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Chambers of Commerce still searching for unity

A relatively new phenomenon in Slovakia, foreign chambers of commerce have taken off during the 1990's and now boast over 700 members among the domestic and foreign business communities. But while they have become a fixture on the scene, the chambers have been less successful in co-ordinating their efforts to provide a united voice for foreign investors in the country.
The eight foreign nations which are represented in Bratislava through a chamber of commerce offer their members a range of benefits, including legal advice, corporate searches, networking opportunities and representation to government institutions.
Of all the chambers in town, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) has seen the most growth since its inception in 1993, and more than a dozen different countries are now represented in its present membership.


AmCham's Leighton Klevana.
photo: Courtesy AmCham

A relatively new phenomenon in Slovakia, foreign chambers of commerce have taken off during the 1990's and now boast over 700 members among the domestic and foreign business communities. But while they have become a fixture on the scene, the chambers have been less successful in co-ordinating their efforts to provide a united voice for foreign investors in the country.

The eight foreign nations which are represented in Bratislava through a chamber of commerce offer their members a range of benefits, including legal advice, corporate searches, networking opportunities and representation to government institutions.

Of all the chambers in town, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) has seen the most growth since its inception in 1993, and more than a dozen different countries are now represented in its present membership. Executive director Leighton Klevana, who took over from Patrick Uram in the spring of 1999, said his main goal has been improving the overall Slovak business environment.

"The way I see it is that if I'm improving the situation for Motorola or Slovnaft - two of our bigger members - then I'm improving the business environment for every company in Slovakia, large and small, because that's the way the economy works," Klevana said.

AGS movers, a French moving and storage company with 68 branches around the world, is one of the 160 members currently represented in AmCham. The 20 year-old company has had an office in Bratislava since 1997, and employs 15 people.

Bratislava branch manager Peter Pančík said his main reason for being a member of Amcham lay in the networking possibilities offered. "We are happy with the service they provide and we take advantage of the events, functions and seminars offered," he said. "With the list of members in the chamber, we can contact potential clients and we have an opportunity to meet other businesses at social functions, which also helps us meet potential clients."

Other chambers have taken different approaches to growth. The Dutch Chamber of Commerce, presided over by Anton Van Beek, takes both a mid-level approach - in which it performs market surveys and deals with branch organisations and entrepreneurial associations - as well as a micro-level approach, where it offers services such as business-to-business partner searches.

The Dutch chamber has not seen the same sharp membership growth as AmCham, but Van Beek said this was due to its decision to raise money through selling services rather than charging membership dues.

"Our experience in other countries is that we have to make the chamber economically viable, and then begin to fulfil our platform functions and search out members," he said. "We begin by selling our services to Slovak and Dutch companies, and only later start charging membership fees." Van Beek cited the example of a mission to Holland that the chamber orgainzed for "8 to 12" Slovak textile companies looking for business partners.

Fabrizio Paoletti, executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, explained that each chamber had its own identity, approach and individual structure. Some chambers received government support from home, he said, while some are privately funded and others are non-profit.

"We are a non-profit organisation that receives no support from either the Slovak or Italian governments, but we are waiting to be officially recognised after which we will apply for funding from the Italian government," he said.

But despite their individual successes, co-operation between the chambers remains low.

In the spring of 1999, representatives from each of Bratislava's chambers began to meet jointly to prepare a list of problems experienced by foreign companies operating in Slovakia. The list was eventually to have been submitted to the Slovak government as a platform for discussion and possibly assistance in drafting new legislation.

Almost a year later, the co-operation drive remains stalled, principally over differing visions of how the effort should be organised and to what extent the media should be informed.

Pavol Mišura, executive director of the Danish Chamber of Commerce, said that an upcoming meeting on February 3 between the Danish, Dutch, British, Italian and Swedish chambers would once again take up the issue of whether to continue the earlier co-operative initiative. The meeting would also discuss a second proposal - whether or not to organise a mid-March seminar on industrial policy and small and medium enterprises in Slovakia, an event that might be open to the public and representatives of the governmment. The two areas selected corresponded with two chapters of the EU's acquis communautaire (a list of legal and administrative tasks required of each EU applicant country) to be screened in February.

The absence of the Americans from this latest meeting, for AmCham's Klevana, was evidence of a growing rift over whether the interests of the US chamber differed significantly from those of European Union chambers.

"There were some chambers that were questioning whether it was appropriate for the Amercan chamber to be there because it was felt it was more important to have an EU/Slovakia organization," he said of the original stalled co-operative effort. "When I got the feeling that some European chambers thought that the Amercan chamber was maybe a little out of place, I lost interest."

But other European chambers expressed surprise at Klevana's words, and said all chambers should take part in the February meeting.

"Of course we are talking and we will come together. And when I say come together, that means all together," Van Beek said. "We still have to learn a few things and we are still working together. There is will for the cooperation to happen, but the issues shouldn't be in the media before everything is settled."

Italy's Paoletti agreed, saying that although the different structure and approach of each chamber sometimes made co-operation difficult, the project should not simply be abandoned. "I think the problems revolve around who will come, not what is to be discussed," he said. "At the February meeting we are going to make it clear whether we are going to continue or not."

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