Championing SMEs

THE SLOVAK Chamber of Commerce and Industry is one of the few local institutions focussing on the development of small- and medium-sized business ventures, which are the backbone of many successful Western European economies.

NETWORKING is an important part of Mihók's (left) work.
photo: Courtesy of SOPK

THE SLOVAK Chamber of Commerce and Industry is one of the few local institutions focussing on the development of small- and medium-sized business ventures, which are the backbone of many successful Western European economies. The Slovak Spectator asked chamber chairman Peter Mihók how his organization is helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and what role the chamber is playing in the context of the overall national economy.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Small and medium enterprises are still underrepresented in Slovakia. Why do you think this business sector is so important to the economy?

Peter Mihók (PM): Personally, I think state institutions do not really pay enough attention to small and medium enterprises. SMEs are important because they help solve regional disparities. They weaken a nation's dependence on a limited number of large, mainly foreign firms, and help create a balanced and high-quality economic portfolio.

TSS: Some business people think that the Slovak Chamber of Commerce and other Slovak institutions favour "big industry", and that they are not extending a sufficient amount of help to SMEs.

PM: The Slovak Chamber of Commerce is a not a state but a commercial institution. More than 90 percent of our members are SMEs. A majority of our services target this sector, and our services are consumed by SMEs, no matter whether they are chamber members or simply commercial customers. During the whole European Union accession process, the Slovak Chamber of Commerce was the only organization offering products and services to the SME segment.

TSS: Do you think that the SME sector is partially responsible for its lack of development in the Slovak economy? Could SMEs demonstrate greater initiative by seeking help from organizations such as the Slovak Chamber that offer appropriate products and services?

PM: Those with small and medium-sized businesses must realize that they need the support of strong, professionally built institutions to both protect and push through their interests as well as provide quality services. If SMEs start thinking this way, the whole system will be more effective.

TSS: The Slovak Chamber initiated a new programme, Platform For Young Entrepreneurs, about one year ago. Who is eligible to enrol, what can young business people expect from the programme?

PM: The chamber founded the Platform For Young Entrepreneurs in January 2004. Its main mission is to support young entrepreneurs. For a symbolic annual fee, entrepreneurs can benefit from all the advantages of chamber membership. In addition, they can access our consultancy services. Since January 2005, we have also sponsored a Platform For Women In Business programme.

TSS: The competitive advantages of doing business in Slovakia are currently based on cheap labour. Do you see this changing in the future? How will the Slovak Chamber of Commerce help shift the focus elsewhere?

PM: In the future, our competitive advantage should be based on business transparency, qualified labour, social stability and an open market economy. All activities of the Slovak Chamber are aimed at achieving this through appropriate legislation and communication with the government, parliament and social partners [unions and employers]. The future will belong to delivering quality goods at a reasonable price.

TSS: The Economy Ministry and The Slovak Investment and Trade Development Agency (SARIO) are extremely visible in attracting foreign direct investment. What is the role of the Slovak Chamber in the process?

PM: According to state legislation, the Economy Ministry and SARIO are responsible for attracting foreign investors. However, their power is dependant on governmental institutions. The non-governmental sector, the Slovak Chamber of Commerce and banks, for example, equally impact the decision-making process of foreign investors.

Before making a decision to invest or not, foreign investors seek information from the Slovak Chamber of Commerce on the quality of the business environment. They use organizations like ours to verify what they have learned from governmental sources. This means that each organisation within and outside the government sector plays its role in attracting foreign investors. It is simply impossible to say who is more important.

TSS: The Slovak Chamber supports the arbitration process. Do you think that Slovak firms take full advantage of arbitration to solve disputes? How many cases per year do you resolve through arbitration? When can a case be brought before an arbitration court?

PM: Arbitration by the Slovak Chamber of Commerce is the oldest and most functional arbitration process in Slovakia.

In the beginning, arbitration was mainly used to decide disputes with an international element. Increasingly, domestic disputes are gradually taking over. But the use of arbitration is not yet fully developed in Slovakia, primarily because there have been so many legislation changes in the field.

TSS: What do you consider the chamber's biggest success?

PM: We are the most important, most internationally respected entrepreneur institution in Slovakia. We have earned our reputation based on our professionalism and strict political independence.

TSS: Could you briefly describe the important events that the Slovak Chamber of Commerce has organized over the past year?

PM: Apart from our standard activities, the Slovak Chamber launched a programme in cooperation with European institutions to help SMEs adapt to an internal EU market. We initiated a Central European chamber initiative, bringing together the various chambers of commerce and industry in the region. Within this structure, the Slovak Chamber of Commerce is focussed primarily on protecting small regional brands. We have started rating small- and medium-sized businesses.

Since Slovakia entered the EU, the Slovak Chamber has been representing Slovakia's interests on the European Economic and Social Committee. Our activities in Eurochambre in Brussels, and the World Federation of Chambers and the International Chambers of Commerce in Paris, are also important. Our members serve as vice-presidents in both bodies.

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