Bulgaria's most influential foreigners talk shop with VAGABOND
Everything you wanted to know about the big boys in Bulgaria. In a special two-part series, VAGABOND spoke to leaders in the fields of banking, communications, technology, agriculture, education, development, real estate, travel and beverages. Find out what the EU means for them, how the people at the top got to be there, and what they really think about living and doing business in Bulgaria.
Read the first part of the series here.
Name PHILIPPE ROMBAUT
Company Agropolychim JSC
Position General Manager
History Agropolychim started in 1974 as a state owned company. In June 1999 it went into liquidation and was privatised in December. The Belgian company I was working with had a one percent golden share stake. I came into the company with a 50/50 share in September 2002. The factory was basically bankrupt back then. It was sold for a dollar and there were 55 million euros of debt. Productivity was increased six or seven times in just over a year and close to 40 million euros investment has been made since then.
Activity Fertilisers. Sixty percent export, 40 percent local market. We control about 55-60 percent of the local market.
Environmental awareness Two years ago we made the largest deal in Europe for producing and selling carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol. We are selling these to the Danish government. The Danish Minister of the Environment described the impact of this as being the same as if we'd taken 120,000 cars off the street each doing 20,000 km
EU Implications Industrial companies have to invest an enormous amount of money to get up to EU environmental standards. We solved this riddle two years ago because we had started thinking about it four years earlier with the carbon credit deal. The money from this is earmarked for environmental investment. The problem is that some Bulgarian companies didn't think about it, or thought about it too late. Now I think people who thought that they were industrialists will actually find its better to hand over to someone else. I think this is going to reshape industrial ownership a little bit in the next two years.
From Ostend, Belgium
Arrived in Bulgaria March 1997
Route to the top I came here with the Belgian company Union Miniere. I worked with them for three years, then I became the regional director of the Soros Fund which was a $150 million investment fund for the whole of the Balkans and which invested in the Eurocom Cable company in Bulgaria.
First impressions There was nothing here, it was really rough. At first there were only two shops where you could buy imported food, and you needed to have a diplomatic passport to get in. We did our shopping at the Shell shop on the ring road. There was no Billa, no Metro, nothing, and people forget that. Anybody who said 10 years ago that we would join the EU 10 years from now would have been ridiculed. Maybe we're not fully ready, but we've joined. That's amazing. Where in the world can you work in a country that's starting from scratch and 10 years later joins the EU?
Personal philosophy Our company's simple philosophy is have fun, make profits, and share.
Enjoyable aspects Number one, two and three on the list is the weather without a doubt. Coming from Belgium, the weather here is fantastic. And also the opportunities Bulgaria has given me.
Challenges Everything is challenging! But challenge is an opportunity. I'm a happy, but frustrated investor. We have been facing a lack of decisiveness in people who are supposed to make decisions, which means people in the government, or the municipalities, and so on. It was clear to everybody five years ago that Sofia was going to get jammed with traffic, that there were no parking spaces. But there was no traffic plan. Now they are working on the ring road, why didn't this happen before? Basically, the infrastructure sucks and this was foreseeable. Who's taken responsibility for that?
Bulgarian top three Rila Monastery, hiking on Vitosha, and Kamchia near Varna.
Belgian top three Restaurants, more restaurants and Brugge, I think Belgium's long, white sandy beaches are unique in southern Europe.
Name JULIAN EDWARDS
Company Tishman Management
Position General Manager
Sector Real Estate
Background Tishman is a full service, property management and development company with over 100 years of experience, serving Europe and the United States. We provide professional real estate and asset management on the one hand, and property acquisition and development on the other, managing some 4,000,000 square metres and having constructed another 1.5 million sq m of all types of buildings, both on our own account and for clients.
Company activity on the Bulgarian market We entered the Bulgarian market around three and a half years ago.
Wanted to invest in Bulgaria because We were keen to invest in an emerging Eastern European market and we considered Bulgaria to be the most interesting of these.
Market position We see ourselves as one of the leading Anglo-American investor/developers in Bulgaria.
Current activity The biggest project that we are currently working on is Sofia Airport Centre, a 2850,00 sq m project, 300 metres from the new airport terminal.
Sofia Airport Centre will be the premier corporate office, hospitality and logistics centre in Bulgaria. The new commercial park is being developed by a subsidiary of Tishman Bulgarian Real Property GmbH. They are currently preparing a master plan to provide corporate offices and logistic, distribution and light industrial space on the site. The office buildings will be low to mid-rise whereas the logistics and retail buildings will be two to three floors in height.
The advantages that we have are firstly, our location near the new airport terminal and that we are erecting purpose built structures which are going to be visible from the access roads to the airport and the vicinity. And secondly that Sofia Airport Centre will be developed and managed to a high specification meeting Western European and US standards.
Our potential clients are local and foreign owned grocery stores, logistics and storage companies, retailers and corporate office occupiers who are looking for premises close to the airport with access to the roads to the airport and adjoining area.
