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A dream of sorts fulfilled as Byles set to become central bank chief

Published:Friday | June 14, 2019 | 12:37 AMHuntley Medley - Senior Business Writer
Richard Byles, the new governor-designate of the Bank of Jamaica.
Richard Byles, the new governor-designate of the Bank of Jamaica.

Two years into his chairmanship of financial powerhouse Sagicor Group Jamaica, a move that capped some 14 years as chief executive of the insurance, banking, property management and hospitality conglomerate, Richard Byles, now 68, prepares to step into the role of governor of Jamaica’s central bank.

He is expected to give up several private sector directorships, including a seat on the board of big international hotel owners Playa Resorts, and it will bring to an end his 14 years as chairman of Jamaican alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage maker Red Stripe Jamaica, now owned by international beer maker Heineken.

Not many persons, Byles included, might have seen the new role coming well in advance, but the economics-trained business executive is always one for stepping up to the plate and playing on the big stage.

He also has a reputation of being a straight-talker – a trait that served him well as the primary private sector representative on the body created to track Jamaica’s fidelity to the goals of the economic programme that Jamaica had with the International Monetary Fund. Byles was the first private sector co-chair of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee, EPOC, a role he shared with the current governor of the Bank of Jamaica, Brian Wynter, whom he will replace in two months.

EPOC was not Byles’ first stint in the public service. He was also once chairman of the National Water Commission and the Government’s now apparently stalled resort development vehicle, Harmonisation Limited. In those roles, Byles says, he was giving service, having, from the outset, desired to use his training in economics to become “an economist for the country.”

“I think that, in a way, I was intending to serve. That was my original intention when I studied economics and not business, to be an economist for the country. Life has its many twists and turns, and I found myself in business,” he told the Financial Gleaner in an interview last year as he marked the first anniversary of his chairmanship of Sagicor Group and on the heels of being inducted into the hall of fame of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica.

Byles was not immediately available for comment on Thursday as news emerged of his selection as the next Bank of Jamaica governor. Sagicor Group, however, had mixed feelings about his pending move.

“Richard’s immense contribution to Sagicor Group Jamaica cannot be adequately expressed in a few words. His contribution to the growth, development and profitability of this company and its team is extraordinary, having had a tremendous career over decades. He’s been a positive influencer to many, offering mentorship and guidance,” said CEO Christopner Zacca, who himself replaced Byles at his retirement from the company in 2017.

“His departure as chairman will be felt deeply by all of us, but his rise to the role of governor of the Bank of Jamaica is truly remarkable for our nation, which he loves. Our entire team at Sagicor congratulates him and we are as happy for him as we are sad to see him go,” Zacca said.

By his own account, Byles’ career path has been anything but planned. After studying economics at the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies, he intended to work as an economist. Preparation for that role during the 1970s took him on a six-month stint writing for state-owned Jamaica Information Service, then to the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation, where he worked with Rita Humphries-Lewin – who later became more famous as a pioneering stockbroker and founder of Barita Investments. Byles then pursued a master’s degree in economics for national development at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

On his return to Jamaica, Byles worked with the National Investment Bank of Jamaica, NIBJ, and undertook economic research for Humphries-Lewin, who was by then an established stockbroker. His research work led him to a meeting with the late Maurice Facey, former head of the PanJam Group, who immediately offered him a job to head up the small Pan Caribbean Merchant Bank in 1985. He was promoted to CEO of the PanJam group in 1991 and has served on its board until now.

PanJam is the second-largest shareholder in Sagicor Group Jamaica, which includes Sagicor Bank, which Byles and the team he led at Sagicor Group have literally built from acquisitions and amalgamations.

Never one to harbour regrets about the professional road he has travelled, Richard Byles is also not in the habit of predicting his next moves too far in advance.

“It’s been a wonderful ride for me. I never thought I would be here. It teaches you that you can’t predict life. You can try to influence it and you should, (but) sometimes life offers you opportunities that are not on the path you thought you would be on. I have enjoyed both sides of my career service to country and the business side,” he reminisced last year.

What can be expected on Byles’ management style in his new role setting monetary policy for the country? He admitted in an interview with the Financial Gleaner in December 2009 to having a preference for operating on the big stage of large organisations rather than, say, running a small company of his own.

“The big pond is more fun, more thrilling, more exciting. It gives me more intellectual satisfaction. That’s what really excites and drives me,” he said then, describing himself as more of a transformational than entrepreneurial leader. He has a knack for shaking things up and doing things better, he noted. “Getting the process right is important – questioning it, challenging it,” he said.

He has suggested that his approach to management is results-oriented – always looking ahead to the next accomplishment and anticipating future developments and trends.

“I don’t have a very long-term [career] outlook. Wherever I am now, I need to do it well and [focus on] what’s the next step right after,” he said.

Byles can be expected to take the challenge of his new assignment in strides, having declared in the December 2009 interview that “whenever I am challenged, is when I display what I am capable of”.

Having dabbled in progressive politics during his university days, the Jamaica College graduate was, like many youth of the time, enamoured with the Black Power movement. Family, personal maturity and a commitment to his chosen academic discipline were responsible for his dramatic shift of focus in later years.

“I am very persistent in doing whatever task I have at hand. I have been favoured with good luck and I believe whatever you are doing, you should do it well,” Byles told the Financial Gleaner almost a decade ago. There is reason to believe the sentiments hold true today.

Byles’ appointment as BOJ governor takes effect August 19, as announced by Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke.

He is joining the central bank as it transitions to independence. A subcommittee, led by BOJ General Counsel Karen Chin Quee Akin, will assist with his transition.