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A different look at life

Catherine Kumar decides to take it easy
Published: 
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Catherine Kumar says of her life now: “I am going at a slower pace, I am going to focus on different things.” PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

“It wasn’t really retirement,” said Catherine Kumar, who recently stepped down as CEO of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce. “It definitely wasn’t about age. It was fully a decision of mine.”

Or rather, Kumar said, it was the Lord’s calling that it was time to move on. The plan was to spend two years at the helm of the organisation. Instead, she overstayed by five years. Gabriel Faria, former managing director at Guardian Media Limited, has since replaced her.

Her sudden illness in 2015 may have been also been a contributing factor in her decision to leave.  Last year, during a PLOTT (Powerful Ladies of T&T) meeting, it was announced that Kumar had undergone surgery for a cerebral aneurysm. 

Word spread quickly on social media and it was assumed by many that Kumar collapsed at work because the aneurysm had ruptured. 

It was a doctor’s examination, following a headache complaint, that led to its discovery. An immediate MRI and MRA detected a blood clot in her brain. Weeks after the invasive surgery, which took place at St Clair Medical, a photo showing that she voted at the last general elections brought relief to her social media friends. 

As if that was not scary enough, another aneurysm was found after the first surgery. That was also dealt with.

“I have endless prayers stored up in heaven. My walk with God is very strong,” Kumar said. 

Months after she returned to work at the Chamber, she initiated conversations with the president and told him it was time for her to go.

“Sometimes we don’t realise how fragile life is. You are never granted a tomorrow. We go on living invincible,” she said. 

“My body has the ability to work for long hours. I would go to a meeting at 7 am and still be in office at 7 pm, then go home, dress and to go a party. I have a type A personality,” she laughed. 

“I have been described as a workaholic but I am very flexible, that helped me a lot. In spite of all the long hours I found time.”

Now that she has time on her hands Kumar has found other things to do. She still volunteers with the Chamber committee that focuses on SMEs and is still on the Debate Commission. 

Next month she travels to the US to visit the National Democratic Institute on behalf of the Commission. She was not happy that hard work and effort were skittled—twice—in the attempt to host debates between the rival political leaders, although the debates took place during the last Local Government Elections. Also on her agenda: being more involved with the women’s group at the church she attends, Faith Open Love and returning to yoga. Most important, she said, is spending more time with her aunt, siblings, and particularly her 22-year-old daughter, who is studying in Canada.

“My life will be a lot broader now. I don’t want to have the responsibility for job, staff, bottom-line. Not even chairman of a State enterprise. I am going at a slower pace, I am going to focus on different things,” Kumar said.

Kumar’s pace in the corporate landscape was one to keep up with. Before her position as Chamber CEO, Kumar was at the helm of RBTT before its complete immersion under the RBC brand. 

As CEO/Country Head at RBTT, she fulfilled a goal which she had at 27 years old after her earlier experiences at Barclays Bank (now Republic Bank) and Scotiabank: “To become the leader of a large commercial banking organisation.” 

But her appointment was in the headlines for more than success. Prior to her move to the bank, Kumar was at the Central Bank in the position of Inspector of Financial Institutions and it was the view by some that her former position would have accompanied insider knowledge at her new place of work. Kumar said her responsibility was for insurance companies.

“When I went to the Central Bank interview, they were interested in my insurance experience. At that time, Government felt the regulatory supervision from the Ministry of Finance was not satisfactory. It had a weak system, so the regulation was passed for Central Bank to take responsibility for it. I did actual inspections, I met with management of the insurance companies. One of my highlights was doing the receiver process for a weak insurance company. The process was quite cumbersome.”

In addition, Kumar contributed to the development of the Insurance Bill which is yet to be passed in Parliament. She said the Bill was holding back the Central Bank from creating a proper structure to develop the industry. That, she said, was her disappointment when she left because she didn’t achieve what she wanted to do.

“The Governor (Ewart Williams) was disappointed that I decided to leave. But I felt comfortable in going,” Kumar said.

Her role at RBTT made her the first woman leading a bank at top level. She said she was glad to take the lead in the bank’s decision making, ensure the provision of bank debt was in order and interact with the other CEOs in neighbouring jurisdictions. However, the acquisition by RBC Canada made her reconsider. 

“It is just because I wanted to be in the driver’s seat. I didn’t want that for my life—decisions were being made at RBTT above me and I didn’t want to be an executor,” Kumar said.

Having spent 18 years at Algico (American Life and General Insurance Company, now known as Pan American Life), Kumar understood what it was like to work with a foreign-owned company that gave executive orders from its home base. Her experience there was also her pivot point.  

“I was the financial comptroller. Brian Kuei Tung was managing director (before he was Minister of Finance in the UNC Administration). The company kept having a vacancy at CEO level and I acted but was never given the position,” she said. 

“I asked the new CEO ‘Why? What was holding me back?’ And he said I have to be more people oriented—be outside the industry.”

Her response to that was joining the American Chamber of Commerce in 1995, when the association was three years old. Five years later, she was AmCham president. She was also on the board of directors for WASA and Petrotrin. 

“It’s really from there people knew the voice of Catherine, speaking out on behalf of the country, business and women,” Kumar said. 

“Then, it was difficult for women to get to executive level, harder at a board level. I was the first woman president at AmCham, I helped mentor a lot of women. More than ever, we have a lot to offer in leadership. As women we have to do it that much better than men and it’s a sad thing.”

In an interview with UWI Today around the time she was conferred an honorary LLD from the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2014, Kumar attributed her independence at the workplace to family values. She said her parents focused and left her siblings with sound values and the desire to be educated. 

Particularly, she said at the time, her father wanted his daughters to be independent—this, coming from a man who was born in India where women were often the subalterns. 

Looking back at her personal experience, Kumar said she faced really big challenges. She also admitted she made some mistakes. Based on these encounters, she encourages women colleagues and peers to make time for life outside the office. 

“No matter if you are married, you have to make time with your husband,” she said. As a mother raising her daughter Cian alone, Kumar was grateful for her mother’s and other family support. 

“As a developing country, we have advantages. One of the things we should not lose sight of is the extended family. Cian did not feel alone, there was always somebody. But anything that was important, I did not miss,” she said.

Kumar does not look at her departure from active corporate and national duty not as the last chapter in her book of work. “It was an innings well played,” she said. 

“Lots of people were able to see a level of success. Just like Brian Lara, I’m not ready yet to put up the bats. That is how I see myself.”

MORE INFO
Catherine Rukmini Kumar is the daughter of Ranjit Kumar, the man from India who introduced Indian films to T&T country, and the civil engineer responsible for the creation of Wrightson Road. 
• She is the second of nine children. 
• She has BSc in Management from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. 
• She is a Fellow of the ACCA.
• 2009: Inducted into the Hall of Excellence at St Joseph’s Convent POS for outstanding achievements in business.
• Recipient of one of 50 awards given by UWI, St Augustine on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
• 2014: Conferred the Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) by UWI, St Augustine
• 2015: Received the national award: Medal for the Development of Women (Gold)
• As CEO of TTCIC: She initiated the Code of Political and Ethical Conduct to assess parties and their behaviour; suggested diversification of the economy and the development of legislation; placed focus on SME development to diversify and jump-start the economy; extended the Hall of Fame to include Champions of Business so that medium-sized business could grow.

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