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SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Scrutinise BHL bidders

Shantal Munro-Knight

SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Scrutinise BHL bidders

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In July 2014, I commented on the Neal and Massy takeover of Barbados Shipping & Trading (BS&T) and the complete Massifying of all the companies under the brand.          

At that time, I wrote:  “This is perhaps just the first wave of a changing private sector landscape that we are seeing.  The consolidation of Neal and Massy, the entry of Sandals and other large conglomerates are happening alongside the demise of several local companies. I can forsee a Barbados where we will look up and down and the few companies dominating all the major sectors in the islands will be foreign.” 

I had also in that article indicated that this would be first of many such acquisitions.            The bidding war between AmBev/SLU and  ANSA McAL over Banks Holdings Limited (BHL) has once again brought the issue of national business ownership to the fore. There is much concern that once again one of the country’s best examples of corporate success will become foreign owned and once again the “Barbados” brand will be completely lost. I would agree that there is some cause for concern; BHL is the country’s largest beverage company, owning  the Pine Hill Dairy and Barbados Bottling Company Limited. More than this, the flagship product of BHL, Banks beer, is to my mind deliberately marketed internationally to reinforce the overall Barbados brand. 

However, I would also agree that the discussion about the current takeover bid and national business ownership is somewhat of a misnomer as BHL is a shareholder-owned company. As was reported in the press, AmBev already owns a 40.7 per cent stake in BHL at the time of the takeover bid. 

In this context I completely agree with the views of Dr Tennyson Joseph when he suggests “capitalism is capitalism”.

The assumption that capitalism works in special ways for an island nation, that the wealth of private capitalists is the wealth of all, and that private (or shareholder)-owned business enterprise is a “national company” all exhibit a kind of false consciousness which often distorts thinking on how such entities should be treated,” he wrote. 

We cannot have it both ways. The current global business model is not one which plays nice and makes exceptions for national contexts. If we choose to be complicit in the current world economic model then we also have to be prepared to live with the consequences.We cannot say we want to encourage our businesses to expand to export and to be competitive internationally and not expect that this competition will land at our doorsteps. The model does not work like that. 

This particular case is indeed one which lays bare the inner workings of the global model in which we find ourselves.  For those of you that have been paying close attention I am sure that you would not have missed the telling BHL board resignations here in Barbados, with one director reportedly having traded millions of shares within recent weeks.  Additionally, it is also of note that on the heels of the bid by the Ansa McAL Group, the T&T-based conglomerate also reportedly bought Blue Waters Products Ltd (BPWPL), the second largest shareholder in BHL and owned by Dominic Hadeed. 

Regardless of how fascinating it is to observe the machinations of the companies involved, we perhaps should not lose sight of the fact that ultimately, it is up to the majority shareholders to decide the fate of the company and in many instances shareholders make decisions based on what is best for their bottom line.

In this way, the fate of the company, its employees and brands is not one in which we, ordinary citizens, have any say. What I am interested in however, is that the analysis of the implications has been little more than surfacy. Commentators have done little to offer critical analysis of the implications and bare minimum to examine the track record of the companies involved.

My own examination indicates that one of the companies involved has just recently been fined for anti-competitive behaviour (the ruling, although recent, dates back to a charge in 2003) and has also not been much of friend to labour in countries where it has operated. While we might not have a say in the final decision I suggest that there is more that can be done to examine the players and bring some critical questions to the floor to help make the shareholders themselves accountable for their final decision. 

Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]