Ex-chief financial officer: ‘I was fired after making TSTT profitable’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Shiva Ramnarine, TSTT’s former chief financial officer. –

TSTT’s former CFO Shiva Ramnarine said on Monday that after turning around the struggling company, he and former CEO Lisa Agard were fired instead of being celebrated. He was speaking at the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on State Enterprises chaired by Anthony Vieira on the topic, TSTT handling of cyber security breach.

Ramnarine alluded to corruption within TSTT despite his scrutiny once saving it millions of dollars in a single deal. He urged the JSC to probe incompetence, nepotism and other issues at TSTT.

Ramnarine said when he joined TSTT, the company had amassed a $3 billion debt and was haemorrhaging money, including $300 million in interest payable on the debt.

“At the same time the company was losing about $1 billion in revenue, just by the nature of the industry.

“TSTT was operating at a cash-loss position of $30 million per month, that is $360 million a year.”

Saying back then TSTT had no future, he recalled that harsh decisions had been needed, by robustly managing spending. “The decisions that were made were a shock to the culture of TSTT.”

Ramnarine said TSTT called in its suppliers (vendors) to renegotiate their rates, with audit consultants Ernst and Young (E&Y) reducing one charge of $90 per hour to a market rate of $50.

“Vendors’ profitability moved down by $36 million. TSTT saved $36 million on that one transaction.

“Was there animosity between vendor and TSTT – people imposed at TSTT working with those vendors? Absolutely! Relationships with board members and those vendors? Absolutely!”

He said that was just one example, and he could give countless examples.

“The former CEO (Lisa Agard) knows very well the threats that I would have received from vendors indirectly, directly.” He said TSTT had been unable to make that cultural shift.

“Networks and IT (department) cost was roughly 14-15 per cent of revenue. That is higher than the industry average.” He said E&Y had found “redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy” and had cut that cost by half. “That as the culture and it was a shock when people like myself walked in and say ‘no’. We could optimise wastage; we could stop the unnecessary spending.

“But these are legacy vendors with persons working at TSTT in the Networks and IT Department and elsewhere for more than 20 years. Think about those relationships.

“So were we undermined? Absolutely!” Ramnarine said his efforts were made amid opposition by the board.

“And this is something I want to absolutely clear, so that everyone is certain about what I am saying here.

“Where else in the world does a CFO and CEO walk up to the board and say, ‘Listen, we need to cut costs, we need to optimise wastage’, and it is met without favour? It is met with discord (and) we now have to justify why we want to cut costs. Bizarre, to say the least.” He said in all companies he had ever worked for, it had been the opposite.

Ramnarine said undermining had occurred at board level and on every front. He said under procurement rules, a $16 million legacy contract had been awarded to a fresh bidder at $13 million.

He said some vendors abuse emergency-spend requests so as to bypass the process. “We have a member of the board of directors who has a company who was the successful recipient of contracts through emergency spend. That was stopped during my tenure.”

He said in the last one and a half years, “significant hostility” had been directed at him and likely also Agard.

Saying they both had achieved a remarkable feat in turning around TSTT, Ramnarine said they should be celebrated. “We are both sitting here unemployed.”

Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh asked if he felt vulnerable to personal attacks, he replied no, despite noting the “super normal” profits that vendors had been making.

“A company is returned to profitability against all odds, and the architects are terminated.

“Could it be that elevation of poor-performance individuals paved the way for a feeding frenzy for board members, vendors and staff?

“This is my sincere concern after the work done to rehabilitate and remediate TSTT’s financial position.”