Rob Maher's Bulgarian gambit has paid off for local and foreign investors
Starting out as a gym teacher in Dublin, Rob Maher honed the art of coaching people to win in sports and in real life. Later as a mechanical engineer, he learned to make ideas into reality.
Curious about the world, Rob Maher ventured to Bulgaria, which at the time was still considered somewhat enigmatic. He was enchanted by Sofia, a damsel-in-distress who needed a knight in shining armour to slay the dragon of inexperience, corruption and confusion that had held her captive for half a century, so she could live happily-ever-after in a modern European investment climate.
So began Rob Maher's flirt with Bulgaria: Checkmate's office was established in the centre of Sofia and his small band of brave and enthusiastic men (and women) got down to hard tacks. Rob had to battle with ogres and witches of all shapes and sizes – using every ounce of his sporting prowess and engineering wit. The ongoing battle, however, has brought about the emergence of Checkmate as one of Bulgaria's cutting-edge marketing firms. The conclusion? According to Rob, here in Bulgaria, “wonderful things can happen for no reason”. We would add: “And vice versa!”
How would you compare the current business climate in Bulgaria to when you started your first business here?
Checkmate has worked with international companies since its inception in 2005 and we've only recently started to work with Bulgarian companies. A lot of our work came from the property sector, selling Bulgarian properties on the Irish market. Property in Ireland is in a cooling off period now, so for us, the business climate has changed quite a lot. We've responded to these changes and moved from being a property-specific marketing company to one that deals with many different sectors. In the short time we have been looking outside the property sector, we have found some incredible opportunities.
Several years ago, I didn't think Bulgaria offered top-notch products and services - my experience in restaurants, banks and government institutions seemed to prove otherwise. However, there is a thriving private business industry in Bulgaria. Companies are putting out terrific products and services under the radar, such as engineering companies making breakthrough processes used around the globe or Bulgarian animation software for movie productions. And we found these without even looking!
My perspective on the country has changed along with our business focus. Bulgaria is a gifted nation with the potential for tremendous growth… and Checkmate is working on finding ways of communicating this message. We're due to launch a new initiative www.myhome.bg with an agenda to boost business prosperity through the positive and centralised promotion of Bulgaria.
In what way are the Irish different from or similar to the Bulgarians?
I'm happy to say that in general people are more relaxed in Bulgaria than Ireland, although in business that does not necessarily translate to better productivity. Much still happens over a cigarette and coffee. Bulgarians are more tolerant than the Irish. Great for brawl-free bars but it's certainly not good for road safety, as I've seen maniacs overtaking on the inside on the hard shoulder without even a single honk from other motorists. Most Bulgarian drivers don't pay attention to each other and fail to see the big picture: public safety. This is a fundamental difference between the two nations; I think the Irish are a few steps ahead in understanding how each one of us can and does contribute to a safer and better environment. Most would agree this apathy has to change, yet on the other hand, if and when that happens we may lose what I see as a Bulgarian virtue: they are quite forgiving. As for similarities, we share an incredible appetite for social contact, for fun, laughter, late nights, long discussions on every conceivable topic and many friends. Beautiful!
What are status symbols in Ireland and Bulgaria?
In Bulgaria it's a car, usually a black or grey Audi, Porsche or Mer-cedes. It may also be the way you dress. Fashion here is very important. The way you look and behave is more streamlined. It's not difficult to discover the latest fashion rage at any time as every second girl is wearing almost exactly the same outfit. It's been some time since I lived in Ireland, almost three years now, so I'm a little out of touch. Status symbols there are more varied: an Audi could be another colour other than black or grey, fashion is more varied, too, from the effects of a multicultural society, especially in Dublin.
What are your favourite places for holidays in Bulgaria?
I'm an avid Bansko lover. Although it's more expensive than the other Bulgarian ski resorts, its ski and snowboard facilities are just brilliant - the ski pass queues can be frustrating sometimes, however.
Borovets is great, too. It's a smaller old-style ski village, not without its fair share of lively restaurants and bars. I visit the coast every year and last year we went to Sozopol. I went windsurfing for the afternoon there, with some success, and partied till the early hours of the morning, when I ended up on the beach having a beer with friends and watching the sunrise: absolutely perfect.
The Burgas area has been good to me, too. One summer we hired a yacht from Nesebar harbour and spent the day sailing. Cocktails on the beach, jet skiing, horse riding, power boating and paragliding to boot. I have great memories of some of my best summers in this area.
Vitosha is also a wonderful place to escape city life. Sometimes when Sofia is covered in clouds, you can take the mountain road and ascend for 30 to 40 minutes. At some point you punch through the clouds and meet the bluest of skies, just like taking off in a plane. It's wonderful to have such a huge mountain so close to the city.
It reminds me of where I grew up: Rathfarnham next to the Wicklow Mountains. For short breaks, Veliko Tarnovo is a great location for a weekend trip - and not expensive I might add. My final favourite is a hostel called the Paradise Chalet in the heart of the Balkan Mountains. It's quite isolated and there's only two ways of reaching it: on foot or by donkey. I've no idea how long it takes by donkey, but it took me four or five hours on foot and was absolutely worth it. Beautiful views, peace and quiet, and the highest waterfall in Bulgaria.
Your advice for people who want to do business in Bulgaria?
My experience of bureaucracy and corruption has been minimal. So my advice is probably no different than what you would receive for anywhere in the world: be patient and appreciative. Get Internet banking. Have a super PA. And plan ahead.