Balan Nair experiences a Bahamian dropped call
There is a theory that the prime minister was being cunning like a fox when he chose to stare at the leather in his shoe rather than look the international boss of BTC directly in the eye.
The PM must have known that he could have been perceived as double dealing by his visitors who later turned out to be uncouth, undiplomatic and culturally tone deaf.
The PM presides as corporation sole with ownership stakes in both BTC and the newest telecoms kid on the block, Aliv.
Damage one and the other is the immediate beneficiary. Aliv got another lifeline tossed its way by the self-inflicted wounds and body-blows to BTC by their new foreign owners.
When Hubert Ingraham sold BTC to Cable & Wireless (C&W) in 2011, ownership transferred to this storied old British company with well-established roots in the Caribbean.
Years ago, when a titan of Jamaican business Mayer Matalon was chairman of Cable & Wireless, he was on a first name, look-’em-directly-in-the-eye basis with every prime minister in the region, including our own. Matalon would have fired on the spot any of his managers who so egregiously upbraided a prime minister in public.
But these are different times and companies are run by men and women driven almost exclusively by the almighty dollar.
The American media advises that we should always follow the money when trying to get to the crux of a story.
Balan Nair became the big boss of Liberty only last year and he obviously wants to be a hands-on manager. Who can blame him? They paid dearly for C&W – over $3 billion in cash — and they assumed over $2.5 billion in debt. Obviously, somebody figured out that there was telecoms gold in this neck of the woods.
Liberty is a publicly-traded company and the market can be brutal on stocks that don’t perform up to expectation. Cable & Wireless had four jewels in its crown at the time Liberty became a suitor. There was Mas Movil in Panama, BTC, LIME (everywhere else in the Caribbean except The Bahamas), and C&W Seychelles.
For what much was paid, much more in profit is expected. Liberty rode Flow (as LIME was rebranded) hard and the Jamaica unit started to show good results, never mind that complaints and customer fury spiked.
BTC, faced with competition from Aliv as well as other legacy problems, performed reasonably, but not well enough to warrant a pep-rally from Nair.
He came to Nassau, presumably to discuss with the PM picking up the shares of BTC that they don’t already own (If it’s doing so badly, why do they want more?). Then there is the pesky problem of the two percent golden shares that the country owns that puts the power on our side of the table.
Getting more for less is essentially Nair’s job. Standing up for the Bahamian people is essentially the PM’s job.
Divulging tales outside of the schoolhouse was not supposed to be Nair’s job but he obviously got caught up in what the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan used to call “irrational exuberance”. In local parlance: he got swung by his Jamaican audience.
To mock our PM publicly is bad. To not know that somehow in the Caribbean it wouldn’t get back to the PM is just plain out dumb.
Nair is a wealthy man. He earned over $13 million in cash and stocks last year. As the Liberty stock goes up, so does his wealth. According to stock filings, he reportedly trades 10,000 units of stock over 10 days, valued on the week of his transgression at $170,000.
Nair was tone deaf to the rivalry and derision that characterizes The Bahamas-Jamaica special relationship. While to him that was the right audience in front of which to belittle the Bahamian PM, it was salt in the wound to Bahamians.
For starters, while ethnically and culturally similar, economically we are chalk and cheese. His audience gets paid an average of $15,000 a year. A similar crowd at BTC would cost him over twice that amount. Jamaica has 3.5 million subscribers; we have about 450,000 (land and cellular).
Nair was insensitive to the challenges faced by BTC, not just from Aliv. He should concentrate on fixing those before berating the prime minister for enforcing our Bahamianization policy.
We got an apology of sorts from Nair. Perhaps he was sorrier that he got caught than he was for putting his foot in his mouth.
In any event, the mea culpa from him will never satisfy all Bahamians. Nair has a bigger boss; a reclusive American billionaire named John Malone. He is worth about $7 billion. He is a stealth operator who former US vice president Al Gore once dubbed “Darth Vader”.
He needs to come down, look the prime minister squarely in the eye and apologize for Nair’s vacuous words.
Besides, by insisting that BTC keeps its call center here, the PM might have inadvertently done us all a favor. Imagine having to deal with a Guyanese call center to explain how your call dropped on a mail boat ride to a Family Island just as you were about to find out what number fall.
– The Graduate