Leon Wheatley, the director of authorisation and supervision at the Financial Services Commission, speaks at the first BVI Banking Expo last Thursday at Treasure Isle. (Photo: Tremis Skeete)

A regulator has demanded that banks in the Virgin Islands cut the long lines for services and treat their customers better or face tougher penalties.

The warning from the Financial Services Commission came last Thursday at the first BVI Banking Expo, which was attended by senior figures from the finance sector, business community and government.

“Banks must take action to improve interactions with customers and reduce the long lines that we have grown accustomed to seeing outside of the banks,” said Leon Wheatley, the FSC director of authorisation and supervision. “In the age of digital transformation, our banks must innovate and exceed customer expectations.”

New legislation, code

Mr. Wheatley signalled that the body is set to take stronger action as legislative amendments and a new banking code are introduced in the coming months.

Existing laws, he added, are being updated in part “to allow the commission to administer administrative penalties for malpractice in market conduct and not treating customers fairly.”

Mr. Wheatley also urged attendees to “expect more and demand more” from VI banks.

“We also expect to see marked improvements in the quality and delivery of customer services,” he said.

The remarks come in the wake of customer fury at Republic Bank when it withdrew payments dating back two years from some accounts with scant notice in April.

“The commission has asked the BVI banking industry to implement a more efficient system of cheque and payment settlement,” Mr. Wheatley added. “We expect implementation of an electronic system for the settlement of cheques before the end of 2024.”

Banks’ perspective

Joy Penn, head of the BVI Bank Association, took the podium after Mr. Wheatley and joked that she would not directly address his remarks on behalf of the organisation.

“We work very closely with the BVI Financial Services Commission as it relates to regulations, whether they are new or have been amended,” said Ms. Penn, who is also CEO of the National Bank of the Virgin Islands. “We also have a focus on education, so in that regard we work with the FSC and its educational arm.”

Ms. Penn said that financial institutions hoped to use the expo to better understand the needs of VI businesses.

“The banks are not here today to compete with one another,” she said. “We are here to support educational initiatives and anything that gives energy to financial literacy. We want to share with you.”

‘Tug of war’

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley used his address to the gathering to call for better relations between banks and small businesses. He stressed that each needs the other in order to survive as they are locked in a “symbiotic” relationship.

“Sometimes it may appear that there is a tug of war taking place between what businesses and entrepreneurs need and what the banks ask for,” he said. “But we need to look at the situation through each party’s eyes and then find the solutions and compromises that can fill the gaps.”

Entrepreneur’s frustrations

The expo also heard from VI businesspeople who told of their experiences with financial institutions in the territory.

Rochelle Lawrence said that she had struggled to convince VI banks to support her coffee shops.

“To date, none of the banks in the BVI have said that my businesses were feasible to support any of them,” she said. “I have had no support from the banks after the pandemic.”

However, the lack of support from the financial sector did not stop her.

“If you went to school with me, you know if I say I’m going to do something, it’s going to happen, and I’m going to open four coffee shops, and today I have three of them,” she said. “I’m going to ask every bank this question [at the expo]: If I wanted to open a coffee shop tomorrow, my fourth location, what do I need to qualify?”

Rain delay

The expo, the first of its kind in the territory, was delayed for a week due to torrential rain and flash flooding in the hours before it was originally slated to take place.

The event at the Treasure Isle Hotel saw leaders from the financial industry, government departments and representatives from small, medium and large companies gather to discuss ideas and take part in panel sessions on how to improve the current situation.

The event host, Deputy Premier Lorna Smith, said she was pleased with the turnout.

“I am especially glad that my sister islands are here: Anegada, I see you here,” said Ms. Smith, who is the minister of financial services, labour and trade. “Virgin Gorda is here; Jost Van Dyke is coming later. I am really delighted that you made the time to come over here.”