Trends in the property market in Bulgaria in 2007 We are seeing the Bulgarian market as being more attractive to a number of global investors and seeing increasing demand from occupiers, and yields compressing over the year.
The EU We see that the market will become stronger with the accession of Bulgaria into the EU.
From London, England.
Arrived in Bulgaria Three and a half years ago.
Route to the top I have worked with Tishman for over 20 years, having brought them from the US.
Personal philosophy Be ready to meet challenges and enjoy overcoming them.
Top three tips for investors in the Bulgarian property market Patience, research and flexibility.
The good The climate, the culture, wine and good restaurants.
The bad Bulgarian red tape and inflexibility.
Bulgarian top three Food, wine and restaurants, museums and art galleries, and the Bulgarian countryside.
English top three The sights of London, art galleries and theatres, the English countryside.
Name PETER HAROLD
Positions General manager and chairman, HVB Bank Biochim and Hebros Bank. General manager and deputy chairman, Bulbank. Designated general manager of Bulbank, HVB Bank Biochim and Hebros Bank upon their merger
History HVB Bank Biochim is a subsidiary of Bank Austria Creditanstalt, Austria's largest bank, and a member of UniCredit Group. It is a leading bank in Bulgaria with total assets of 2.7 billion leva, about 1.4 billion euros. It has approximately 1,500 employees working in some 130 branches and offices across Bulgaria.
Main activity Currently, HVB Biochim, Bulbank and Hebros Bank are undergoing a merger, which will result in the creation of Bulgaria's leading bank, with total assets of three billion euros. The merger is expected to be complete in the second quarter of 2007.
Recent trends Three years ago was the first time banks thought about giving consumer loans to ordinary citizens. There was a big boom and banks realised that demand was increasing. I believe something many foreigners do not know when they come to Bulgaria is that 90 percent or more of the flats and houses here are privately owned. As they are not rented, this means you can use your property as collateral, so the next step was mortgage loans. That was the big development in the credit and loans sector.
Expected trends in 2007: What you see currently in Bulgaria is an increase in point of sale loans, for example when you buy a television or a washing machine. The second thing is credit cards, not debit cards, becoming increasingly used. And, of course, mortgage loans will continue to be popular.
Arrived in Bulgaria Three years ago
Route to the top Graduate of the University of Economics and Business Administration, Vienna, (masters and doctors) and of Webster University, (MBA). I have held various positions with Creditanstalt throughout Europe. My working experience has always been quite international. I have worked in Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, the UK, Croatia and Bulgaria, so I see myself as a European
Secrets of successful management Banking is a service industry, so people are the most important thing. To me, the people mean the customer and also the employee. You have to treat both with respect. One of our slogans was: "we stand behind your ideas", and we have to really deliver this.
Personal philosophy Always try to do better; I'm never perfect.
Challenges Until recently, it was getting a stamp in your passport, but with the EU this has changed now. Previously it took half an hour to queue up which is perhaps not the best introduction to the country.
Benefits I'm working somewhere where my purchasing power is quite high, so I can go for lunch and dinner wherever I like and enjoy very good quality. I always offer my guests a salad and they always say how good the quality of the vegetables is. This is always followed by the comment that they hope Bulgaria can maintain this quality in the EU. There are a lot of business opportunities. In an economy that's growing by 20 to 30 percent you can do many things. Working and living in Bulgaria has been one of the best experiences I've had so far in my professional and private life.
Bulgarian top three Number one is the countryside, it's Bulgaria's treasure. Second is eating out in the centre of Sofia. There is so much variety from different countries. Number three is the Black Sea coast. Here, you can see two different pictures. One is in places like Varna, a big developing town, with a lot of momentum, and lots of tourism, which is a very good sign. On the other hand, when you look at the beaches and see rows and rows of hotels, one has to be quite cautious as to whether the development is sustainable. But, if Bulgaria does things in the right way, it has a big future.
Austrian top three The first thing you have to do is go to a typical Viennese restaurant, followed by a sightseeing tour of Vienna. If I had enough time I would show Bulgarian guests the Neuseidler region because it has very similar landscape to Bulgaria.
Name MICHAEL FRITZ
Position Mission Head
USAID in Bulgaria Started in 1990.
Status Closing in September 2008. In phase-out period.
Project areas USAID has a wide range of projects, the main areas being the rule of law, local governance, economic restructuring and growth, plus special and cost-cutting initiatives to sustain reforms and strengthen infrastructure.
Recent initiatives: One of the most important institutions we'll be leaving behind is the National Institute of Justice, which trains judges. In commercial law we have been working on the business registration law, which should be ready in July. We worked with private enforcement agents. It's been very successful, but success has been a problem and several of the enforcement agents have been attacked or threatened in recent times. We hope the Bulgarian government will take action against those who are doing this. We recently announced the Authentic Bulgaria certification. This is given to establishments in recognition that they meet certain criteria for quality and aims to attract tourists who aren't just here for mass tourism. So far, we have certified about 50 establishments.
