Thu | Aug 22, 2019

Companies Office revamps to better business ranking

Published:Friday | February 8, 2019 | 11:55 AM
Shorn Hector/Photographer 
Judith Ramlogan, company registrar & CEO of the Companies Office of Jamaica.
Shorn Hector/Photographer Judith Ramlogan, company registrar & CEO of the Companies Office of Jamaica.

Jamaica is now ranked sixth in the world for ease of starting a business on the World Bank index, but that represents a one place slippage from fifth place a year ago.

With several changes either planned or under way at the Companies Office of Jamaica, COJ, its chief executive officer and registrar, Judith Ramlogan, is targeting a climb to nearer the top of the pile in future surveys.

“We are about to get some assistance from the World Bank to undertake a business process re-engineering,” said Ramlogan in an interview with the Financial Gleaner. The dollar value of the World Bank assistance and terms were not disclosed.

The business process improvements are meant to cut wait times further for business registration and achieve ISO best practice management systems certification by the end of next month. Standardised answers to queries across the agency is also expected to be realised with the systems changes.

Wait times have already been cut significantly, with same-day and overnight services now available for companies and business names registration, down from a previous four to five days turnaround period. Since last year, too, the agency has pioneered online registration, but the platform hit a snag and is being reworked for roll-out in a few months.

The rejection of documents by registration agents, even after they have been checked and accepted by front-desk customer service receptionists, continues to irk customers, the registrar conceded.

Come April, a more streamlined system will have just one document collection point. A paid concierge service is also to be introduced to provide legal and other advice for persons seeking help to complete company application forms, including Articles and Memoranda of Association.

The reorganisation taking place at the self-financing state agency, charged with registering and monitoring companies and business names, as well as charitable organisations according to legislation, is also expected to boost annual returns filing compliance, which is said to be now at 30 per cent. Already, a mobile unit takes COJ staff into communities in an effort to boost annual returns compliance. The experience here is that very little fees are collected in Kingston and St Andrew, while a recent visit of the unit to the central parishes of Manchester and Clarendon saw a record revenue intake of more than $2 million in one day.

Ramlogan says that in the Corporate Area, especially, there is a mentality that: “I am not going to comply unless I’m forced to or unless companies want a loan at a bank. We don’t go a lot to the east because there are not a lot of businesses there.”

With updates planned for the legislation that the COJ was set up to enforce, consideration is also being given to increasing fees and penalties that are required to fund the COJ’s approximately $400 million. In the current financial year, $341.2 million has been collected so far.

Bursting at the seams

In 2018, there was a 15.6 per cent increase in companies registered, with 3,159 companies formed and 10,472 business names were registered – 9.5 per cent or 907 more than the 9,565 registered in 2017.

The existing office facilities are said to be bursting at the seams, and efforts to secure land in the Corporate Area to build a new facility have been unsuccessful for the past 10 years, Ramlogan explained. As a result, the Companies Office is setting aside $31 million for the rental of an additional building to house support staff in Kingston and to relocate its Montego Bay office, now occupying a few rooms at the Office of the Prime Minister Western at Delisser Drive.

A staff shortage, which Ramlogan describes as chronic, is not expected to be eased anytime soon as Government has put a lid on hiring to keep the public-sector wage bill at levels agreed with the International Monetary Fund.

Despite the shortage, particularly of information technology staff, the Companies Office will be rolling out a full online registration facility by the start of the next financial year in April, and will be setting up Internet kiosks at tax offices at Constant Spring in St Andrew, Spanish Town in St Catherine, and Montego Bay in St James.

“We are also in discussion with the post office and JBDC [Jamaica Business Development Corporation] to use their facilities as well,” Ramlogan said.

With an increase in litigation resulting from chronic non-compliance in the filing of annual returns, COJ is seeking to extend an arrangement it now has with the Stamp Office, which would allow the company registrar to stamp litigation forms, such as fixed-date claim forms for submission to the Supreme Court. The COJ now stamps company documents such as Articles of Incorporation and collects stamp duties for the Stamp Office.

In an effort to improve compliance, the registrar has introduced a simplified “status quo registration form” that allows businesses to indicate that information provided in prior years have not changed and, therefore, don’t need to be provided again.

The simplification of the business registration process some years ago, eliminating the need for persons registering a business to trek to several state agencies, including the tax office, National Insurance Scheme, National Housing Trust and HEART Trust/NTA, is credited with bringing the most significant improvement in the business registration process. The Companies Office is now a one-stop shop for businesses start-up with money-back guarantees which entitle clients to full refunds in services they pay for but are not delivered.

Between April and December last year, the COJ dealt with 40,644 registrations, split 35,130 in Kingston and 5,314 in Montego Bay.

huntley.medley@gleanerjm.com