Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne has lambasted the Eastern Caribbean Amalgamated Bank (ECAB) for persistent poor service that has infuriated dozens – if not hundreds – of customers, and called for ‘urgent leadership changes’ to address the situation.
ECAB, as it’s almost exclusively referred to in the twin-island nation, has a long-held and surely unwanted reputation for intermittent system issues, but those issues have escalated dramatically over the past two years, following its acquisition of Scotiabank’s Antigua and Barbuda operations approximately two years ago.
The indigenous bank, of which the government is a shareholder, was rightly hailed when it was announced that it had secured the assets of the departing Canadian institution in September 2021. Those applauding the move included PM Browne himself, who batted for local banks to be given priority as potential purchasers.
This came amid robust and ultimately failed efforts by Republic Financial Holdings Limited (RFHL) out of Trinidad and Tobago to secure the Scotiabank assets, as well as some interest from the Antigua Commercial Bank (ACB), another indigenous bank.
However, it appears the magnitude of the work required in the integration process caught ECAB off guard, with thousands of former Scotiabank customers expected to migrate onto its systems.
This has resulted in an outpouring of anger and dissatisfaction from both new and previous customers – on the streets, on talk radio and on social media – over issues like transaction delays, point-of-sale (POS) disruptions, out-of-service ATMs and poor customer service.
PM Browne, who has long been one of the bank’s biggest supporters, has since morphed into one of its biggest critics.
In response to a news article highlighting the sustained challenges customers have been facing this week, he called out ECAB’s Board of Directors for doing little to address the state of affairs.
He also called for the Board Chairman Craig Walter to be held accountable for his alleged silence.
In the Facebook post, Browne said, “the time has come for the shareholders of ECAB to have an extraordinary meeting to demand his resignation”. He added that, alternatively, Walter should do the honourable thing and resign.
If the Chairman and others are not held accountable, the PM went on, “they will continue to treat people with contempt [and] offer them inferior banking services”.
“If they can’t handle the job, they have an obligation to resign so that the bank could employ persons with the requisite skills to preside over the transition. We are looking for results, not excuses”, he asserted.
Browne voiced similar complaints about ECAB in September last year, one year after the Scotiabank acquisition, urging the bank to improve its service offerings.
“ECAB’s service remains a problem and I would have held discussions with the manager [and] one of the Directors as well about it”, the PM had said.
“This is my public call for ECAB to step up on its service. If you need to employ more people, employ more people”, he added.
Despite the pressure he has been placing on ECAB, the PM defended his government’s actions to support its acquisition of Scotiabank despite the public interest from RFHL.
That move, which would have seen the Trinidad-based entity add to its prior purchase of Scotiabank’s operations in Anguilla, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Maarten and St Vincent & the Grenadines, fell through over reported differences in valuation with the government.
Responding to suggestions that the former Scotiabank (now ECAB) customers would be better served with RFHL at the helm, Browne maintained that the decision was taken in the best interest of the country and its banking sector in particular.
He pointed out that ECAB has experience in such acquisitions – the bank having purchased and assumed “certain assets and liabilities of ABI Bank Limited” back in 2015 – noting too that “bank consolidation is not rocket science”.
He also explained that “this upsizing makes our banks more sustainable and profitable, thereby increasing the national wealth from retained earnings and makes them eligible for corresponding banking services”.
“The majority of the dividends payable from the increased profits will be paid to local entities, adding to the national income. It also has the added benefit of the pride of ownership and has positioned ECAB as the primary acquiring bank in the OECS sub-region.
“In addition, there would be no concerns over foreign exchange leakage to Trinidad with its foreign exchange problems”, he continued.
ECAB’s management has remained silent on the prolonged issues and the PM’s latest comments to date, though bank officials have reportedly confirmed that an official statement is forthcoming.
The PM sought to assure that, while he will continue to be vocal about the need for urgent improvements at the bank, he is looking forward to the resolution of the current issues and its ultimate success.
“I shall remain optimistic about the prospects of our country and its people, while standing on the truth. Despite the problems experienced by ECAB, they shall pass and history will show that our decision to scale up the domestic banking sector was a wise and sustaining one”, the PM said. (LOOP)