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Zane de Silva MP: Discussing the Bermudan Economy, Investments, Superyachts, and Success in Politics

Updated: Apr 26

Interview



Zane de Silva is a Bermudan Member of Parliament under the Progressive Labour Party and has held various Ministerial positions. In 2009, he was appointed Minister Without Portfolio and then in 2010 was appointed Minister of Health. He held Bermuda’s first ‘Health Financing Summit’ and after a brief hiatus in opposition, Zane was appointed Minister of Tourism and Transport. He has had a long and successful career, and is President and CEO of Island Construction Services Ltd., a highly profitable business.


Note: This interview was recorded on October 17, 2023


Premier David Burt has praised Bermuda as ‘the best place in the world’ to set up international business companies – but can you highlight some of the ways that the government is helping to attract foreign investment to the island?


ZDS: Oh, that’s a loaded question because there are many factors that make Bermuda attractive. One is, I think you're aware that we have a very relaxed tax system, it's not totally tax-free – people always refer to Bermuda as a tax haven, which isn’t true – but I think what people find is that when they operate businesses in Bermuda, we don't have any income tax. We import everything. So, we get our money from import taxes, from tourists coming to the island, and, of course, our international business sector.


But how do we make it attractive? Quite simply, I think what attracts a lot of people to Bermuda outside of not having income tax is our people, our beauty, our safety, our cleanliness, and our infrastructure. I don't know if you've travelled the Caribbean, but I have been all over, and no one gets near us in terms of our cleanliness, our people or infrastructure.


It’s also incredibly safe for businesses. You might hear Bermuda on the news a lot when it comes to hurricanes, but actually, all of the homes in Bermuda are made out of concrete. So, you see the devastation in other parts of the world, like the Caribbean and in Florida and South Carolina, when they get hit by hurricanes. We don't have that. We might have a lot of tree damage, and I think we've lost maybe two lives in our history to hurricanes. And that was only because some people went out and they tried to cross a bridge in the middle of a of a really strong hurricane. But otherwise, Bermuda is safe. And it's extremely safe for tourists!


Just a quick question on your own company – Island Construction - you’ve got an impressive business track recordand , and you’ve had a great career in politics. Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences working in Bermuda, and secondly, what drew you towards politics?


ZDS: Well, my company's name is Island Construction. But we don’t do any construction, believe it or not! So, what happens is we primarily focus on excavation, demolition, landscaping, and we have the largest container haulage company on the island. We supply aggregate from the only hard rock quarry on the island, we do project management, but we actually don't do any construction. What we do is we work with a lot of construction companies.


We might be the developer, but we sometimes sub that out to construction companies. Now we have all the supporting services that a construction company needs: excavators, trucks, aggregate, all of that. So, we actually don't do any construction. It’s funny because in Bermuda, we get calls every day from people asking for prices to build onto their houses, asking for construction services, or saying “I've got a lot of land, we wanna construct a new home” – and we have to tell them!


But why did I get into politics? Well, as I got older in life, when I hit probably my early to mid-thirties, I started taking more of an interest – I didn’t have an interest in politics whatsoever before that. But as I got older, and I got involved more and more in business, I started to pay attention to the political landscape and, and I started taking more of an interest in it. I floated the idea of getting involved around for a few years, and then I decided if I did, it would have to be with the Progressive Labour Party. Based on my lifestyle, and my background – I came from a family of very humble beginnings and didn’t have anything – so as I got older, the Labour Party seemed to be the only party I could see myself getting involved with. And most of the people I knew tended to belong to that party. So, to me, it was just a natural fit.


Now, the unique and strange thing about me, not only joining the Progressive Labour Party, but actually throwing my hat in the ring to become a candidate and then going on to win the seat, is that I’m white. I'm the only white member of Parliament for the Progressive Labour Party. So, it's very unique. I’m also more heavily involved in business than most other members of the Progressive Labour Party, and I’ve been very successful in those ventures.


