On a drive through Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northern coast, it is impossible not to be taken aback by stunning landscapes and vibrant colours. The scenery is not exactly evocative of IT and service centres, something that many people working in Jamaica’s business process outsourcing (BPO) sector say provides a challenge when it comes to promoting its suitability for the industry.

However, that land is key to the country's success: open space suitable for large purpose-built office buildings and operations centres capable of housing thousands of seats. The development of office space, BPO operators say, must be facilitated and supported in order for the industry to expand. This requires adequate financing, maintenance and support from a number of important players in the public and private sector.

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Taking the plunge

“Nobody wanted to build space – it was always a chicken and egg scenario,” says Yoni Epstein, chief executive of local outsourcing firm Itel BPO Solutions and president of the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica. This was often due to the risk associated with setting up physical facilities – acquiring financing could be tough, and if the facility failed to attract tenants, its developers would suffer a substantial loss.

One of the country’s pioneers in this regard, says Mr Epstein, is Barnett Tech Park, a 19-hectare facility in Montego Bay in which about 30,000 square metres (sq m) of retro-fitted BPO office space is currently being developed. Started in the late 2000s with help from the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) and government support, the tech park now houses three blue-chip companies – Dutch printing company Vistaprint, US-based Advanced Call Centre Technologies (ACCT) and global business services giant Xerox.    

“If we really want to build this industry, we have to have space,” says Mark Kerr-Jarrett, managing director of Barnett Ltd, the developer and operator of Barnett Tech Park. In 2008 the tech park sold discounted land to Vistaprint with the idea that attracting an established multinational would give weight to Jamaica as a BPO destination. “We brought Vistaprint in as an anchor, and once there was a blue-chip company here, others knew it was attractive. That vote of confidence helped us a lot,” says Mr Kerr-Jarrett, a Montego Bay native.

“The park then sought a way to finance constructing the buildings, because we realised that without that inventory sitting on the ground, the clients won’t come,” says Paula Kerr-Jarrett, company director at Barnett Ltd. “Many companies want space immediately, but not everyone has the finance to have inventory sitting there, so it is a big risk.”

Collaborative approach  

In 2013, Jamaica's Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce offered the tech park a development financing package through the DBJ. “We were able to build these spaces despite not yet having tenants – the government was very flexible and supportive of our idea,” says Ms Kerr-Jarrett. ACCT and Xerox soon came to fill the space, each taking one level of a 427 sq m building housing 1000 seats, and both have expanded into additional buildings since. 

“Most operators run two shifts per day, so 1000 seats means 2000 direct jobs per building,” says Mr Kerr-Jarrett. “And a significant support industry comes with it – security, transportation, catering, maintenance, mechanical and electrical engineering services, etc.”

The tech park is part of a bigger development including a Montego Bay campus for the University of the West Indies, 1200 new homes to be built by Gore Development and financial services group Sagicor’s creation of BPO dormitories in the vicinity, creating a campus-style community. “It will also have the capacity for 74,000 sq m of production space, which is 16,000 seats, and then more than 18,580 sq m of commercial services,” says Mr Kerr-Jarrett. 

“The government and the DBJ have really bent over backwards to try to facilitate our developments,” says Ms Kerr-Jarrett. “Without their help, this would never work. They understand its importance, which is critical because it’s a partnership.” 

Return on investment

Mr Kerr-Jarrett calculates that a projected 16,000 employees, if all planned space is properly financed and built out within the next five years, could bring in about $55m per year of government revenue in direct taxation. “And if they go to two shifts, you are looking at $110m per annum," he adds.  

“The government just has to stay the course with its IMF programmes, continue to offer good business incentives, and make sure schools are turning out students with the requisite skills for employment in the BPO industry,” says Ms Kerr-Jarrett. “We can build as many buildings as we want, but Jamaica itself must be attractive as a BPO destination.”

“This really is a nation-building exercise,” says Mr Kerr-Jarrett. “A rising tide floats all boats. If we can get Jamaica to rise, then we all rise with it, and everybody benefits.”