EDC Board Ponders Benefits for Two Financial Services Firms

Edgar Zambo, who wants to bring his financial consulting company, Bisoke LLC, to the territory, appears on Tuesday at a virtual public hearing of the Economic Development Commission board. (Screen capture)

From humble beginnings on his grandparents’ farm in communist Romania, Edgar Zambo rose to self-described “influencer” status in financial circles and now would like to bring his expertise to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Zambo appeared on Tuesday at a virtual public hearing of the Economic Development Commission board to make the case for why his financial consulting company, Bisoke LLC, should receive EDC benefits.

In exchange for building local businesses, hiring Virgin Islanders and giving to charity, among other stipulations, those benefits can include a 90 percent reduction in corporate income tax; 100 percent exemptions on gross receipts, business property and excise taxes; and customs duty of 1 percent.

Also appearing before the board on Tuesday was Celebrity Financial LLC, a financial services holding company that offers risk management, compliance, IT, accounting and other support services around mortgage banking, according to CEO David Robnett.

Its subsidiary, Celebrity Home Loans LLC, operates in 20 states and has lent more than $7 billion since its inception in 2006, according to its website.

Both Bisoke and Celebrity are proposing minimum investments of $100,000. They would cover 100 percent of health insurance for their employees and dependents and offer retirement plans. While Celebrity said it would hire five full-time employees in its first year, Bisoke is aiming for five by the end of its second year. Along with paid time off and holidays, Celebrity would make $50,000 in charitable contributions annually, while Bisoke plans to give $120,000 in its first year.

Celebrity Financial CEO David Robnett, left, and president Eric Meadow appear at a virtual public hearing of the Economic Development Commission board. (Screen capture)

While the EDC board members were touched by Zambo’s story – his father eventually worked his way to Toronto, Canada, where Zambo became a chess champion and developed a passion for stock markets while still in high school – they sought assurances that he would locate in the USVI even if the tax breaks are not forthcoming.

The board asked the same question of Celebrity Financial, which already has an office in Red Hook, manned by company president Eric Meadow.

Like EDC applicants before them, Zambo, Robnett and Meadow all extolled the virtues of the U.S. Virgin Islands – its natural beauty, beaches, people, small-town feel and, of course, the temperature.

“Who doesn’t like 80 degrees and sunshine year-round?” joked Robnett. However, it is knowing there is a U.S. legal system, banks and a university in the territory that “checked every box,” he said.

“Is it our understanding that the U.S. Virgin Islands is perhaps your last stop or is this just another one of your movements?” board Secretary Haldane Davies asked Meadow after he said he has lived in 15 cities in a dozen states over the last 20 years before relocating to St. Thomas in September.

“I don’t anticipate heading back to the States for any particular reason anytime soon,” Meadow said. While the EDC benefits are a “huge enhancement,” he said, “we’re here regardless.”

Zambo said he and his wife explored moving to the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, but the Virgin Islands “was such a superior experience” that they sold their home in Los Angeles and moved to the territory. He said the EDC program will offer him the opportunity to branch out beyond trading into consulting, coaching, research and in-depth market analysis.

“There is a high demand for quality research,” said Zambo, but typically it is available only to the wealthiest, not start-up traders. “I’d like to change that,” he said.

While he would like to hire more than three people his first year, “the challenge right now is with COVID-19 and the pandemic,” which makes it difficult to do hands-on training in an office setting, said Zambo, whose company is named for the dormant volcano in Rwanda, where he and his wife traveled earlier this year.

Celebrity, whose home loans division has more than 700 employees, according to Robnett, also cited COVID-19 for his company’s cautious approach to hiring and its $50,000 charitable giving figure.

“We do feel like there is an abundance of talent in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” said Robnett, but with a pandemic raging, “we would much rather under-promise and over-deliver and have very happy meetings with this group.”

When asked, both companies also expressed a willingness to partner with local high schools and the University of the Virgin Islands on educational opportunities for students.

“It’s our goal to be amongst the best corporate citizens,” said Robnett.

“I think we would all agree that education is the underpinning to produce high-quality goods. … The youth are the future,” said Zambo. “I’d love to be here. I’d love to have my business here. I want to do something much bigger and the benefits will allow me to do that.”

The board did not render any decisions at Tuesday’s meeting, attended by Davies, Chairman Kevin Rodriquez, Jose Penn, Philip Payne and Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson. Vice Chairman and Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy had an excused absence.