So, to answer your question - that's why I chose the Progressive Labour Party, and that's what got me into politics. And I've held several ministerial posts, and I’ve enjoyed it. The last couple of years have been tough - as you may know that my daughter and I went to court, and the police charged us for giving false information to police. But I sued the police commissioner and won that case - the Chief Justice ruled that my daughter's arrest, the search of a home and of my business, and her imprisonment were all unlawful. So, we won. It's been tough on my family, but we worked together, and we got through it, and hopefully all of that is behind us.


You were Minister of Tourism at one point, and of course tourism is a key industry in Bermuda – according to government statistics, direct tourism and tourism-related activities brought in over $680 million in 2022. But the number of tourists from both air and cruises has still to recover to its pre-pandemic levels – what steps is the government taking to recover this vital industry?


ZDS: Well, the Premier and our current Tourism Minister, along with our Cabinet and back-bench, have been pushing a joint effort between all of us. What we are doing is we're advertising like crazy. We have the Bermuda Tourism Authority and we're trying to promote the island. As you know, in in another couple of weeks, we'll be hosting the PGA Tournament, the Bermuda Championships for - I think - the fifth year now in a row. So we are really continuing to attack it from all angles.


Ultimately, if we are successful and we continue to be successful with international business and finance, then word will spread. We want Bermuda to be the island people tell their friends about. They'll bring their family. So that attracts tourists to the island. Likewise, our sports events do attract people to the island; whether it be the PGA, the rugby, or the sailing, which is becoming more popular – as it should be considering we’re surrounded by water! But to support this, we are encouraging as many hotel developments as we can.


Similarly, the relationship with the cruise lines is very strong. We are one of the most sought-after cruise destinations in the world. So, we continue to support them, to support us.


And we're giving concessions to anyone who wants to get in tourism-related industries. Whether it be bars or restaurants that have a tourist-related events, we give them concessions and all sorts of tax breaks. So, we're attacking it from a lot of different angles.


I think we were on track to actually surpass pre-pandemic numbers in terms of the cruise arrivals. It’s also important to note that our biggest hotel has been shut for three years. The Fairmont Southampton. It’s now been bought by new owners and we're hoping that they can put shovels in the ground before this year is over. Because if they do that, they have a very aggressive planned timeline to get it renovated and open by Spring 2025. Once that happens, I think we’ll see tourist numbers increase.


You changed legislation around superyachts, and the industry has been championed as a lucrative opportunity to diversify Bermuda’s economy. You have personally led delegations to encourage more superyacht visits - could you explain why is this such a big economic opportunity for the island?


ZDS: Yes, when I was Minister of Tourism, I did change legislation so that anyone that had a superyacht, or wanted to rent a superyacht would spend more time in our country. Because the laws we had were antiquated. So, we changed the laws so these people could stay for lengthier periods of time. But also, I am someone that’s spent lots of time on superyachts travelling the world. I know the benefits that it brings to economies. These yachts have to be refuelled, but also, you wouldn’t believe how much money is spent on something as small as flowers in a superyacht every single day. A lot of the superyachts spend thousands of dollars over a couple of weeks just on flowers.


Not only that – if one person comes from the superyacht industry, they talk. So, if they have a great experience in Bermuda, and they can stay here and enjoy themselves and the amenities that we have, then they're going to spread the word. And that is why we changed the legislation, so that they can stay here longer. Now they don't have to worry about excessive duties that were pinned on superyachts in the past.


I went to Monaco to the biggest yacht show which they have every year, and we pushed Bermuda and our product. So, it's slowly getting better. We see more and more superyachts coming. And I think in the future, we'll see that number increase a lot.


Climate Change is an incredibly relevant issue for governments and corporations around the world, but specifically so in Bermuda and the Caribbean nations – can you tell me a bit about any key initiatives that the government is leading to tackle these problems?


ZDS: I can't speak too much to this one, but I will tell you what I do know. A lot of our international businesses that are located in Bermuda are very much supportive of climate campaigns. We all know that climate change is a problem, and these companies are very green-minded. We have a Minister who's totally committed to green causes, and he is looking at all sorts of avenues regarding our surrounding waters and what we can do to help tackle the issue and protect our oceans. So that's one key campaign, and we’re pushing education in schools to ensure our children are aware of the problems.


