Karen Darbasie, First Citizens' first female CEO, believes gender should not be a criteria for job selection and recruitment must be done based on skill.
"When I was selected for the role of Group CEO of First Citizens, the fact that I was to be the first female CEO of the group did not occur to me. In fact, I believe, and I am sure that this was the case here, that gender should not be a consideration in the selection process for any job and candidates should be evaluated on their skills and experience and what they will bring to the job," she told the Business Guardian last week Tuesday at First Citizens Corporate Centre, Queen's Park East, Port-of-Spain.
Despite this view, Darbasie said she is proud to be the first female CEO of the bank and argues that the glass ceiling for many women still has not been broken.
"Having said that, I am proud to be the first female CEO exactly because of the signal it sends to other women that they can and should always aspire to be the best they can and want to be in whatever sphere they are in.
"While I believe advances have been made, I would not say the 'glass ceiling' has been broken. I believe in many areas, women are held to a higher standard in order to get the recognition and advancement they deserve."
Darbasie succeeded Larry Nath, the immediate past CEO of First Citizens, who resigned suddenly in December 2014, for reasons that have never been fully explained.
She joined First Citizens on April 7 and has 21 years in banking in corporate and merchant banking.
Darbasie has a wide range of experience in the banking sector.
"Immediately before First Citizens, I was at Citibank in a combination of capacities. I had run the merchant bank since 1998 but I joined Citibank in 1994. I was head of merchant banking, country treasurer covering T&T, Barbados and the Bahamas and the market head which is a role that handles all of the trading products of the financial institution like foreign exchange, security and capital markets."
She said the treasury function taught her a great deal in terms of understanding how a bank operates and how its balance sheet is funded.
"Looking at the various activities that come into the bank and managing the bank's balance sheet is one of the key functions that has given me a lot of broad-scope experience that I will hope to bring," she said.
She added: "I now have the opportunity to grow what I think is a major, indigenous financial institution in T&T and the wider Caricom market."
Darbasie, 50, has two children and said she intends to stay at First Citizens until her retirement.
She has an engineering degree from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and worked in the engineering department of TSTT up until 1994. Citibank wanted an engineer with an MBA and Darbasie was hired to work at Citibank as she thought that her educational background blended well with what the bank wanted.
"If you look at my resume, I worked for two institutions all my life: Telco/TSTT and then Citibank. My plans are that this is where I am retiring from. I am planning to be here and to grow this institution," she said.
Darbasie's uncle was the late Frank Rampersad, who served as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. Her father Reynold Rampersad, rose to the position of PS in the Ministry of Finance.
Given her background, Darbasie admits she always wanted to make a contribution to public life well before taking up her position at First Citizens.
Darbasie believes that First Citizens offers more than basic banking services.
"First Citizens is a financial services provider. We are not just located in T&T. We are in Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent and we have a small operation in Costa Rica. The main shareholder of First Citizens is the Government of T&T but there is also public ownership through the IPO that was done a few years ago," she said.
She said the banking aspect is the main part that everyone knows about.
"We also have First Citizens Asset Management, we have the Trustee Services, First Citizens Investment Services and we have the brokerage entity. It is a full-service financial services provider that has the capacity to provide a full range of banking services and for all segments of the market: consumers, retail and commercial which is more of the middle-market type segment and then the corporate business.
"First Citizens is also involved in capital market transactions for big entities in T&T and in the wider Caribbean."
She also said First Citizens is open to customers from all walks of life, from the person who walks off the street into the bank to the corporate client.
"In First Citizens bank, we cover the general public through the retail banking network. We also cover the commercial space, and the corporate space so in the bank itself we provide services for the full range of clients.
"In First Citizens Investment Services, we deal with the investor part of the public and handling some of the investment opportunities that are available both again for individuals as well as for corporate.
"First Citizens Asset Management has a full range of clients that span from very small investors who put money in the money market fund up to large institutional investors who would deal with the institution. We want to be a full service provider for the cross section of clients of the community," she said.
She said First Citizens is the best rated indigenous bank in the Caribbean.
"Our investment grade rating with Moody's just reaffirmed we are the best rated indigenous bank. It is something that is critical to us, it is something that separates us from the competition."
She said being an indigenous, homegrown institution gives them a different perspective in the market.
"My stakeholders are not just my customers, my clients, my shareholders, but also the general public of T&T and to try to create the correct balance in all of those stakeholders in growing the institution and in doing the business that we do."
She argues that financial products created by First Citizens are no way inferior to anything created by foreign-owned banking institution.
"Trinidadians and Tobagonians are bright well-educated people. I can point people to the First Citizens electronic banking platform which I think is a superior product that offers solutions that is not just equivalent but superior in several aspects to offerings that are available from other institutions in the market. It is one of the points of pride that the institution has. It is locally grown platform that the bank has worked on over time. It is actually one of the pillars that we will be using going forward," she said.
This is as a result of banking that is now more Internet driven.
"This adds efficiency instead of brick and mortar. The platform allows our customers to access the services that we offer without getting out or leaving their homes. It provides a seamless service that customers can access from anywhere they are. This is one of the pillars for not just creating great customer service but for also creating efficiency for our customers," she said.
She assured customers that the financial group's online platforms are safe.
"Data privacy and compliance meet all the requirements and we make sure that the platform is secure from hacking and people's personal information is kept confidential."
Speaking about the last financial year, she said the bank's performance was very good.
According to the speech of First Citizens' chairman, Anthony Smart, at the annual general meeting in March, at the close of the financial year ending September 2014, First Citizens achieved a before-tax profit of $772.6 million, a 3.7 per cent increase over the $744.7 million profit the bank recorded in 2013.
The after-tax profit was $626.6 million. That is a 2.9 per cent growth compared to 2013.
Because she has just started, she said she is unable to be specific on some policy measures but noted that she is at the stage of speaking to all department heads.
"I am sitting with each of my business heads and their supporting teams to first understand their business and what we have done in the past that made us very successful, what ideas they have for the future, what opportunities they really see and then to try to take all these ideas that some up and collate them and see how we move forward," she said.
Speaking about future expansion of First Citizens, she said the bank is always looking for new opportunities.
"At this stage, I need to understand what is there first before I get started. I am really trying to understand exactly what makes the individual businesses successful and to take that information and look at it from a broader perspective with the executive management team.
"This First Citizens team is very experienced and I'll be leaning on all the experience that is there. It is that experience that has resulted in the success of that institution."
When asked if there are systems in place to prevent the scandal that erupted over the 2013 First Citizens IPO, she said corporate governance plays a critical part in First Citizens culture.
"I would say even prior to my coming in, the policies and procedures of the institution were reviewed by management and we are in the process of making sure that everything that was there is sufficient to address any future undertaking and to ensure that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity because we are the repository of clients' confidence.
"Clients' confidence in a bank is the most important single attribute that any of us can hope to keep and that is something that we fully intend to maintain and to ensure that all our corporate governance policies and procedures give everyone the confidence that integrity is being upheld."
When asked what is her position on what happened with the last IPO, she declined to give any specific comments as she said it occurred before she came to the bank.
"Firstly, all the information on that is already in the public domain. It is widely reported by the media and it is being looked at by everyone."