That’s what friends are for

Sidebar Information:
Cayman Islands Government Office in London

Cayman Financial Review interviews the Chairman of the Friends of Cayman Group – John Owen

Former governor of the Cayman Islands in the 1990’s, John Owen knows the importance of building relationships, particularly with the media. Among the roles he served during his diplomatic career is that of Press Attaché at the British Embassy in Iran during the days of the Shah. Here he tells CFR how managing relationships is equally delicate within the Cayman Islands.

I understand that the group formed in 2001. Can you explain the genesis of the Friends of Cayman Group and its mission?

After Jennifer Dilbert took up her post as the Cayman Islands Representative in London in 2000, we discussed forming a group of individuals working in London who had a strong commercial association, knowledge and interest in the future of the Cayman Islands. We both thought that such a group could support the representative in promoting Cayman as a destination of choice for investors in the commercial as well as the financial sector.
The idea was that the representative would then have access to individuals with different skills who had strong business relationships in Cayman and could talk to investors about the key factors which make Cayman a destination of choice for investors. The group could also be available to the representative for meetings with the media, politicians and key influencers in the City of London. In essence the mission of the group would be to support and encourage the future commercial development of Cayman and project Cayman as a viable, attractive and profitable location for business and investment.The group boasts about 60 members today.

How small did you start?

The Friends of Cayman was officially launched at a reception in London on 12 December, 2002, by the then Leader of Government Business Hon McKeeva Bush who was a strong supporter of the venture. It consisted of about a dozen people who fulfilled the criteria mentioned earlier and represented the law, accountancy, insurance, shipping, aviation, commerce sectors. The first chairman of the Friends was Michael Hobson of Morval Bank Ltd. I was appointed vice chairman in 2004 and I became chairman in 2005.

Has the group’s remit broadened in any way since then and how have you been fulfilling the mission?

About three or four years ago we decided to expand the Friends of Cayman to include people who had worked in Cayman and returned to the United Kingdom and who wanted to have a continuing relationship with Cayman for which they had developed a real interest and affection. So in addition to the original group of Friends, which we now look upon as the Core Group, we expanded the number of Friends. Our basic mission however has not changed. The Friends are available to support and help the Representative in dealings with the media, politicians and key influencers in London. Getting Cayman’s message across as a responsible financial jurisdiction and trying to change negative perceptions of Cayman in London are important parts of the Representative’s role. The Friends stand ready to support the Representative in these tasks.

Other than building relationships with the media and investors, what else does the Friends of Cayman Group do?

The Cayman Islands Government Office, which acts as a secretariat for the Friends, produces a monthly newsletter bringing the Friends up to date with developments in Cayman. We also hold regular meetings of the Friends as well as social events. The Friends have also held two fundraising events at the House of Commons. The first event being for the Hurricane Ivan Relief Fund which raised around CI$85,000 and the second event was for the blue iguanas, which raised about CI$50,000. This last fundraiser was done in association with the Durrell Foundation, which is supporting the Blue Iguana Programme in Cayman. We also provided some financial support for the Cayman Islands Scout delegation that attended the 100th Anniversary Jamboree. Our next fundraiser will be in 2010, the objective of the event being to help support the Cayman Islands team attending the Island Games on the Isle of Wight in 2011. Hurricane Ivan was a very emotional occasion as most people at the event knew somebody who’d been affected. The people attending the event were therefore very generous in their support but we still hope to get about CI$30,000 for the Island games team. We had planned to hold the event this October but this year will not be an easy one for raising money, which is why we have postponed the event until March 2010. Hopefully by then we will be over the worst of the global downturn. It would have been difficult for the Friends to have done any of the above without the help and support of the staff at the Cayman Islands London Office for which we are most grateful.

What unifies the efforts of group members?

All the Friends have a real interest, affection and concern for Cayman. They all want to see Cayman’s economy continue to grow and attract investors but the Friends not only act in support of the representative. They also promote Cayman in their own daily working lives, particularly in trying to change the negative perception of Cayman which seems to be a feature of the media here. I like to look upon the Friends as champions of Cayman.

Ok, if you had to champion the Cayman Islands yourself, what are its unique selling points?

Stability is important to investors. Cayman has a history of, stable and democratic government. Other important factors are, the independence of the judiciary, English law with the Privy Council as the final court of appeal, a well-regulated financial services sector, a market economy and well structured and resourced professional firms which give speedy and efficient service. The fact the Union Jack flies over the territory is also important to a lot of investors. All this gives Cayman a competitive advantage but we must be careful that increases in the cost of doing business in Cayman do not erode this advantage.

In your experience, how difficult has it been to get that message across and where do you see the focus going forward?

The media constantly use Cayman as an example of a ‘tax haven’ where money can be deposited with no questions asked. This is not the case. Changing this perception is one of the most difficult jobs. While the Friends play an active role in defending Cayman’s interests as well as putting right some misconceptions, there is only so much the Friends can do. The Cayman Islands Government needs to have a more targeted and effective lobbying and media strategy in place in London. With the increasing pressure on Cayman and other off-shore financial centres by the US, UK, EU, and OECD I hope that the Cayman Islands Government is considering implementing a new international strategy for the financial services industry which needs to be as well resourced as Cayman’s tourism strategy. After all Cayman has proved itself to be a responsible member of the international financial services community. Cayman has a good story to tell.