MSME Spotlight: Navin Dookeran, CEO, EXIMBANK
TSTT Corporate Communications
Tell us about the Export Import Bank of Trinidad and Tobago…
The EXIMBANK is here to support exporters and increase the business sector’s ability to earn foreign exchange, which is much needed in our country. Sometimes people call us the manufacturers’ bank, but the key for us is that you are exporting or you have plans to export. We then try to support exporters to get into new markets and to be able to increase exports and foreign exchange earnings. We do this by providing financial resources, be it credit, trade finance, or even prioritizing foreign exchange allocations, which are sometimes tough to get through the normal banking sector, especially for Micro, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (MSMEs).
What role does technology play in the everyday business operations at the EXIMBANK?
As a bank, we’ve always had our banking system software that keeps all the financial records and tracks everything, but during this pandemic, we have really had to take a leap forward in the way we use technology. I know this has happened to many companies and to many MSMEs as well. First of all, the backbone of our infrastructure is our primary telecommunications provider, which is TSTT, and I must point out that we have not had any outages or any problems. TSTT’s reliable service has enabled us to transform the way we actually do our business.
Before COVID, our transactions were largely done on paper. These stacks of paper would move from one person’s desk, to another, and then another, and everybody would sign, and only then would the data enter into our various online banking applications. Our team was making good progress on using Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) and Sharepoint before, supported by our IT staff. However, when the Government indicated that we needed to work from home, we were highlighted as an essential service, not just in terms of general banking, but to get foreign exchange to international suppliers so that essential supplies could get into the country as quickly as possible.
This meant that our volumes and our productivity needed to increase significantly. We were able to create digital workflows, where everything was dealt with through Sharepoint, and all the transaction files, instead of paper, became electronic. Within one or two days we had all our staff working from home, with computers securely set up through our firewall, and we were able to have basically zero business interruption as a result of that transition. This has allowed us to handle significantly higher volumes than before and has in fact resulted in some very good client satisfaction metrics as clients are saying “you guys are sending us messages on the weekend, you’re sending them in the night, it’s not just any 9 to 5!” And so technology has played a key role in how we’ve been able to manage the COVID transition.
Going forward, there will be two pillars to our business. The first pillar will be designing everything from our technological infrastructure and our processes, and even our communication, around our client. It’s going to be a very client-centric approach, and when we’ve built this approach we will then use the appropriate technology to support providing a certain quality experience to the client, and to MSMEs specifically.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this experience has 100% accelerated the EXIMBANK’s digital transformation.
What is one tool/app/service that has transformed the EXIMBANK?
It is important that I shoutout our current service provider, which is 800-TECH. One reason I’d like to highlight them is that part of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association’s (TTMA) new strategy, which was launched on June 3, is “Buy Local”, and they are our local partner and are an MSME themselves. They have rallied to get us enabled on the Microsoft suite of products, specifically MS Teams and Sharepoint. All our workflows are going through Sharepoint and we’re doing all our communications through MS Teams. One of the future tools that we’re looking to deploy is DocuSign technology, to facilitate electronic signatures and reap the benefits of utilizing that digital tool.
Based on your experience, what is the biggest challenge MSMEs in Trinidad and Tobago face?
I think one of the major challenges for our MSMEs is scaling up. A lot of them are very good at being able to deliver a product or service that meets the local demand and the local market, and they can make a very profitable business out of servicing Trinidad and Tobago. But when we look at Trinidad and Tobago which is 1.3 million people, and then you take the broader Caribbean, your market moves from 1.3 million to 10 million, or even 20 million depending which countries you include. Then when you look at Latin America, it opens up to hundreds of millions. When our companies, that have grown comfortable serving this smaller market, go out there and try to compete with companies that have much larger size and scale, it’s very tough.
So we do have to look at how we can become more competitive, and one of the key tenets is leveraging technology. Again, we are lucky in this country to have very good technological infrastructure, provided by TSTT and others, which has withstood increased volumes and demand on bandwidth. While the manufacturing sector is one of our key stakeholders, the service export sector is also important. There are digital content exports and other areas of opportunity, where we could provide services based right here in Trinidad to clients abroad.
For example, we recently hired another staff member – as I said, our volumes are increasing, our mandate is increasing, and we’ve been doing a lot more business, not just during but pre-COVID - and she indicated to me that her previous role was with an American mortgage service company, where she was doing some of their compliance checks from her computer right here in Trinidad. I also know on the coding side of things there are apps and sites that enlist freelance technical work. I would say there’s a lot of opportunity out there, it’s for us to look to see how we can grasp it, because we have the infrastructure in place.
Aside from leveraging technology, what advice would you give to an MSME or an entrepreneur who is now getting started?
First of all, let me give some financial advice. If you’re getting started, or even if you’re a business that’s operating already, cash flow planning is very important - doing a budget and doing
forecasts. Now when you’re doing forecasting, it is important not to do just one forecast. For example, there’s the concept of a V-shaped or U-shaped or L-shaped recovery depending on how fast we get out of this COVID situation. So in your forecasting, you need to do a best-case scenario, a mid-case scenario and a worst-case scenario, so that you can plan for different types of outcomes.
Secondly, again along the lines of money management (I am a banker, after all!), you need to focus on your cash conversion cycle. That is, from the time you pay money to buy inputs or raw materials, to the point when you are able to produce your goods, then sell them on credit, then wait to be able to collect that money – so cash-out to cash-in. All companies, especially now in this time when cash is critical, are well advised to stay focused on that cash conversion cycle. Make sure you collect money from those who owe you money, be proactive and aggressive in how you collect that money, see if any of your suppliers are willing to allow you to take a little bit more time to pay, and that will help you manage through this period.
Also, diversify your supply chain and managing supply chain risk. You don’t want to rely on one supplier for certain items, but instead look at different sources because in this day and age, if one supplier gets disrupted, you don’t want that to disrupt your business.
What advice would you give to businesses bouncing back from COVID-19?
I am of the view that COVID is a temporary phenomenon, which has accelerated us in various ways. In fact, I pointed out in a session today that one of the consequences of COVID has been increases in efficiencies and productivity, and if your company has not yet had that experience, make it a priority to drive towards that because it’s happening everywhere, including at the EXIMBANK.
As I mentioned, June 3 was the TTMA’s strategy launch, and I’m going to take a page out of their book. Their advice was that this is the time to reframe your business, stabilize your business, and then position for growth. EXIMBANK is a good partner with the TTMA, and our objectives and strategies are very well aligned.
At this time, when you’re bouncing back from COVID, look at it as an opportunity. The toughest times are likely behind you, when everything was closed, and your income was completely halted – that time, hopefully, will not return and now it’s time to look forward.
My one big piece of advice is don’t just focus on getting back to how things were. If you do that, you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities that many other companies are taking advantage of. Set your benchmark higher, with a growth agenda, and see how you can recover or recapture market share abroad, or if you were just a local entrepreneur, set your sights on starting to export. There are a lot of organisations like the EXIMBANK or ExporTT that can help. When you bounce back, you bounce higher.
MSMEs are the key to our future success as a country, and their success is our success – so let’s work together!