USAID spending The 2006 budget was $17 million. We don't have a budget for 2007, but we have money left that wasn't spent in previous years. We will be spending about $5 million.
Room for improvement None of the organisations that work in areas like ours have unlimited resources and there are two things that we would like to have done more work on: health and education. Throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union those institutions in the late 80s were thought to be quite strong and not in need of much attention, but obviously budgets in many countries have not been able to support them. Those are really two areas that the EU is not very focused on either. We're hoping that the government is now recognising the importance of this in terms of having a workforce to handle the expanding business market. If they don't do some more work on workforce issues, it's going to be very difficult for Bulgarians to take advantage of the opportunities.
Route to the top I attended college on the West Coast and went overseas to Tunisia when I was at university, which stimulated my desire to work overseas on development issues. I have been living abroad for almost 30 years. I have worked in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and started with USAID in 1988. I spent the first six years in Africa on the Ivory Coast in Burundi, which was particularly challenging as it was during the time of the massacres. From there, I went to Ukraine, Bosnia, Washington and then Central Asia for four years.
Arrived in Bulgaria August 2005
Personal Philosophy Incorporate fun into life, both in and out of work. One of the reasons I'm in this business is that I like going to new countries, experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. It's very important to me to have that stimulation and that experience. It's a big world that we live in, with lots of different people in it and it's a shame not to participate in that.
Pros It's a wonderful place to live and is exceptionally interesting culturally and historically, with so many different layers. I'm a hiker and enjoy Vitosha and the Seven Lakes in the Rila mountains. The country has a lot to offer, but sometimes it's not so easy to find and this is why we're working on tourism.
Cons In Sofia the traffic is difficult, I know they're going to start working on the new ring road and I think things will be worse while they're doing that. They only basically have one metro line. There is a need to improve mass transportation. Parking - don't take your car downtown! Road maintenance is a key issue now Bulgaria has joined the EU and the infrastructure needs to be able to handle the influx of tourists.
Bulgarian top three Rila Monastery and the old town in Plovdiv. Belogradchik is a spectacular area as well. The other thing I really like about Bulgaria are the wonderful wines. That's another commodity connected to tourism that I think could be much more effectively exploited by Bulgaria. And of course, the Bulgarians themselves, they're very open people.
US top three Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and The Grand Canyon for the outdoors and nature, and for those who like an urban setting I don't think you can do better than San Francisco.
Name JOSEF VINATZER
History Mobiltel AD was founded as a joint stock private company in March 1994. The new "M-Tel" logo and trade brand was presented at the International Technical Fair in Plovdiv in September 2001. In July 2005 Mobiltel became part of the Mobilkom Austria group. The acquisition became the largest foreign investment in Austria's economic history.
How M-Tel compares to others in the telecommunications sector in Bulgaria M-Tel is the clear market leader in telecommunications in Bulgaria. This is reflected in various areas: innovation, quality, market share and, most importantly, the best team!
Current activities To keep this leadership is a challenge in itself and we work hard on this every day. The expectations towards the leader are, for good reason, the highest. To fulfill and maybe even top them is our destiny.
Implications of EU accession We celebrated this long-awaited milestone in Bulgaria's history together with the whole country on 1 January and as the whole country will benefit, we will benefit indirectly as well. The direct impact we will see is the new Telecommunications Law. This will further increase dynamics in the Bulgarian telecommunications market, which is already quite competitive.
From I'm from Tyrol - the western part of Austria which has a lot of mountains. So I'm accustomed to conquering peaks.
Arrived in Bulgaria Almost two years ago, in March 2005.
Route to the top By a stroke of luck. Or, to be more specific - "by being in the right place at the right time." I think my last assignment as CEO of Vipnet in Croatia, another of Telekom Austria Group's mobile operators, qualified me for this exciting assignment here at M-Tel.
Personal philosophy Never rest on your laurels.
Three people you'd most like to receive a phone call from today My daughter, my father (who unfortunately died a year ago), and my boss telling me I've got a salary increase. So, let's see if my daughter calls.
Positives I like the wine (I would rate Bulgarian red wines the best in the whole region) but more importantly, I really enjoy working together with the people here.
Challenges The infrastructure throughout the whole country and in differing aspects needs some more years to reach the standards I'm used to. Again, I hope joining the EU will help a lot.
Bulgarian top three I would show guests to Bulgaria the Rhodope Mountains, take them to try some wine and introduce them to some of the great people I have met here.
Austrian top three You can spend your whole life in Vienna and still not see everything. The wine is also great in Austria. I'd take Bulgarian guests to enjoy some of Vienna's nice surroundings, like the Wachau for instance, the Danube valley, which is only an hour away from Vienna.