Fri | Apr 12, 2024

Neil Smith: A third-generation force in the Shipping Association of Jamaica

Published:Tuesday | February 13, 2024 | 12:07 AM
Neil Smith is the CEO of the Shipping Services Group of Companies.
Neil Smith is the CEO of the Shipping Services Group of Companies.

NEIL SMITH continues a legacy that spans three generations in the Shipping Association of Jamaica’s (SAJ) managing committee. Raised in Florida, the Shipping Services Group of Companies chief executive spent summers working alongside his father, Erol Smith, and grandfather, Reginald Smith, providing him with a firsthand understanding of the maritime industry.

Joining the association’s Agents’ Committee marked a turning point in Smith’s career. His subsequent role as the SAJ’s representative at Jamaica Customs’ Quality Assurance Committee (QAC) meetings provided him with a broader perspective on how the industry interacts with regulatory bodies and importers.

Mentored by family members and industry figures like Ossie and Dean Osborne of Caribbean Ocean Logistics in Miami, his rise through the ranks culminated with his election to the SAJ’s managing committee (MC) last November.

“Becoming a member of the MC has always been near the top of my professional goals, becoming a third-generation MC member, like Charles Johnston, shows that I am on the right path,” Smith said.

His primary objective on the managing committee is to introduce a renewed perspective, based on his experience with technology, to improve efficiency and transparency. However, he is aware of the industry challenges that lie ahead, particularly in the banking and digital payments field.

Addressing these challenges, Smith emphasises the burdens faced by local agents due to taxation on US dollar (USD) deposits, limitations on cash deposits, and the costs associated with online payment processing. “I see banking in Jamaica and digital/online payments as the most crucial challenge facing the industry today. If the COVID era taught us anything, [it] is that face-to-face is not needed for the work to continue. First, the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) is charging depositors for depositing US dollars into their accounts. The main shipping currency used in Jamaica is USD, and a large portion of that money is repatriated back to the port of origin. Therefore, the local agents are being taxed for receiving funds in Jamaica; this expense cannot be absorbed by the agent and it is passed on to the importer.”

He continued, “Second, some commercial banks in Jamaica put limitations on how much cash can be deposited in a day, which then creates a security risk for the agent. This means increased security costs as well as increased bank fees. Third, with Jamaica Customs implementing the Contactless Clearance Process for non-commercial goods below US$5,000 in value come April 2024, the need for agents to receive payments online is critical to this process. Unfortunately, the cost for an agent to accept a credit card payment online ranges anywhere from three to eight per cent once credit card processor charges are added in.

“So, once again the agent is being asked to absorb this cost, because BOJ regulations do not allow the passing of this charge to customers. The agent is left with two options; raise their charges, which could make them non-competitive, or do not accept online payments, which will also make them non-competitive.”

He also highlighted the lack of a USD clearing house in Jamaica, resulting in additional fees for transferring funds between local banks.

Smith’s latest role positions him to tackle these challenges. As the representative at QAC meetings, he expects to gain insights not readily available elsewhere to help address concerns that may be overlooked in other spaces.

Beyond his personal goals, Smith offered this advice to aspiring shipping and logistics professionals: “Hold yourself accountable. Mistakes will happen, but what you do when you make a mistake will show your true character. Be part of the solution, don’t create more problems trying to cover up or pass the blame.”