Lamar Harris — on the path of what's next for the financial services sector

Observer writer

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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You can count on one hand the number of women who head financial institutions in Jamaica. Lamar Harris, CEO of Stocks & Securities Limited (SSL) is in that group.

With the entire financial services community in hyper-competitive mode now that the easy money from repurchase agreements is a thing of the past, about bringing in new customers, making deals and motivating the team to go the extra mile because customers simply have lots of choices.

In addition to the competition between financial institutions for retail customers, there is even greater competition to bring new companies to market via initial public offerings (IPO), which means that high net worth business owners are also being courted aggressively and have a choice with whom to do business.

Yet Harris would appear to thrive in the competitive world that requires 80-hour work weeks and a sales-driven mindset. With a new account open rate of 30 per cent backed by an average minimum account open of less than $20,000, Harris's team at SSL is also thriving in competition.

So at the launch of the Everything Fresh IPO, the Jamaica Observer sat down with Harris to understand her views on what is new and what is next in the financial services industry.

First up is technology: “An amazing fintech platform is coming from SSL by the summer. We believe that we live in a market where, if you don't give investors their own platform, you will be left behind. When most people live on their cellphones, you need to know how to reach people. I want SSL to be the Google of finance. Everything Fresh is the first IPO where people can use their point-of-sale machine and their debit cards to buy stocks. The younger generation is more investing savvy and we want to connect with them in a big way.”

What does fintech in Jamaica mean for investment banking careers? Harris explained, “This means that our team has to be staffed by technology savvy people who are willing to grow. You would be surprised at how many of the team is looking to do their master's in technology. Then for clients, the benefits of fintech are ease of investing and information and without losing a person to speak to. My older clients who want the personal touch are still being catered for.”

In terms of what is next, Harris shared, “We have been quiet due to restructuring.”

Recently, SSL announced that it had activated its dormant SSL Barbados arm to focus on deal making which would be headed by former SSL Jamaica CEO Mark Croskery. Harris was promoted from general manager to CEO of SSL Jamaica. The company also established a real estate investment arm and strengthened its Dolla brand through new management. Further, Croskery shared that under the new management structure, all CEOs would have an equity stake in the company as part of their compensation.

Harris continued, “Additionally, we have been busy on the investment banking arena, yet because our clients require confidentiality, you haven't heard much about that. However, it is an exciting time at SSL, in terms of the deals we have been making.”

Harris continued, “The entrepreneurial culture is rising in Jamaica and you can see that with the IPOs in the last couple years. We find that young, bright people are bubbling in their 20s and 30s and it is exciting to be a part of that as an investment banker. For us, we see that now in Jamaica, it is about being an owner and not an employee. In this job as CEO, I get to see entrepreneurs emerge and we have plans to work with and develop entrepreneurs in Jamaica and that is an exciting new chapter for SSL.”

And what is driving it? Low interest rates? Harris believes that the activities of Silicon Valley and technology stocks have driven the acceptance of equities as part of the corporate strategy in Jamaica.

“This generation has seen the Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google stocks, and if it is possible there in the US, why not me here in Jamaica? It is not just low interest rates as these are the same people who are having issues getting financing from the banker. And for the investors, their money is earning nothing really as we are in an environment of low interest rates, high bond prices. So this perfect storm is pushing investors to seeking alternatives for their money. It is high time we build brand Jamaica beyond tourism; we have the strongest financial sector in the region so let's own it and give entrepreneurs and investors greater options.”

What this translates to is SSL viewing growth from a regional perspective.

Harris continued, “There is a lot of need for alternative investments. We see where, especially in certain sectors, that clients need to invest in a fund where the experts manage the money. I see more managed funds investing rather than taking the risk of a segregated security.”

And in terms of what else is next for the SSL family, Harris explained, “The key is the unit trust/mutual fund business model. It protects the individual investor; they don't left out of missing a trade and they get the expertise that is needed.”

SSL has been on this path since October 2015 and it paid off in terms of new account open rates. Harris said, “We have been going out to companies and speaking to the staff at least twice per week. Our view is to let us sit and chat about investment. For us, financial freedom is about financial literacy and debunking the myths. You can do the research and see that in any society that has done well, the people have had access to the stock market. What we realise is that the financial sector has done a good job in Jamaica telling us that we have to save, but not that we have to invest. The average Jamaican needs to understand what investment means to their financial stability and future.”

Harris is very passionate not only about what is new and next for SSL but on the power of self-determination.

“It's not where you start, it's where you are going,” Harris said. “My background is where one my grandmothers sold in Coronation market, and so I have seen the struggle. I understand how having focus can improve your life. My grandmother worked and put six children through university, and that is my inspiration.”

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