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Mar 23, 2004

New B.T.L. owner offers details of purchase

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To hear them tell it, it started simply enough. A conversation during a car ride in Mexico between one of Belize’s best friends, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and Prime Minister Said Musa. A single idea on the table: the Government of Belize’s desire to change the direction of a telecommunications scenario that just wasn’t going according to plan. That was September. Just six months later, the deal has been signed, sealed and is about to be delivered. But while the lawyers worked out the details and politicians engaged in open warfare, the man whose company, I.C.C., was buying Belize’s major telecom provider, B.T.L., remained well out of the spotlight. That is until today, when Jeffrey Prosser, having just made a hundred million U.S. dollar bet on Belize’s future, sat down for a chat with myself and News Director Stewart Krohn. Here are the highlights.

The story behind the deal

Jeffrey Prosser

“This transaction, certainly the holidays did not help the transaction. The unique relationship between B.T.L. and the ownership of B.T.L., and the government’s involvement in the purchase of the fifty-two percent; there were a lot of unique characters in this transaction which, I think given that, moved along relatively quickly. The government, I must say from the very beginning, was very upfront with I.C.C. The Prime Minister and Minister Fonseca. There certainly were no surprises. And whenever a company is making an acquisition of this size, of course you want to make sure you understand exactly what it is you are buying and what the good and the bad issues are and so it just took time.”

“This transaction and the way it moved forward, was driven by the government. It was not our choice of what we do. The government had it’s own reasons, quite candidly they are the government’s own reasons, I’m not privy to exactly what those reasons are really. But for us, it was fine. If the Government wanted to deal with Carlisle itself and Mr. Ashcroft, then I presume they had their reasons, and so that’s how the transaction went forward.”

New management?

Jeffrey Prosser

“Well clearly, the Carlisle people will go with Carlisle. The existing management however in B.T.L., we have said from when we started this transaction, and I’ll state it again, we do not purchase companies to bring in management. That is not our desire and we don’t do it.”

“The top management position, which of course right now is the gentleman who is an employee of Carlisle, clearly that will change. Do we have a name? No. Do we have a list of candidates at this point? No, we don’t. We really want to sit down with the existing senior management of B.T.L., find out what’s there, get our impressions of that. The only thing I can assure you is that whoever the general manager of B.T.L. is going to be, it will be a Belizean, it will not be somebody from outside of Belize.”

The issue of competition

Jeffrey Prosser

“Competition, unfortunately, usually results in service that is lesser quality, and ultimately since you are paying a number of different companies, I’m not for sure the customer ends up in a better position. I believe the companies end up in a better position with competition. I think companies make more money and customers, unfortunately, are the ones who foot that bill. And that’s happened I think in every jurisdiction you look at that has had real competition. So quite honestly we think with competition we’ll make more money, B.T.L. will make more money, not less.”

Will I.C.C. buy Intelco?

Jeffrey Prosser

“I’m not saying it hasn’t come up, but it hasn’t been, on our side, it certainly hasn’t been the top priority to us. The top priority to us is getting the interconnect rate which works for everybody so that that’s behind us, because that’s been such a hot political, it seems like, issue here, that’s where we are concentrating our effort. And clearly we want it to be something that Intelco, since they are the only other operating licensee here, are comfortable with if we can. It clearly doesn’t make sense to end up in a battle from the DAY YOU START.”

Did G.O.B. grant special concessions?

Stewart Krohn

“One of Mr. Ashcroft’s chief complaints when he was running B.T.L. was that the government had created a situation in which the playing field in telecommunications was not level. Following the agreement that you have reached with the Government of Belize, are you satisfied with the present gradient of the playing field?

Jeffrey Prosser

“Yes…Certainly from a tax standpoint I would tell you that B.T.L. is being treated no differently than any other company. If the question is, were we granted a hundred percent tax breaks away from taxes in Belize? The answer is no, we were not. The interconnect rates, I can’t give you details because at this point they are still being discussed. As I said earlier, we, and I think rightly so, the Public Utilities Commission is trying to say to Intelco and to B.T.L., if you all could come to an agreement on what you believe works, that’s a far better outcome than trying from the Public Utilities Commission standpoint, just trying to dictate what it is. And I personally, we certainly agree with that, because that’s normally the way it’s done in most jurisdictions. So I think that the way that is currently being handled in our view is the proper way and we are in discussion with Intelco to come to a joint resolution, and which I believe we absolutely will.”

A message to consumers

Jeffrey Prosser

“We believe that given the opportunity that we will turn B.T.L. into a company that people will be extremely happy with the service, extremely happy with the price they’re paying for that service, and we believe the employees of the company will ultimately be very pleased because all of a sudden, they are in an organisation that has telecommunications throughout the Caribbean, so they can be a lot of cross-training both inside of Belize and outside of Belize.”

What about the Opposition?

Jeffrey Prosser

“Actually, I look forward to sitting down with the Opposition party because I think that once they understand the transaction that they will understand, and I believe, will see that it is a very fair straight-forward transaction. It’s not a transaction where the government gave away this and that to try to get us to purchase the company. That’s just simply not true. And I think over time as they start to review and we have an opportunity to sit down the with Opposition party, I’m sure there’s going to be parts of the agreement they like and parts that they dislike as there are parts as they are parts I like and parts I dislike.”

In a press release issued today, the Opposition United Democratic Party condemned what it called “a number of giveaways” by government to I.C.C. and continued to threaten B.T.L.’s new owners with retroactive sanctions if and when the party returns to power. The U.D.P. called on government to immediately make public the text of the agreement signed with I.C.C.

Meanwhile, although the deal signed with government gives Prosser the shares formerly belonging to Carlisle Holdings and the Social Security Board, the remaining twenty-two percent of B.T.L. remains in the hands of hundreds of individual shareholders. Prosser told News 5 that he will offer them the same share price paid to Social Security. Claiming that new capital investment will prevent the payment of dividends for a number of years, he expressed the belief that existing shareholders would opt to sell.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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