Also though, our Minister of Transport has continued a programme that I introduced of electrifying our island’s fleet of buses. We have right now, I think, about 45-50 of our buses that are electric. And we're looking at electrifying the whole fleet within the next ten years.


But we are also trying to encourage the car dealers and companies that bring in electric cars; we're giving them reductions and duties and things like that. So, between the government and international businesses that are on the island, there are many ways we are pushing towards our climate goals.


So, changing the angle a little bit back onto your personal experiences again, you were Minister of Health, and you held Bermuda’s first-ever ‘Health Financing Summit’. You also spearhead the National Health Plan consultation paper. So, a bit of a loaded question here but how would you say that these initiatives have contributed to the quality of health care services on the island overall?


ZDS: I think it’s important to note that like all countries, we struggle with health care – it’s such a key issue. We have a very good healthcare system with regard to looking after our people, and we have very good hospitals. It’s right up there in global rankings in terms of the quality and expertise in the hospital.


Now, unfortunately, the National Health Plan that I revealed, in early 2011-2012, was scrapped. We lost the election in December 2012, and the new government came in and just put it all on the shelf. It was a shame, because, if I remember correctly, we had about six or seven different working groups with about 670 people involved in these working groups. It was a really diverse and representative cross-section of people from all industries and social groups. It was probably one of the most diversified groups of people that have been gathered for a government initiative for our health care system ever in the country.


So, I was very disappointed that that got shelved. But, of course, we won again in 2017, and our current Health Minister is improving the situation. She's taken a lot of that information, put it to use, and I think she's close to introducing something new for the people in the country in the early part of next year.


Now, I’m really intrigued about your own experiences in government and political life. What do you see as the next steps in your career, if I can ask – can I have some insight into your political aspirations in the country?


ZDS: Well, let me just say first off that I've enjoyed my last three years being out of Cabinet, because Cabinet, it's a lot of work. If you enjoy the job, and you actually want to do a good job and make changes, it’s hard work. It takes a lot of your time, and especially me, because I have business interests outside of that. So, my life while in Cabinet was hectic. I mean, you go from 4:30 in the morning to, you know, 10-11 at night. So, it was a very hectic time. And I've enjoyed the time out of Cabinet, just to concentrate on business and have some time for myself, even though as backbenchers we are still pretty busy.


But that being said, I did have aspirations to be Premier of the country a few years back that I have since shelved. But I did recently have a chat with the Premier and I told him, when he resigns, depending on where we are and who we have involved in the party, that I will likely put my hat in the ring for Premier. So, who knows, you might you could be talking to the future Premier of the country.


One last question, if I may. You’ve clearly had a very successful career in politics and business, and so I’m curious if you could share any leading principles that have guided you with your work through your career?


ZDS: Well, to answer that, I actually have a little box on my desk, and it was given to me many years ago – on the outside, etched in, it says ‘The Secret to Success’. But what does it say inside? ‘Work’.


I think that’s the most important thing. If there’s anything that I could tell you about, whether it's my political life, my personal life, or my business life, it’s that you only get out of something that you put in. I don’t know why Toby, but at a young age, when I was 18-19, I started looking at how the world works. I got kicked out of school at 16. I went to work and, you know, I got my first job. I was making $50 a week, and my rent was $200 a month. So, you do the math on that. It just didn’t work with all my daily bills.


So, I very quickly learned that I needed a second job to be able to survive. At one stage, I had five jobs even. And then when I was maybe around 20 years old, I started to save money like crazy. I realised that I was paying rent, and one day I said: ‘I don't wanna keep paying rent. I want to be like my landlord. I want to own houses for myself.’ So I just started working like crazy, working day and night and saving like a madman. Then eventually I bought my own house at 28. Then I came to Island Construction to work where my biological father started the company I am now President, CEO and majority shareholder of, and I didn't think I would be here long, but I fell in love with the company and the rest is history.


Ultimately, I’m an entrepreneur. And that work ethic has driven my career in both politics and business. Everyone has their own ways of getting to certain places, but everyone has to work at the end of the day. That’s the key to your success.


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