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Small businesses need a ‘collective voice’

Keetha Lowe

Bermuda’s small businesses need a voice, according to former business owner Keetha Lowe, who characterised the Island’s economic woes as a depression rather than a recession.

The challenges and survival strategies for local entrepreneurs will be explored by The Royal Gazette in a series of articles in tandem with Ms Lowe, who once ran her own business, Atlantic Upholstery and Interiors.

“I have had to take time out because we had a major tragedy in our family,” said Ms Lowe, referring to the death in November 2013 of her daughter-in-law, Latifa Maybury.

As Ms Lowe battened down the hatches to hold on through the worsening recession, that loss and the subsequent need to take care of her family meant stepping back from the business she had built from scratch.

Meanwhile, optimistic signs of “green shoots” in Bermuda’s economy have not materialised for many business owners — while the Progressive Labour Party has repeatedly accused the Government of falling short in diversifying the Island’s business base.

“Fundamentally, it begins with the economy,” Ms Lowe said. “Are we experiencing a recession, or are we ready to come to terms with the fact that Bermuda has been going through a depression? A recession is gone in a few cycles but Bermuda is well behind — the recession began in 2008 to 2009. Our reality is that we’re in 2015, coming towards 2016, and we are still very, very much in an economic downturn.”

At a recent public forum by statistician Cordell Riley, 2015 was posited as the year in which Bermuda’s economic decline would bottom out.

However, businessman Nelson Hunt said that the Island’s banks were doing local businesses a disservice: “The general public can’t pay any more, and small businesses can’t pay any more,” Mr Hunt told the gathering, adding that what profits he managed to make were all “eaten up” by taxes — and that the Government should allow more banking competition into Bermuda.

Ms Lowe agreed with the assessment. “We have had an adjustment to the configuration of ownership of institutions within our very small community. Unless they are sensitised to who we are as a people, our sacrifices and struggles as well as our successes, it’s going to be difficult to build a viable, sustainable relationship.”

She added: “A problem of such huge magnitude can only be cured by collective responsibility. Not just the Government but our banks, international business and entire private sector — we have to call it what it is and collectively come up with solutions.”

Asked which small businesses were suffering the worst, Ms Lowe said the answer was easy: “Retail,” she said. Online shopping and shopping overseas has exacerbated the problem. “Buy local” campaigns have been promoted for many years, and in November 2010 a “Shop Local” initiative was pushed heavily as the retail sales index showed a sharp decline.

At that time, top customer complaints when it came to local retail were the high prices, limited selection and poor customer service.

Ms Lowe said the rigours of the long recession may well have boosted customer service. “If it has happened, credit needs to be given to the operators of those businesses who have assisted their staff in understanding that to keep your job, you have to keep your customers,” she said.

“I’m sure there is significantly more emphasis on service. My question is, behind the smiles, what is the real truth? I look forward to when the warmth, hospitality and overall security within Bermudians becomes the reflection of the smile.”

A sense of security is key for small businesses, she said.

“Unlike larger operations, small businesses are affected by the wellbeing, security and stability of the individuals running it, who don’t have the luxury of collecting a pay cheque and then walking away from the highs and lows.”