Eating lunch at the beachside restaurant of the Royal Pavilion Hotel in Barbados, hard on the Caribbean Sea, a reporter gathers his thoughts on the island's diverse financial services sector, and in particular its insurance sector.
Out of season, the hotel is almost empty and a languid feel has established itself as the afternoon sets in. The air, the light and the water contrive to make thinking in straight lines more difficult than it ought to be.
In the previous ten days, the reporter has been in Bermuda, where insurance is a concentrated activity that has taken over the capital city and become a visible force. He has also visited the Cayman Islands, where the captive insurance managers, though keenly competitive, close ranks together as a unit when an outsider arrives. The Cayman insurance sector also shares a concentrated core in its capital, Georgetown, where, with a little determination and some sturdy shoe leather, one could visit the great majority of service providers in a single day.
Barbados has a captive insurance sector numerically almost as large as that of Cayman, and a banking sector of no inconsiderable size. A number of large re/insurers, household names around the world, have a significant physical presence in Barbados. Much of the island's professional support system - the lawyers, accountants, insurance managers and others - are located in Bridgetown, a capital city of infinitely greater colour and variety than either of the aforementioned competitors.
Maybe it is the spread of Bridgetown, or its seemingly laconic air, or perhaps it is because other elements of the Barbados financial services machinery are located farther afield, outside Bridgetown. But still the question remains: Is it fair, the reporter asks himself, to suggest that the Barbados financial services industry is less focussed than those of its competitors?
If not less focussed, less vocal, for sure. Bermuda and Cayman routinely shout their advantages from the highest rooftops to anyone who will listen. They dispatch teams of professionals around the world to take the message to the unconverted. Those same practitioners crank out articles in the business press, around the clock it seems, reinforcing and underlining the implication of their superiority.
As the reporter struggles to find an apt metaphor for the more laid-back manner in which Barbados promotes itself (which is to say hardly at all in comparison to its noisier competition), first one, then two Abyssinian cats stroll past. Despite their classy manner, they are mousers at work, expatriates imported from Britain to carry out a mundane activity with an unusual degree of elegance. The penny drops.
In terms of the potential of its financial services industry, Barbados is every bit the equal of Bermuda and Cayman. Barbados has all the necessary business and leisure facilities, tax treaties, an educated population, the desire to continue to develop its infrastructure in support of the financial service sectors, the necessary professional cadre, a stable democracy and the determination to put it all together. Yet Barbados lacks the apparent urgency of its competition to persuade you that it alone can solve your jurisdictional problems. What is missing in Barbados is a megaphone.
That may be changing. The unwanted and unwarranted attention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has slowed the forward motion of financial services in Barbados somewhat in the past two years. That Barbados was able to see off the OECD - the Caribbean's own four-letter word - without changing any of its regulations speaks volumes about how determined Barbados was to weather the storm without compromise.
We tend to ignore what we don't know. Despite its undeniable success, Barbados has not yet really begun to play its hand. As the next decade unfolds, one suspects that Barbados will surprise the world with a newly aggressive approach to the provision of insurance, banking, trust and the other financial services that the OECD has inadvertently validated.
The exotic air Abyssinian cats carry with them may not quite fit Barbados, but it retains an air of inscrutability nonetheless. That may not be a bad thing. Those in the know are aware of what can be done on the island, and word of mouth is the most powerful advertising medium, delivering committed customers, rather than rounding up potential prospects in need of persuasion.
The reporter looks out to sea. Two small boats bob gently in the light breeze. In Barbados right now, he thinks to himself, the tide is coming in, in more ways than one.
Roger Crombie is a chartered accountant and freelance journalist, living in Bermuda.