NEW YORK: More than 350 delegates attended a conference on investment opportunities in central Europe at the World Trade Center on February 26. The turnout both surprised and delighted the organiser of the meet, Slovak Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, who said his nation had made a strong case for its virtues as an investment destination in front of a "weighty" US audience.
'Inwest Forum', as the conference was known, was designed as a 'coming out ball' for Slovakia at which senior Bratislava government and investment officials could pitch the virtues of their nation to investors alongside colleagues from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Mikloš said that in joining forces with Slovakia's 'Visegrad Four' neighbours, he had hoped to benefit from the reputation those countries enjoy as safe investment choices.
"Our whole idea was to cooperate [with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland] in the organisation, and then compete for investment on the day of the event," he told The Slovak Spectator after his morning address. "I knew that by being together we could attract more and bigger investors, and for Slovakia, the fact that we are behind our neighbours in foreign direct investment [FDI] makes it sensible for us to be doing this with them."
Slovakia attracted only $1.5 billion in FDI from 1993 to 1999, and although 2000 was in some ways a breakthrough year, with another $1.5 billion flowing in after several big privatisations, the country still has only attracted roughly one-fourth the per capita FDI of the Czech Republic, and one-seventh that of Hungary.
"By staging this conference together, we demonstrate that we deserve to be ranked alongside our neighbours," Mikloš added. "We are saying there are no major differences between us on the [investment] issues, we just have less FDI at the moment".
Many conference goers seemed to have taken just that message from the proceedings (several hours of plenary session speeches in the morning followed by seminars on FDI opportunities in each country in the afternoon).
Randy Santiago, a broker with Shepperton Investments, said he had been impressed during the day by Slovakia's "hunger for growth", and added that "if I had the right opportunity, I would rather invest in Slovakia than the Czech Republic, because it [Slovakia] seems to be the growing country".
"The labour pool is what matters, and it looks like they [Slovakia] are able to deliver the goods quite cheaply," he continued. "The judicial system seems to be coming along, and I really liked the speech of that guy Mikloš. I think Slovakia will do pretty well [in FDI], but they really have to advertise these things."
Gabriel Eichler, the former Bank of America executive who turned around the fortunes of Slovak steelmaker VSŽ as its president from 1998 to 2000, also spoke of the need for publicity.
"I think they've done very well here - in organizing it, inviting everyone else, and getting them to come. Just look around - it's full of people," he said. "It's not good to be a laggard [in FDI], but if you are a laggard, you can't afford to fall asleep and not do anything. Half of these people here may not be investors, and I'm not sure you really learn too many new things at these events, but you do develop a context, you realize something is actually going on. Compare it to not doing anything."
Indeed, despite a few recognizable panelists and guest speakers (ie. former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin), Inwest Forum seemed to have attracted few heavyweight potential investors of the sort Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda made mention (DaimlerChrysler) following the World Economic Forum in January. Instead, the list of delegates featured many more institutional investors, portfolio funds and analysts.
"Look, you rarely find that an investor comes to a conference and next day flies into Bratislava to make an investment," said Eichler. "At these things, initial awareness is important, even if it's advisors who come here and then talk to other people."
Of those investors who did attend, some were ironically indifferent to the economic progress Slovakia has made since 1998, explaining their decisions to put their money into the country as matters of the heart rather than the head.
"I've been on a 30-year 'study trip' to the US," joked Paul Piringer, managing director of the business incubator firm Nasekeru. "I now want to return certain benefits I gained while growing up in Slovakia, such as education and a willingness to work hard. My interest has no connection with the general economic and political situation." Piringer added that his firm would start its Slovak operations in March 2001.
Similar sentiments were voiced by Marta Catalano, an investor in the Candom project which began building pre-fabricated houses in Slovakia in May 2000. "I left 36 years ago for freedom, but my heart was always with Slovakia," she said. "I'm a kind of patriot, and I see hope for Slovakia. I feel that in the US you have lots of security for your investments, but what will happen to Slovakia if everyone just writes it off?"
5. Mar 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson