The TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce, which has been serving the business community since 1879, has new leadership, with Kiran Maharaj as president since April and Stephen de Gannes as its CEO since February.
Maharaj has a background in media and entertainment, she worked as a freelance journalist over 20 years ago and was a freelance correspondent for CNN World Report for two years. Maharaj is the managing director of Caribbean Lifestyle Communications, Music Radio 97.1 FM, The People’s Station Radio 90.5 FM and Heartbeat Radio 104.1 FM. She is also the president of the Media Institute of the Caribbean and former president of the TT Publishers and Broadcasters Association.
De Gannes graduated the University of the West Indies as an electrical engineer in electronics and telecommunications. He worked for Neal and Massy and TSTT in several junior managerial roles and his most recent post was vice president at Trinidad Systems Ltd.
Maharaj and de Gannes sat down with Business Day and discussed some of their plans for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and the developments they want to put in place to better serve their current membership and inspire others to join.
Roles of president, CEO
First they touched on their respective roles and responsibilities as president and CEO.
Maharaj said, “As a non-profit that represents the business community, my role is to ensure that the larger vision and the objectives of the chamber, based on feedback from its members and the advice of all board directors, are implemented. I also ensure that I am in touch with the CEO and the management team to have all of the ideas, initiatives and objectives fulfilled.”
She said she offers advice wherever she can, but understands de Gannes is the one who is mainly in the hot seat.
She added, “My keen interest, and luckily it’s de Gannes’ as well, is that vision of helping MSMEs develop while also supporting the needs of not just the MSMEs, but among the larger organisations who are members.”
Maharaj said she knows the turbulence that can affect the community greatly and so she understands the importance of innovation and implementing change on the advice of the board and CEO.
Coming from an engineering background, de Gannes said his main reason for joining the chamber was to make TT a better place instead of complaining about it. He said being CEO will help him be a part of that positive change and make TT an example for other Caribbean nations.
“I see a tremendous potential for TT to be a really world-class leader in many things, and I would like to be the example that other countries compare (themselves) to, instead of the other way around. However small we are, there are a lot of things here that we’re very unique in.”
Plans for MSMEs
De Gannes said part of the plan is firstly, to engage with owners of MSMEs through the chamber’s Nova Committee. He said the chamber has planned an event next month for MSME owners to learn about different ways of operating and to train them to follow stipulated business guidelines, among other things.
He said MSMEs may be knowledgeable in offering or providing a particular good or service, and must also know the business side of things to avoid running into dire financial situations.
“We want to train MSMEs to grow their business into something that is viable, that could hire people, take unemployment down, take people off the streets and reduce crime, among other things. All those benefits that come out of having small businesses operate in TT, we want to be able to do that.”
He said the biggest challenge of all is crime, and not just for businesses, but for every individual.
“We all have to be guarded, and that’s not a very comfortable way for our country to be operating, so that is a big concern for us businesses and the average citizen. Some may say that businesses may have a little bit more to lose – in terms of profitability, getting staff home, locking up and increased costs for security – and that’s true.
“But what I’m saying is that it extends to the average citizen as well, and that’s my biggest concern.”
Maharaj added that coming from a MSME background, with her grandfather and other relatives being entrepreneurs, she sees these businesses as the foundation of TT.
“The MSMEs today are the bigger businesses of tomorrow,” she said, “And they are the ones who really have the true innovation spirit and I feel it’s very necessary to support them.”
Maharaj said it was critical to support and give them a voice, since the business model is constantly changing and has developed drastically after the covid19 pandemic.
“There are a lot of one-person and two-person-type entities and so it is really about how we bridge their resources, work with them collectively, developing their synergies, developing a sense of being wiser when it comes to financing and assisting them with some of the obstacles they have because of lack of capacity.”
Maharaj said the chamber is persistent in finding ways to help MSMEs build their foundation and springboard to the next step in their business journey. She said helping MSMEs has always been part of the chamber’s agenda, but became a necessity because of the pandemic.
Plans to deal with cybercrime threats
Aside from financial challenges and lack of resources and capacity, all businesses are plagued by the effects of the high crime rate.
De Gannes said the chamber has been working with a joint chamber group to meet with the authorities and voice their suggestions.
“We are of the belief that the government may not be able to solve this all on their own, and we’re very happy to work along with them to see how we can get this all under control.
“We have been trying to secure an audience with some people in the government and forces of the police as well, but we have not been successful so far.”
But he said the chamber will continue its security efforts.
“The business chamber would really like to work alongside the government to get this thing arrested.”
Given the business world is now in a technological era, cybercrime poses a great threat to many businesses,small or large. Cybersecurity is pertinent to protecting a company’s sensitive data and because of this, de Gannes said, the chamber recently formed a digital business committee.
“That committee is only about three months old, and we have started working towards looking at guidelines…Of course, the advice to our membership really is, you need to invest in not just physical security, but cybersecurity as well,” said de Gannes.
He added that there are packages companies can acquire to protect themselves from cyberattacks, but they must monitor and update these packages when necessary.
Maharaj added, “I think as the pandemic showed us, there’s true potential for how we embrace this. So we saw a lot of our members start using the mobile machines – touch-card machines – we saw them ensuring that they offer online transactions, with the help of the banks.”
In addition to these small steps towards digital transformation, Maharaj said as a country, more needs to be done – the speed of doing business in the country must be looked at.
“We need to improve on that (digital transformation) because it affects us on so many levels, in terms of productivity, and the systems can become so much easier if we were to implement the right tools.
For instance, she asked, “On the government side, why can’t we renew our driver’s licences online?”
She explained the ripple effect that might have: there may be fewer cars on the roads and fewer people at the licensing office, and hence it would make life easier for the people of TT.
Getting ESG right
De Gannes said the chamber operates through many committees, and with environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies being all the rage in the business community, the chamber created a committee to handle these intricacies.
The chamber hosted an event on ESG policies for businesses in March which de Gannes said was oversubscribed and which aimed to equip and inform businesses on implementing ESG in their operations.
“We’re not aware of any particular specific rules or charters that we have to follow in Trinidad at the moment. But we would like to be a part of that creation of those rules and guidelines, so we could put those out to our members.”
He said this will be done through the committee and will help show people what TT is aiming towards in those areas.
De Gannes said, “The chamber is taking on the responsibility, through its ESG committee, to start making suggestions that will be key to TT.”
Maharaj added that ESG is really about preserving the planet and using resources wisely and ethically.
“Our ESG committee has been very active, and they are one of the most passionate groups – these are people who are very determined to make this right. So what we are seeing is some of the committee members are from larger corporations…are working alongside the members who do not have the resources to get them into this mindset.”