CHECKMATE!

by Petar Popdimitrov; photography by Bozhidar Chemshirev

Rob Maher's Bulgarian gambit has paid off for local and foreign investors

Rob Maher

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.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

MATTER OF NUMBERS
Six months after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdowns and uncertainties, a fuller picture of its effect on the world economy is beginning to emerge. Bulgaria fared not too bad, according to recent statistical data.

BORISOV'S FIASCO
Nowhere is the abyss between what Boyko Borisov's GERB says it is doing and what it in fact does so obvious than in the economy of what firmly remains the EU's poorest state.

WHITHER GOEST THE ECONOMY?
From bad to worse? According to a poll by Alpha Research published at the end of 2011, the majority of Bulgarians consider 2011 to have been "the worst" since the economic collapse of 1997.

CRISIS IN PICTURES
In the third quarter of 2010 the average monthly income of an adult member of a family in Bulgaria decreased by 2.2 percent on a year earlier. At the moment it is 932 leva, or 466 euros, according to the National Statistical Institute.

THE CRISIS IN FIGURES
The crisis was already a fact in Bulgaria at the beginning of 2009, but the owner of an accountancy firm in Gorna Oryahovitsa would deny it even more vehemently than then Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev.
AT A TIME OF CRISIS
Rays of hope have started to peep through the cloud-covered economic horizon – even in the new EU member states. Poland has managed to avoid going into recession.

BRITS GONE HOME
At first, they stopped buying. Then it got worse - they started selling. Yes, it seems the British have deserted the Bulgarian property market and the Bulgarians are taking it very personally.
THEN € NOW
"The Bulgarian economy is stable." The words former Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski uttered in October 2008 seem more than just a little out of place a year later.

BITING HARDER
While last autumn the prevailing opinion of people in this country was that the economic crisis did not have a direct effect on them, their view is now completely different.

GO GREEN, EVERGREEN
The commercial real estate market in Bulgaria is at a crossroads.
WHAT A LOVELY CRISIS
The "monster munch," as Londoners call the current credit crunch, in my view is running out steam. Everyone is growing tired of the pundits.
GATED IN OR BLOCKED OUT
According to a saying very popular among Bulgarians in the past, "In his life, a man must do three things: raise a child, plant a tree and build a house for his family." Nowadays this way of thinking no longer reflects the urban lifestyle – the current rati