Hugo van Veghel: New Investors Bring New Technologies

The BSBA takes the role of facilitator in “people-oriented-matters”

The Belgian Serbian Business Association is the heart of a growing network with access to a variety of companies and institutions directly involved with prospects and business in Serbia and in Belgium. The BSBA wants to create a forum for the Belgian-Serbian economic community in the country. Next year, this association celebrates 10 years of doing business in Serbia. Hugo van Veghel, President of the Belgian-Serbian Business Association (BSBA), talks about how Belgian companies are happy with their business here, which is a comparative advantage of Serbia and other topics.

How many Belgian companies do currently do business in Serbia? According to your findings, how satisfied are they with their business activities in Serbia?

— 130 Belgian companies operate in the territory of Serbia, and Belgium is 30th in terms of investment in the country. As far as we know, our companies are pretty satisfied with their business activities in Serbia. We note considerable manufacturing expansion activities in Metech (Experts in total concepts – metal sheet processing, Smederevo), Blockx (Industrial big bag production, Bački Petrovac) and Talent 4 Blinds (Pro-duction of window decorations, Zrenjanin).

Some red tape issues, related to RAS and finalising subvention issues still exist, but we are sure that they will be resolved very soon. According to your data, what did the trade between Belgium and Serbia amount to last year? What did Serbia import the most and what did it export the most to Belgium?

— Compared to the same period last year we notice a 10 % growth, with a deficit that is still on the Serbian side. For 2019 the trade value will exceed EUR 600 million. Serbia exports to Belgium, the most frozen fruits (especially the “red gold” –raspberries) and vegetables but also cables, while importing a wide range of products, from tobacco to pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The most significant number of investments from Belgium into the country is in the food, metal and construction sectors. The digitalisation process in Serbia does not go unnoticed. We see also Belgian newcomers in this sector.

How important is the existence of the Belgian-Serbian Business Association (BSBA) for the strengthening of business connections between the two countries and to what extent is the Embassy involved in the BSBA operations?

— The BSBA was established in 2010, meaning that next year we will celebrate our 10th anniversary. Being on the block for a decade means that there was not only a reason for its existence but that it also delivered the support the members expect. That support is complementary to the excellent work of and cooperation with the Embassy and its Economic & Trade Office. The Ambassador is an Honorary Chairman and, the Economic & Trade Counsellor is a member of the board of the BSBA. At all times, we coordinate and cooperate in all our activities. Their report-ing on our work is for years a positive influence in our requests for an annual subvention from the Belgian Feder-al Offices. Whereas the Embassy and the Economic & Trade Office deal with primary issues, like governmental con-tacts and linkage to institutions, pro-viding statistical and legal information, the BSBA takes the role of facilitator in “people-oriented-matters”. New and exploring investors want to know figures and legal frameworks but also how the potential social environment looks like in the area they might settle. We provide not only information but some-times go with them in the field. Understanding of some cultural and societal aspects cannot come from statistics and reports. Most essential for them is to meet our members on one of the seminars, breakfast or working lunches, Speed B2B or networking cocktails, activities that we often share with other bi-lateral chambers or business associations. First-hand information from peers is essential in final decision making.

What are the biggest advantages of Serbia when it comes to attracting investments? What are its flaws and what issues do you see as the most urgent?

— On the last Belgian Day, organized by the Embassy, the Economy & Trade Of-fice, the BSBA and CCIS, our Ambassador said: “It is very important for Belgian companies to be present in the Serbian market. We believe that we can make a concerted effort in many spheres be-cause we have a lot to share in the innovation and technology sector”. Many Serbians perceive the low-cost-work-force as the main attractor to investors. It plays a role, but the BSBA is highlight-ing the work-willingness of the people in the country. In this sense, talking to exploring Belgian investors, we point at the importance of attitudes towards the people you employ; take care of your employees and, they will take care of you and your company. Some well-established Belgian companies, like Me-tech and Blockx, will confirm that. The legal framework for PPPs is improved and, municipalities are getting better in dealing with potential foreign investors. On the other hand, despite all previous and ongoing efforts, there is still a deficit in a skilled workforce and a weak SME contingent. New investors bring new technologies, often unseen before in Serbia. Companies will train selected potential employees, but, you cannot put all on the back of a company. Not only technology or IT knowledge are in question, (and this is also valid in Europe), social behaviour at work and willingness as well as readiness to learn are assessed and should get more attention in formal and non-formal education. By now there are 40 incubators in Serbia, and a vast majority is focusing on IT. Business however, must be observed more holistically. Investors are also looking for cooperation opportunities, availability of sub-contractors, suppliers. Hence, it requires more efforts in financial and structural measures for skills and entrepreneurship/ SME development for building a support-structure for larger entities. Let’s never forget that it always turns around people. People make value chains possible.

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