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Russell reflects on banking: A funny business


Marlon Madden

Russell reflects on banking: A funny business

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For the past 50 years his services have been sought after in the banking industry.
And today, Harold Russell, even at the age of 74, continues to share his knowledge locally, regionally and internationally.
He entered the banking sector in 1962 after completing his studies in England and returning  to the Caribbean, and at the age of 27 he became  a commercial bank manager.
Russell has worked as a consultant since 1980,  these days mostly in the offshore sector in the Caribbean and Latin America.
“I was one of the first people who helped  to form the association of indigenous banks and  I worked at almost all of the indigenous banks  in the Caribbean structuring them at the times  when they had problems, training the staff,  writing the manuals and then I branched into the international banks overseas in South America,”  he told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY.
“What happened was that the countries in the Caribbean got applications from the banks abroad, mostly in Latin America, to open overseas banks in  the Caribbean, but the Caribbean did not know what was happening in those overseas banks because those banks did most of their business in their own country.
“So my job was to go over there and see what  was happening and help in some cases or . . . criticize and report back. I did that for Antigua, Turks and Caicos, St Lucia, Montserrat and other countries,” explained Russell.
The banking industry has undergone  many changes from the time he began his career. These changes include the fact that Barbados no longer owns a national bank. Russell believed getting rid  of the Barbados National Bank (BNB), now Republic Bank Barbados, was a bad idea but he “blames  the Government”.
The former BNB is now majority owned  by Republic Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, which has offered to buy the 18 per cent of shares still owned  by the Barbados Government as the bank seeks  to complete a 100 per cent takeover.
“If we had a national bank we could compete and force the other banks to lower their interest rate,”?Russell said. “You can use the bank as a catalyst in  the system but you’ve got to use it wisely. The only thing we can do now is start another bank. I don’t think we should sell the remaining shares . . . . I think we should continue to get dividends,” advised Russell.
Perhaps one of the changes in commercial banking most evident to Russell is the role of managers.  He said in his day, managers had “a great deal  of authority”.
“For example, if I knew that certain friends of mine were banking with another bank, I would contact them and say ‘you know what, I have a loans officer here to talk to you’ and try to get some business. So that kind of work was the duty of the managers and they had high responsibilities and expectations from the bank. But the managers were well paid,” said Russell.
He also pointed out that today’s managers were  no longer interested in helping out with teller duties.
Another area that has changed is that of loans.  He said back then that banks were giving lots of loans for construction and other “risky” areas. But the banks  of today, he said, were lending in “safe areas” and  not particularly for the development of young people.
During the early days he was involved in banking, there were no sophisticated computer systems  or programmes. Instead, they used what was simply called a till. There were also no financial bodies such as the Financial Services ommission (FSC).
“We never even thought of that. We have  a different market now so the banks have  to adjust to this market,” said a smiling Russell.
Russell, a columnist in the DAILY NATION, said there are many temptations for workers  in the banking industry.
“Banking is a very funny business because you could help yourself in a bank or you could help other people with ideas that belong  to other people, which may be happening  in Barbados,” suggested Russell.
Recalling his years as a bank inspector seeking to catch dishonest staff, he revealed: “Some fellows got caught in it. It is a huge temptation. That is something that I thought about too; how can I steal from the bank.  If I thought about it somebody else would.”
The retired banker believed the banking industry was set to become even more sophisticated in Barbados, with telephone  and online banking already making a mark.
“There is home banking; paying bills from home and making lodgements from home.  That is already being done in the United States, where you can photograph your cheque and have the obligation of posting the cheque  that you are lodging,” he said.
These days, the financial consultant spends much  of his free time playing pan music at church, hotels,  at special events or simply at home.
Russell learned to play the pan while living and working in Antigua in 2006. And after falling in love with that type of musical percussion, he did some practising on his own as well as trained with the Harmonites International Steel Orchestra. He also plays the guitar.
“Sometimes I get a $5,” joked Russell, “but I don’t charge, I play for the pleasure,” he added.
He believed the steel pan industry was growing  and would continue to grow for years to come.
“It is becoming bigger because schools at one time would have frowned at the pan but now some schools and churches have pan orchestras.”  

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