David Webb: The British are missing their chances

David Webb, a consultant in the PR Agency MmD, considers that the view of Serbia in Britain at the moment is not realistic. The real risk is far smaller than the businessmen think. The Serbian market is yet to be filled with new investments

Belgrade is the centre of the Balkans. That is a foregone conclusion. Even in the period of sanctions, throughout the nineties, none of the neighbouring capitals gained supremacy over the Serbian capital. Sofia is too far away, and Zagreb is not sufficiently big, and therefore it is logical that by signing the CEFTA Agreement on the free market zone Belgrade is named as the regional centre.

This is how David Webb, a professional consultant in the British PR Agency MmD sees our capital. At the same time, Mr. Webb is aware that few foreigners think about Serbia in the same way.

– We are a small group of like- minded persons. Something like an “ethnic minority”. The fact that our numbers are increasing encourages us – Webb says with a smile in the interview for Magazin Biznis.

The right to a political opinion

Now that I am no longer part of Government, Webb emphasizes, I am entitled to my own political opinion. Perhaps it will seem that I am uncritical towards Serbia, but it has been very easy to be critical towards the Serbs in the past 20 years, he explains:
I would like to see Serbia being given equal chances. It is shameful how the issue of Kosovo is being treated in the international community. One should really wonder what is happening in the world when only the Russian president dares to declare his opinion on the subject. The fact that the legitimate rights of Serbia are not being respected with respect to Kosovo has negative consequences on economic development. 

 Earlier as well, as an official of the British Embassy in charge of economic issues, he often pointed out that the advantages of our country are ’good location, cheap workforce, educated personnel and an excellent knowledge of foreign languages’. When asked whether his colleagues as well, businessmen from the United Kingdom, are of the same opinion, David answers:

– Unfortunately not. Those who believe in it are few. The current view of Serbia from the Great Britain is not realistic. The risk they see is far smaller than the real risk. The message that Serbia should send to the British investors is that a great return of money invested is possible because the market is not yet saturated and has great capacities. I admit there is an additional issue: that fact that the British are insufficiently informed about Serbia. People who are well acquainted with the situation in Eastern European countries and especially in Serbia are rare. It is as if with the fall of the Berlin wall the British lost that geographic-historical thread. Working with them as a government official, before any talk on business, I often had to ’give a lesson’ on history and geography so that they understood what I was talking about – complains Webb. What the majority of Britons know is that Yugoslavia existed, that they came here for their summer holidays, drove “yugo” and drank Yugoslav Riesling.

However, Serbia is for the majority of Britons still confined to the nineties, the sanctions, the stories about Kosovo and the Hague Tribunal. For that reason many companies are missing their chances by not coming here – Webb estimates.

– Recently I talked to a BBC journalist on the street on the election results. From that conversation I realized that this country is still being represented as a crisis area and that the whole seven-year development is being denied. However, It is important that those who invested money here have not repented – Webb points out. How should, then, Serbia improve its image and rating in the “address book” of the investors?

According to our interviewee, in order to improve Serbia’s position on the world investment map it first has to realize that there is a global capital market and that money can be invested anywhere. Namely, it is enough to be heard of one or two minor failures to lose the confidence of investors entirely.

– There are many more competitors than we can imagine. For Serbia, for instance, it is encouraging that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are becoming too expensive to be competitive. It is most probable that now the focus is being transferred to Romania and Bulgaria, the new members of the European Union, and to the ex-Yugoslav countries. Compared to Croatia and some other countries Serbia is more competitive with respect to prices, and the business climate is also more favourable – David Webb considers.

Traffic “in the way” of business

An increasing number of investors, David Webb says, regard the Balkans as a single market.
– That makes sense, but there are some logistic difficulties that no one speaks about. In some foreign firms it is very well known. The businessmen in charge of the entire region spend days on the plane or train to get from one meeting to another. Interregional traffic is very bad. For instance, it is only via Vienna and Zagreb that you can get to Dubrovnik- Webb says.

How to get over “yugo”

During the conversation with David Webb one gets an impression that it is not science fiction for the Serbian businessmen to think about exporting goods to the “choosy” British market.
– That has already happened, but in separate fields. Some smaller firms are already exporting their products to Britain. Fruits, vegetables, furniture and textile have a great exporting potential. In Šumadija there is a company called “A Perfect White Shirt” which produces only for the British market. Also, another firm in Pančevo exports software into Britain. It is clear that such things can always work. Therefore one should not focus and be persistent in realizing something that is bound to fail. To be particular, I have the export of “yugo” in mind. Britain used to import that type of car, but it will not any more. Thus, it must be understood that “Zastava” factory will not exist in ten years, but at the same time a large number of small companies will be working and all our efforts should be directed to them- David Webb says.

At the same time, he knows very well how Serbia gradually developed throughout the years. For more than five years he has lived in Belgrade, and he has been indirectly tied to Serbia ever since 1996., when, as a Government official, he was in charge of this area.

I am well acquainted with the Milosevic regime and the state in which Serbia then was. All that is easy to forget now, but at that time, when people were without electricity even, when there was no regular supply, that meant that there were hardly basic life conditions. The situation in Serbia is completely different now. I do not deny that there are problems, but they are of a different nature. Mostly an economic one. Even now there are many people who are poor and unemployed and who are not satisfied with the degree of the country’s advancement. However, at the moment Serbia is recognized as a developing market. To be more precise, as a re-developing market. Figures support this statement. A few years ago only 30 percent of people were employed in the private sector. Now that figure has been doubled – David Webb says.

Unlike many foreign businessmen working here, David has not signed a “temporary work” contract. Therefore he will not be in the position to pack his bags and leave on termination of the contract. He sees his near future, as he says, precisely in Belgrade and Serbia. The fact that he has recently refused a tempting business offer for Canada supports this. He has chosen to stay in Serbia. His explanation of that decision is that he truly loves Belgrade. And that he trusts Belgrade. He places great confidence in the people and the market that is yet to be filled with new investments.

 Enigmatically and with a smile he admits that there are also some private, sentimental reasons behind this decision. We unofficially learn that David Webb has precisely in Serbia found his lifelong partner. However, he refuses to publicly speak about these emotions.

A. Nikolić
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