, which Finance Minister Colm Imbert had mentioned during the 2021-2022 budget presentation last October. The APO could raise about $550 million.
The bank said the shares will only be available up until July 22, at 4 pm. Investors must have a brokerage account and submit an application form.
Darbasie, who officially began her duties as First Citizens CEO on April 7, 2015, urged customers to embrace the opportunity.
She said staff from First Citizens Brokerage Advisory Services would be in Tobago next week to open accounts for people interested in purchasing shares in the APO. The team will also be in Tobago the following week.
“It is an opportunity to invest in something that is uniquely local but operating on an international standard and delivering good returns for investors.”
Darbasie said while the industry, like many other sectors, is moving toward digitising most, if not all of its operations, the bank has not set a target for achieving this goal.
“We recognise that given where we are as a country, given where we are as a region that you have to run what is called a bionic model because it is part digital and part human.”
As such, Darbasie said the bank understands the need to still maintain a physical presence in communities and continues to invest in physical infrastructure.
She said, “So we have been opening new branches. We have not been closing branches and moving people into one direction (digitisation). We are trying to move forward on both fronts and over time, customers will migrate into a more digital way of doing things, the online way of doing things.”
Darbasie was confident the bank’s clients will eventually gravitate fully to its online services.
“But for now, we are maintaining our commitment to doing business through the branches and provide the alternative channels for people to access service online. And over time we are sure that we would have a migration in an online way of doing business.”
She said the bank has not suggested a timeline for full-scale digitisation but are focusing on introducing new products in its online operations.
“We haven’t set ourselves a target at this point in time. We set ourselves a target for the launching of new products on the online and digital space.
“We are investing heavily in our technology to be able to do the digital products. But we have not set a target to change the business model from what it is.
“So we are adding to the business model as opposed to forcing a change that many customers may not necessarily be ready for.”
Describing First Citizens as being “uniquely Trinidad and Tobago,” Darbasie said all of the bank’s employees are “born and bred Caribbean people regardless of where we operate.
“So we have operations in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St Lucia, Costa Rica, St Vincent. We try to have our people be part of our organisation.”
She believes the bank is performing, in some cases better than its competitors.
“We are performing head and shoulders against the best in the class.”
Darbasie admitted during the covid19 pandemic, the bank’s profits dropped by 20 per cent “but is picking back up."
“Covid19 did affect us. It affected everybody.”
She said despite a decline in profits, the banks has tried consciously to make dividend payouts “That were still as good as we could have impacted within the environment.”
Darbasie said First Citizens also had to realign its operations to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on customers who had lost their jobs or were subjected to reduced incomes.
She said, “We were impacted as well in our level of working with customers on loan restructurings, trying to work with them with the understanding that their cash flows were reduced – that we worked with them to facilitate different kinds of programmes to repay sometimes over a longer period, different principal repayment terms.”
That, Darbasie said, is still ongoing.
“The country and our customers are now starting to recover from covid so we are still working with many customers on loan restructurings to be able to allow them to be service their debt in a manner that is in accordance with whatever their circumstances are coming out of covid.
“It is a balancing act always as a bank because at the end of the day the bank has shareholders and depositors as well. So we try to work with all of our stakeholders so that all of us could survive this pandemic that we found ourselves in.”