PERFECT MATCH

Panama 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Samantha Whay, Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Panama, on building viable transnational networks and improving labor regulations to everyone's benefit.

 Samantha Whay
BIOGRAPHY
Samantha Whay has been on the board of the British Chamber of Commerce since 2013 and was voted president in January 2016. She has been involved in training since 1990 and is currently the training director for King’s College in Panama. She is responsible for all aspects of internal training along with growing the external consultancy business. Whay is also the leader of an extensive seven-year CSR training plan with the Ministry of Education in Panama designed to raise the overall competence and professionalism of English teaching staff throughout the country.

How is the chamber supporting the business climate here in Panama?

We are supporting it more and more. Each year we mature and develop as a chamber, though we are still young. We consolidated our membership in 2016 and have approximately 150 members now. This year we are looking at having international members, which has just been approved at the board level. This is for people who are not in Panama but are interested in building relationships. We have the option now for people overseas to become members of the British Chamber. We have also worked closely in trying to find out exactly what kind of support our members want. We had the opportunity of working with UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) on a project supplying business intelligence to a company looking to enter Panama. That kind of service is something we want to expand on to give people more contacts and knowledge about what the market is like and what opportunities exist.

What are the main factors that make the chamber a reliable platform for its members?

The fact that the British Chamber of Commerce works closely with the British Embassy here is a reliable factor. The ambassador has an honorary position on our board, and we work closely with UKTI. The government's long-term idea is for UK chambers around the world to start working even closer with the UKTI and the trade industry branch and take on some of these responsibilities. Things like trade missions and business intelligence are what we are slowly moving into. That the chamber is linked to the embassy forces the chamber to be transparent, open, and rigid in its practices

What are the main obstacles investors face in Panama?

There is a lot to be done regarding employment laws. It is a hub and open for international business, but at the same time there are still protected professions and restrictions on the amount of foreign employees a company can have. Sometimes it is difficult with the gap in skills we have spoken about. We cannot get the qualified people here that we need. I do not know whether there could be a change in the law that would oblige foreigners to train locals before phasing out the foreigners. That could enable a plan reducing those percentages over a period of time and would be fantastic. But if we have those limits right from the beginning, and the know-how is not there, it can be quite difficult to establish a business.

Panamanian imports from the UK were valued at USD265 million in 2015 between vehicles, beverages, spirits, and pharmaceuticals. Is there room for growth?

Absolutely, and that is one of the fantastic things about Panama. There are still lots of gaps between supply and demand in terms of goods and services. Panama is a country of opportunity, but there are still a lot of gaps in what it can offer. Panama itself does not produce many things, so there are definitely also manufacturing opportunities here. In logistics there are big plans for Colón. Panama Pacífico is a member of the Chamber, and the developers there have great opportunities for growth. There is also room for retail, especially supermarkets.

What is the position of Panamanian women in the country's business world?

It is higher in this government than the previous one. There are some very impressive businesswomen here, and comparably little sexism. Latin cultures can appear quite machista from the outside, but when you dig deeper it is the women who drive the country. It is a matriarchal society, and I am amazed at the capacity of work that Panamanian women have. They are also major drivers at the other end of the economy: business.