Breakfast with Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Lilyana Pavlova Photo: Provided
In the autumn of 2011 a new phenomenon appeared on the business scene in Bulgaria and made itself apparent also in the UK.
The British Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce (BBCC) was re-launched as a company registered in Sofia with a new board and executive director. Bill Drysdale, an adviser to former prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg and past managing partner of KPMG Bulgaria, was appointed chairman, and at the beginning of the year the new British ambassador, Jonathan Allen, became honorary president. Other board members from diverse business backgrounds include Richard Clegg of Wolf Theiss, Svilen Spassov of Pan-European Trading & Engineering, Vesey Crichton of Cleves and Tim Buisseret, commercial attache at the British embassy. Ralitsa Gospodinova is executive director.
In just a few months over the winter the Chamber has made a distinct impact and now takes its place alongside AmCham, the Hellenic Business Council in Bulgaria and the Chambers of Commerce in Sofia of Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the Nordic Region.
The most visible signs of the BBCC’s presence have been a series of high profile events with distinguished guests, all of whom are influential in helping to make business connections between Britain and Bulgaria. In reverse order these have included the new Bulgarian ambassador to London, Konstantin Dimitrov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Simeon Dyankov, UK minister for Europe David Lidington, Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Lilyana Pavlova, CEO of InvestBulgaria Agency Borislav Stefanov, Chairman and CEO of Postbank and past president of AmCham Anthony Hassiotis, and Meglena Kouneva, ex-European commissioner and leader of the new civic movement Bulgaria for Citizens. Three of the events were held at the British ambassador’s residence, a prestigious venue which helps to attract high-calibre speakers and guests and is conducive to open and frank debate on a variety of important topics.
The BBCC's goals are to raise the profile and influence of the UK in Bulgaria and of Bulgaria in the UK, to attract a flow of business deals and foreign direct investments both from the UK to Bulgaria and vice versa, and to compete on equal terms with the successful FDI projects and market entry initiatives to Bulgaria by many countries from the EU and further afield which are challenging the UK. Best of all will be if a British bank would set up here. In doing all this, the Chamber is already working in close co-operation with the British ambassador in Sofia and the Bulgarian ambassador in London, and their trade attaches and supporting teams. As opportunities arise, the BBCC is well placed to introduce prospective investors to the right people and to the government promotional and regulatory agencies which will help to fast-track their plans and bring them to fruition.
The BBCC regards the current year, with new ambassadors in post for both our countries, as a very promising time for developing new two-way business initiatives and investment opportunities. On March 6 members and friends of the BBCC met ambassador Konstantin Dimitrov, the new Bulgarian ambassador to the United Kingdom (and now honorary vice president of the Chamber), at a business breakfast. Among the host group was recently appointed UK ambassador to Bulgaria Jonathan Allen. He stressed that the door is open for an unprecedented bilateral relationship, with the City of London acting as the conduit for a considerable proportion of financings for major deals in Bulgaria including those from many other countries. He personally will devote priority time to helping British investors succeed in Bulgaria. The BBCC is actively promoting market entry into Bulgaria of a British Bank. This would be an added catalyst to bringing in new UK investors.
According to ambassador Dimitrov, the main sectoral priorities in Bulgaria at the present time which present prime opportunities for attraction of investors include decommissioning of nuclear power plants, building new energy capacities, deep sea gas exploration, management of the water sector, development of a GPS road toll system, concessions of airports and sea ports, the defence sector, pharmaceuticals, and tourism (to attract UK holidaymakers). He emphasised the importance in all sectors of the philosophy of the current government: low levels of taxation and budget deficit, fiscal stability and prudent banking regulation. He encouraged the BBCC to assist, in partnership with the InvestBulgaria Agency, in promotion of Bulgaria’s financial health and stability in contrast to the current turmoil across Europe.
In concluding this review of the mission and goals of the BBCC, the words of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Simeon Dyankov, at a meeting in late February at which he addressed the members and friends of the BBCC, are very apt. Regarding the investment climate in Bulgaria, Dyankov said his time working at the World Bank taught him that four factors are critical for attracting a steady flow of inward investment: tax policy; infrastructure; judiciary; and a sound, progressive banking system. Bulgaria clearly scores well regarding tax with the lowest rates of corporate and personal tax in Europe – both at 10 per cent. On the second factor: assisted by EU and World Bank funding, the government has a major focus on improving the country’s infrastructure – "both roads and railways will be remarkably better in two to three years time and we are now working on energy infrastructure and the water sector," Dyankov said. The third factor is next on the agenda: he said the judiciary continues to be a concern, and its reform will become the government’s next big priority. On the subject of Bulgaria’s banking system, Dyankov stated that he is applying pressure on banks to contribute more to Bulgaria’s economic growth by increasing lending. "We have one of the strongest banking systems in Europe measured by liquidity and capital ratios, and deposits are increasing at the fastest rate of anywhere in the EU. But the banking sector is not delivering enough to the business sector."
It is well known among his friends and business associates that Bill Drysdale is more positive and optimistic about the future of Bulgaria than most Bulgarians! He has discovered that the leadership teams at most of the other business chambers in Bulgaria share broadly similar views. The most significant common factor giving rise to this upbeat sentiment is that progress is being made in completing and taking advantage of the Single European Market – benefiting first all the EU countries investing and doing business here, and giving comparable opportunities and competitive advantage to countries from other continents and trading blocks which see Bulgaria as a strategically located European Market entry point.
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