Maxim Behar: Prince Charles Brought UK Business to Bulgaria
Maxim Behar is a Bulgarian businessman, PR expert, journalist and diplomat. He has been a member the Board of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum since 1999. Behar has served as chair of the BBLF Board for two terms in 2001-2007, and as deputy chair for one term in 2009-2012. Owner and CEO of M3 Communications Group, Inc., a leading Bulgarian PR company since 1994, he has been in charge of the Prague Office of global communications corporation Hill+Knowlton Strategies since the beginning of 2012. Member of dozens of local and international boards. He has received a number of awards, the latest of which is the "Communicator of the Decade" Award of the Association of Business Communicators of India (ABCI). Since 2004, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Seychelles in Bulgaria. He was voted Bulgaria's "Manager of the Year" for 2012 in the online vote of the largest Bulgarian private TV channel bTV as part of the annual top managers' contest of the renowned magazine "Manager".
Exactly ten years ago – on March 13, 2003 – HRH the Prince of Wales visited Bulgaria and - funnily – spent a few hours in the very room where he had launched the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum five years earlier. Was the visit a sign of a major improvement in the relations between Bulgaria and Great Britain?
In my view the visit was a key milestone for the development of the relations between Bulgaria and Great Britain. It came at a time when Bulgaria and Europe experienced tremendous economic growth. Prince Charles spent no more than a day in Bulgaria, but his visit spurred the interest of British media in Bulgaria – he was accompanied by a large group of British journalists from a dozen television channels and at least as many print media and radio stations.
Now when I take a look back in time at how the business ties between the two countries have developed, I see an interesting trend. Prince Charles' visit to Bulgaria appears to have prompted the huge interest of British house hunters in our country. More than 50 000 Britons seeking a bargain deal for their new place in the sun found it in Bulgaria and at least 5 000 not just bought a vacation retreat, they decided to stay and live in Bulgaria.
Back then Bulgaria had all the assets necessary to attract foreign investors, but we capitalized on that thanks to the big media coverage abroad of Prince Charles' visit. Last but not least – that was the first time that Prince Charles visited twice an Eastern European country within less than five years, a fact which did not go unnoticed.
You personally invited Prince Charles during an official visit to St. James' Palace in London in December 2012. In your capacity of BBLF chairman you became the first Bulgarian business representative invited by Prince Charles to a private meeting in the Palace. How did you come up with the idea to invite the Prince of Wales to Bulgaria? What was your first impression of him?
Like many other important global events, this happened largely by accident. A few months earlier king Simeon Saxe-Coburg visited London and invited me to accompany him at a business forum in the Bulgarian Embassy. I had with me the first two copies of the Business Ethics Standard that a group of friends from the Board of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum had drafted a few days earlier.
Prince Charles however did not turn up at the embassy. As I handed the Business Ethics Standard to Susan Simpson, the then Director for Europe at the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF), I said half-jokingly, half-seriously:"If Prince Charles does not come to Bulgaria within the next few months, I want this back ..."
Just a month later – in fact it was on my birthday – I was having a lunch with Prince Charles at St. James' Palace in London and officially invited him to come and visit Bulgaria. In January 2003 the then British Ambassador to Sofia Ian Soutar called me and said excitedly: "He is coming!"
Officially his host was the then President Georgi Parvanov, but in practice we – the representatives of the Bulgarian business – were his real hosts. Prince Charles is a unique person – noble, considerate, respectful, a great listener who minces his words. All my meetings with him have produced great memories and a lot of interesting stories.
During a high-profile conference, organized by BBLF in the framework of Prince Charles' visit, the then Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg said the country has seen many positive changes – macroeconomic stability and transition to market economy. How would you comment on that upbeat mood in hindsight?
The Bulgaria, which welcomed Prince Charles, was enjoying a period of tremendous economic progress and that did not go unnoticed. During our long meetings with his team when we drafted the program of his visit and which sometimes lasted until the small hours, it was suggested that Prince Charles meet British investors. I firmly insisted however that he is introduced to Bulgarian companies only, which have originally Bulgarian know-how and work in different areas of the economy and have achieved great success without a single cent of foreign investment. That's how the Prince of Wales personally awarded "Todoroff" wine-cellar, first private Bulgarian RADIO FM+, baked products producing Pain D'or, luxury men's ware producing company Denyl, a small boutique hotel in Plovdiv and many others. In hindsight I realize what a great success this initiative was. The very awarding ceremony, the meetings and photos sparked the British business huge interest in Bulgaria and just months later they literally "invaded" the country and started to invest.
