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“Renewable energy has taken off much faster than we could ever have hoped”

Interview - May 20, 2014
Mora Ven Holdings is one of the main players in Trinidad and Tobago’s energy sector. Primarily involved in the oil and gas industry – it will be drilling 2-3 new offshore wells in 2014 – the company is also diversifying to renewables through its subsidiary Solaris Energy. Chairman of the group George Nicholas III talks to United World
Last year, Mora Ven Holdings produced a profit before tax of $8.8 million for the nine months ending September 30. Revenue grew by 85 per cent compared to the same period in 2012, to what do you attribute the rapid growth and success of your company in Trinidad and Tobago over the years?
We have been successful due to skilled and strong management and stable government, an essential ingredient in a small country. Looking ahead we have a Ministry of Energy that is very forward-thinking, and they have given very good fiscal incentives that have encouraged us to drill and so this year, we’ll be drilling 2-3 new wells offshore.  The present government has made very bold investments in terms of stabilizing the economy.  We had an economic slowdown in 2008 after the Global Economic crisis which was exacerbated in Trinidad and Tobago because of the CL Financial issue, which affected many local companies.  The economy has now turned around under the stewardship of the government, and we are seeing growth and the lowest level of unemployment that we’ve ever had.
When comparing Mora Ven with other large groups operating within oil and gas, what really sets you apart?
There are not many things that differentiate companies in the oil sector, as there are rigid and proven methods for producing so we comply with those regulations, engaging with skilled US advice and experience and relying on much US expertise in Trinidad.  The new sciences for oil development and of course fracking are things developed by the US and we are keen learners.
The relationship with the US has always been strong in the Oil and gas sector, but the US is becoming energy independent with their recent shale discoveries.  How much do you feel US energy independence has impacted the oil and gas sector?
It hasn’t really impacted us because there have not been any changes in the laws for exportation of oil and gas to the US.  When the US begins exporting gas we may have more competition, however, we sell to many other countries like China and the UK, so we are confident for the future.
Your group is also diversifying into renewable energy; can you tell us more about this diversification strategy?
This started with an acquisition, about 6 years ago, of a company in Barbados, which had been in the renewable energy business for 34 years.  With their experience, we added capital and brought in highly experienced people to grow the renewable energy portfolio.  The company is called Solaris, and it’s now based in Miami and is expanding rapidly across the USA.
There is huge potential in the manufacturing sector here in Trinidad and Tobago.  With the silica sand available in Guyana, do you see potential for producing solar panels here in the country?
To manufacture doesn’t make much sense because the Chinese are already making solar panels cheaply and efficiently. It would be difficult, unfortunately to match that cost in Trinidad.
What is your strategy in the US market with Solaris products?
We’ve benefited through the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which provides us with duty free access to the US market for most goods.  This has therefore allowed us to export our products into the US competitively, especially with Solaris products.  Much credit for Solaris Energy’s innovation goes to our company pioneer Vincent McClean who was first awarded a patent for an evacuated solar collector.  Since then we have implemented a comprehensive solar product line which we are currently commercializing with an emphasis in California and New Jersey and soon in New York. We continue working on new products: the company also has worldwide patent pending products for global distribution. 
Trinidad and Tobago has a strategic location, connecting north and South America, how do you see the country being positioned as a hub, do you think the right framework has been put in place to service the region?
Our former Prime Minister Honorable ANR Robinson began an economic restructuring program which brought us to where we are today.  We are a very agile economy, the natural leader in the Caribbean. In terms of competitiveness and our ability to work to US standards we are i believe second to none.  We also have the advantage of being able to host large US offshore companies, so it’s a natural place for big companies to outsource too.  In Solaris Energy we have a staff of almost 100 people working Globally on the design and logistics of all of our products.  From here in Port of Spain we support our entire network, servicing the US, Kenya, Nigeria, and other markets.
Given the fast growth Solaris Energy has had, do you think MoraVen Holdings will invest in other areas of renewable energy?
Renewable energy has taken off much faster than we could ever have hoped.  We have built the largest solar project in NJ, which finished last year, now we have our own suppliers in Nigeria.  Solaris Energy is the only renewable energy company that is owned locally and is, through Mora Ven Holdings, listed on the local stock exchange; the only local company in the energy sector. Mora Ven will continue its pursuit of the renewable sector and is constantly looking at and analyzing new renewable energy opportunities that will work in the Region.   
When looking at the whole group, what would you say have been the greatest achievements?  
For us, it has been the advancement in seismic analysis which has allowed us to image and understand much more clearly the potential reserves we have and therefore will better guide our drilling.  In the solar company, we’re the largest solar manufacturer of thermal products which produces hot water and photovoltaic products which produces power for all uses whether in homes or in public buildings.  We have supplied and fitted out almost every hotel in Barbados.  We have grown throughout the Caribbean, and are now looking for partners to develop extra-regionally.  Renewable energy is a US$1.5 Trillion industry, and we are focused on being a large part of that growth.
The group recently celebrated the grand opening of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Port of Spain, can you tell us about this exciting investment?
The Radisson is a stylish, high-end product for the business traveler.  In my view, Port-of-Spain is a capital city ready to expand.  As you look around, you will see many new buildings.  You see many new apartments and condominiums and a great variety of restaurants.  This is a city waiting to "happen".  With the stable structure that we have both politically and fiscally, people are coming to relocate here.  It is a safe place to invest.  We have $5 billion USD in a Heritage Fund (similar to the Norway fund) so as a nation we are well placed.  We are also well placed for businesses who wish to resettle and cut costs with competitive corporate and personal taxation business conditions are most favorable.  Ultimately, cost is what wins.  By basing in Trinidad you can cut overhead costs significantly and be supported by a well educated intelligent hard working and committed workforce .  
When you look at Port-of-Spain as a city for business in the Caribbean:  What do you think are the advantages and the challenges?
This is a City where businessmen, people who are there to make money and prosper, are doing well and therefore they are able to set out to serve the region from a most advantageous position.  Whilst there is not much tourism there therefore is a different mindset connected with getting and doing the job, well. This country is a Nation of creators, builders, and manufacturers, we have a long tradition and people are gradually coming here from the different Islands.  We think Trinidad will do well especially if we continue to make extra investment in Port-of-Spain in accordance with American and European standards, this will encourage increased inward investment and encourage continued growth into the foreseeable future.