By Jacqueline Hooftman
PHILIPSBURG–Two days after the parliamentary meeting on Wednesday, October 6, on the status of St. Maarten Port Authority, where he gave a well-received presentation, newly appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Port St. Maarten Group of Companies Alexander Gumbs (33) received me in his office.
There were a desk with panoramic view of the port, large conference table and seating area with a miniature cruise ship replica and other collector’s items from the cruise industry that Gumbs served as Director of Operations and Development for Carnival Corporation, before returning to St. Maarten to lead the port.
Gumbs is one of the youngest CEOs in the industry, leading Port St. Maarten and chairing meetings with cruise executives almost twice his age.
CEO Gumbs intends to fix the image of Port St. Maarten and ensure that the port continues to play a key role in society.
Born in St. Maarten, the only child of a single mother, young Gumbs was raised in the social housing project in Belvedere. An average student, he got a scholarship and made it to college in the city of Groningen, the Netherlands, where he planned to study accountancy at Hanzehogeschool Groningen. After eight months, he changed his field of study and found his passion in commercial economics, the study of economic principles and concepts used in decision-making, bridging the gap between economics and business management.
At 22 years old, Gumbs started his career as an intern at the Harbor Group of Companies in 2010. After writing a thesis on port operations titled “Winning in a competitive environment” and completing his studies in 2012, he returned to Port St. Maarten and signed his first contract as Business Development Officer. Embracing the challenge, he went on to become Business and Marketing Manager.
In 2019 Gumbs took up office in The Bahamas contracted by Carnival Corporation with headquarters in Doral, Florida.
He is one of the youngest CEOs in the industry, leading Port St. Maarten and chairing meetings with cruise executives almost twice his age. “I am not intimidated,” Gumbs said, leaning back in his chair with crossed legs, one hand resting on his knee. “I truly appreciate being one of the youngest in the room at all times. It does make you pay extra attention; I am mindful of what I do and speak. I truly enjoy having discussions with senior executives and intellectuals who have key roles in society.”
How do you stand your ground?
Gumbs: “Do my research, know the facts. Going into meetings with cruise executives, I make it a point to know more about the vessels than the person across the table. Itineraries, size of vessels, number of passengers, crew, services needed, services available, contracts, procedures, audits. I make sure that I know everything. After a conference, I will be among the last persons there talking. Afterwards you will find me in the bar having conversations. I want to hear everything that is going on.”
To better understand your competitors.
Gumbs: “Correct. Hence the title of my thesis: ‘Winning in a competitive environment’. We as Port St. Maarten, and St. Maarten as a destination, need to be proactive and look for innovative ways of doing business. I am not one to make radical decisions based on impulse. Yes, I go by gut feeling. But I fact-check with data, statistics. I try to be a sponge, absorb as much information as possible, get all angles to put things in perspective.”
A determined mind and a strong will. You are a serious character?
Gumbs: “That is what some of my peers say: ‘Hey, I remember you from high school. You always had your head on, you were always serious’. Now that they see me as the new CEO, I think for my generation; it gives great significance of hope. But at the end of the day, it is hard work. It is about performance.
“I was by no means the best student in school, but I always did what I needed to do and kept pushing myself. I still do; I test my own boundaries and try to do better. The biggest competition is myself, keeping up with what my mind tells me to do, or where I should be.”
What lesson do you keep in mind?
Gumbs: “You can only be better than those that came before you if you also understand where you come from. That applies not only to me as a person, but also to Port St. Maarten as a company, or rather group of companies.”
It is not in his nature to snub about discussions. Gumbs himself addresses the elephant in the room: the “Emerald” investigation into large-scale fraud in the Port of St. Maarten, in which former CEO Mark Mingo was sentenced to 46 months in prison for forgery and fraud of the Harbour Group of Companies for US $10 million. When he was convicted in January 2020, Mingo was banned from working as a director of a public company for a period of six years.
The new CEO does not name names. Gumbs chooses his words carefully. “Over the last few years our image was damaged.” He drops a deafening silence. “There is a huge sceptical veil over the port,” he said. “It is unfortunate.”
“It is extremely unfortunate that a company with such great objectives and great employees lost the confidence of a large part of the island population. Obviously, there is still a lot of baggage.”
Mingo was appointed CEO at the Harbour in 2002. A decade later, he asked Gumbs, who had not yet graduated, to return to St. Maarten from the Netherlands to work as a Business Development Officer at Port St. Maarten. Gumbs signed his first contract in the office of the port management.
“The best decision I’ve ever made,” said Gumbs, who considered the former CEO a mentor during his internship periods. “I admired the way he conducted himself during meetings, how he spoke with executives. I learned a lot from him. But, as we all know now, he had his own trials and tribulations.”
Transparency is crucial at this point, Gumbs said: “It is good for us to be able to have these discussions. For Port St. Maarten to grow, we need to reinstall trust, and be able to rely on cooperation. We need to further strengthen ties with institutions and organisations on the island, as well as cooperation with stakeholders externally. I face problems with an open mind, I am not the person to trivialise things, I like to talk things out. But we must also be able to put discussions to rest.”
What do you want to achieve in the next five years?
Gumbs: “Fix the image of this company. Make sure that Port St. Maarten continues to play a key role in society, becomes more transparent, functions optimally and can commit 1,000 per cent to stakeholders externally– our international stakeholders, that they too, once they agree to certain additional negotiations and enhancements of contracts, have trust that what we are doing would be beneficial to them as well. For me that is of paramount importance.
“What I will bring to the table is respect, trust and cooperation; invest in the human resources at the port, foster more local professionals; work with educational institutes on the island to introduce children to our industry, make cruise tourism part of the curriculum in schools, inspire students to pursue a career in our port.
“I would love to assist a St. Maartener to become a cruise ship captain. I want to witness more locals/youngsters pilot aboard the cruise ship and assist the captain with navigation into Great Bay and the harbour, or captain charter yachts. Can’t wait to see that.”
The maritime sector has been pleading for more cooperation.
Gumbs: “One of the key things I am looking forward to is truly aligning and coming to an understanding with St. Maarten Marine Trades Association (SMMTA). We all see the importance of the yachting industry: it accounts for more than 13 per cent of our gross domestic product, the GDP.
“Even during the pandemic this sector has been thriving, there is a huge demand. But our berthing limitation is a real topic of discussion. I get calls from the key marinas in the lagoon requesting space for yachts that cannot get into the lagoon. But we have a vessel in port that is going to be here for two months straight.
“If we can’t cater to mega-yachts, that business will go to St. Kitts and Antigua. As a destination we must decide what we want to achieve, and start planning now to make the needed investments, or we continue to lose business every season.”
The French and the Dutch sides have joined in promotion of the entire island as a yachting destination at the 62nd Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Gumbs: “This is what our destination needs: One message. One look. One feel. One voice.
“It is unfortunate that Port St. Maarten, Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association and the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau each do their own marketing, and each send out different messages about St. Maarten, using different hashtags. We as a destination can maximise our exposure using one voice, sending out one message globally. We need it to reach far and wide, to secure our future as tourist destination in the Caribbean.”