Upon his arrival to Bulgaria on March 13, 2003, Prince Charles said he saw many changes since his first visit to the country back in 1998. What would he see if he visits Bulgaria now, ten years later?
He will see a very different Bulgaria, that's for sure. On the one hand – many things were achieved throughout all those years, we, the people who do business changed, the environment in which we do business changed. On the other hand - the crisis spared neither Britain nor Bulgaria. Unfortunately, "the Bulgarian boom" lasted too short - from 2001 to 2008 and will never return to the scale back then – the real estate and construction sector were growing at a head-spinning speed against the background of a prosperous European and global economy. Let's not forget, however, that the over 50,000 Britons who bought property in Bulgaria back then contributed to the boom and now continue to be involved in our economy - pay taxes, create jobs, rent out their properties or come to live in them and leave money in Bulgaria.
In a nutshell - if Prince Charles comes now to Bulgaria, he will find a country burdened by the financial restrictions imposed by the last government and businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, left to survive alone in a somehow neoliberal fashion amid the chaos of bureaucracy and corruption. But Prince Charles will also see a country, which boasts the lowest taxes in Europe and - I firmly believe in this - the most motivated, intelligent and educated people in Europe, ready in a few years to take control of the country and put the house in order. I'm sure that if not he, his sons will help us as Prince Charles himself did ten years ago.
Do you believe his visit managed to give a boost to Bulgaria's relations with Great Britain?
Yes, it definitely did. The benefits can be felt today and will be felt for a long time. They impact Bulgaria's image, economy, while others concern our everyday life. It may sound like a joke, but truth is elderly people in many Bulgarian villages now speak fluent English thanks to their British neighbors, who in their turn drink rakia and dance the horo more skillfully than many Bulgarian girls. This is a great story, a beautiful story one and this is only the beginning...
Which of BBLF projects and achievements have been estimated highest by Prince Charles?
I would without hesitation single out the Business Ethics Standard. When I gave him a copy of it during my visit to the St. James' Palace in December 2002, he carefully read the list of just ten, but very important points, looked up and thoughtfully said: "I am really impressed! It would be impossible to promote this initiative in Great Britain, the traditions have been built for centuries, and the business is too conservative "... We talked a lot about the projects of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum, and it was during this conversation that another project was born and grew to be its flagship brand - the Corporate Social Responsibility awards.
How important is the work of organizations such as BBLF for the improvement of the business climate in our country?
These types of organizations have a very important role to play – they protect the interests of business and show that each and every economy, no matter how difficult that may be in practice, needs fair, honest, transparent and well-run businesses. Especially now, in 2013! This is the only way for Bulgaria's economy to succeed and organizations like BBLF help a lot in this.
How did BBLF evolve since March 2003?
March 2003 was a turning point for the forum. The visit of Prince Charles turned us overnight into one of the leading business organizations in Bulgaria, which we still are. All our projects are dedicated to ethical and transparent business, we have more and more new members who are convinced that it will bring only benefits to Bulgaria.
How does the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum cooperate with the other Forums established by the Prince of Wales - Czech, Polish and Hungarian?
We exchange experience and information, but not on a regular basis. My stay over the past year and a half in Prague and partly in Budapest helped me boost my work with the Forums in the Czech Republic and Hungary, get to know them better and certainly part of that experience will be applied soon in Bulgaria.
Which was the most important lesson that you learned working in cooperation with the International Business Leaders Forum?
It is a very simple lesson - if you want to achieve something in business, do it openly and transparently and say that out loud so that more and more people follow you.
Which should be the critical priorities for Bulgaria's business in 2013?
Bulgaria's business has a long list of critical priorities to accomplish. The previous year was suffocating slow in terms of reforms, Bulgaria is lagging behind and now has to catch up quickly. But there are two things, which should not be changed under any circumstances – the Currency Board regime, in which the country is operating, and the levels of its taxes. These two factors are crucial for Bulgaria's stability. But it is not enough because what the country urgently needs now is a quick and irreversible growth. Immediately after the elections, the new government must come up with a clear program on how to improve conditions for doing business in Bulgaria, what incentives to offer to increase production and attract foreign investments. In other words - to put our house in order. And then of course it would be great to invite Prince Charles again. I'm sure that will happen.
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