PIRGROUP CEO Isamar van Hilten: Don't Expect Dutch Behavior from Bulgarians
Interview with Isamar van Hilten, CEO of PIRGROUP, for the Dutch Survey ("International Survey: Bulgaria-Netherlands") of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency).
Your have a rather impressive portfolio of providing corporate and other relocation services around much of Europe. What is the scope of your operations in Bulgaria?
First of all, thank you for the interest in our company. PIRGROUP BULGARIA EOOD was initially established to service our current client base. We work for many medium, large, to multinational companies in our other destinations.
Often our HR contacts and networks ask for immigration and relocation information for Bulgaria. In order to serve them in the same professional manner they are used to in our other offices, we wanted to be formally represented in your country.
Once our knowledge about all the local processes combined with a solid network of Bulgarian immigration, employment, real estate, medical etc. departments was in place our country manager was ready to support Bulgarian based clients as well. Today we are proud to offer Immigration, Classic Relocation and Culture Workshops in Bulgaria.
Are many people – including corporate executives and employees relocating to Bulgaria? Where do these mostly come from – i.e. from what countries and from what kinds of businesses?
Bulgaria is not yet a booming location for Expats and other International Professionals, – however having said that, we do see a steady grow in new arrivals. The international population in Bulgaria is very polarized, on the one hand we see young and eager foreigners arriving to work in the call centers, IT industry and Telecom support centers – often these modern nomads came to Bulgaria by their own request, are on the local payroll and live, work, socialize with the local communities. Action, adventure, exploring the world is part of their reasoning to work abroad; they come from the USA, all EU countries, India, Canada….
The other segment of international professionals is the more traditional expat, who is assigned to Bulgaria, often joined by their family, requiring Western standard housing, schooling and medical facilities. This group of foreigners tends to come to Bulgaria for a 3 year period max, is here to establish a branch office or facilitate the joint venture with a local partner. These professionals are less driven by adventure but more by career opportunities; they also come from the USA, all EU countries, South Africa, India, Canada – but also Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese professionals have landed in Sofia.
What sort of difficulties have you encountered upon setting up your business operations in Bulgaria? How does the country fare in that respect compared to the other European states where you operate?
The PIRGROUP has been very fortunate, during our set up period we met and worked with great Bulgarian professionals in all kinds of industries. Our experience has been that Bulgarians are fantastic people to work with – once they get to know us and trust us. Advice, introduction and eagerness to work together have helped our company to explore the Bulgarian market before setting up shop.
Regarding the existence and potential of a Bulgarian market for our services companies and their Human Resource departments are aware of the problems involved with transferring a foreign national – as they have had to deal with these complexities themselves – but the knowledge that there is an actual industry – let alone an Immigration and Relocation company in Bulgaria is often surprising news for our prospects.
Our country manager’s role is still providing lots of education, training and explanations what PIRGROUP does and how it can benefit a company. In other words, the market potential is there once we have informed the companies that this Immigration & Relocation business exists. There is for example no Bulgarian word for Relocation Services. Today HR managers and secretaries still struggle for many unnecessary hours/days to file for documents themselves.
In some other Eastern EU countries the knowledge and existence of the Immigration & Relocation industry is widespread. It makes it easier for both the International Professional and his new local HR manager to allocate budgets, set expectations and pick up the phone to hire our services. Experienced Expats often drive the local HR manager to hire a Relocation company, simply because they know what a tremendous cost and time savings they are.
According to your observations, what is the greatest challenge for foreigners adapting to the Bulgarian ways of living?
A big challenge is the mentality of the people. How do Bulgarians like working with, for, together foreigners in their own country. It is a culture shock to have to work according to, for example, German managers and their business styles.
We have noticed an eagerness by Bulgarian female professionals to learn, pick up and benefit from this foreign expertise, management styles and know how. The ladies seem to be less threatened by the new and unusual- and realize to be able to get ahead with the new information available.
As a foreign manager, it is important to understand who your team is, what their cultural background is in order to motivate, reward and work well with them. Then of course there are the typical difficulties- as in any country meaning: your language and alphabet, the social do-s and don’t-s, the food, the infrastructure, not having friends to make you feel at home.
How would you evaluate the level of services offered in Bulgaria to higher-ranking expats relocating because of their jobs – I mean medical services, education, etc.?
Depending upon one’s budgets, the international schools available to expats are good, as are the medical centers, shops, rental homes. However, when you are an international professional on the local payroll – and you need to live, eat, go to school like the locals do, it is difficult. For one, reading the signs to and in the medical center – you not even know where you doctor is located.
In what areas would you say Bulgaria needs to improve in order to become more welcoming to foreigners relocating there? In other words, what would you like to see happening in the country which would make you job easier?
To be honest, the fact that our job in your country is complex is an advantage. Without the help of a local relocation consultant the entire move and settling in process can be so hard on a person/family that they give up, return home and the expensive assignment fails. No company wants that to happen!
I would prefer to broaden your question, to what would help Bulgaria to attract more foreign investment and foreign expertise, as this would lead to more business for us as well.
In some countries, or for example even in the city of Amsterdam, the Netherlands our company has been hired by the economic development agency when they are in for a bid to attract a foreign company to set up their business in the city of Amsterdam (vs any other city).
PIRGROUP’s services are paid for by the city to help the prospect relocate smoothly. In other words, the city recognizes the challenges the company will face when recruiting and relocating her foreign mangers to Amsterdam, that they (the city) pays for the support PIRGROUP then provides. Our services are seen as an incentive to select the new destination. I would love to join the Bulgarian Investment Team when they sell Bulgaria and provide us as an incentive!
Culture shock workshops are part of the services you offer. Have you had many of those for foreigners moving to Bulgaria? What is the major thing your company would teach a foreigner, for example, a Dutch person relocating to Bulgaria – how should they tackle the Bulgarian culture shock?
The best time to offer a Culture Workshop is after the person has been in Bulgaria for a few weeks. They have had some conflicts, misunderstandings, frustrations and realize something needs to change. What has to change is not known, but they are not happy, effective, successful, welcome etc in the new destination.
During the workshop we start the focus on where they have come from, and what their current “backpack filled with life experiences holds”. Once they understand the content and roots of their own backpack, we present the Bulgarian life, culture, habits, norms, believes.
After this presentation we show the areas where one will most likely clash – it is then that the “aha, recognition” moments come up. The participants of the workshop are then able to give examples of what goes wrong, or is a struggle for them.
The final part of the workshop will focus on how to prevent but also be aware and anticipate potential areas to turmoil. Hands on tools are presented. Participants are exhausted after a day of learning and experiencing – but all of them without a doubt leave the workshop feeling inspired to be able to conquer the next challenge!
Some suggestions for a Dutch national to settle well in Bulgaria: Please do not want to change your new environment, but look how you can enjoy your new environment and investigate why certain things are so different. Discussions are fine, but do not expect your employees to voluntary come to you and tell you that you have made a mistake – Bulgarians are not Dutch, so do not expect Dutch behavior from them.
Over time you can show them the benefits of using some Dutch behavior – as Bulgarians like to improve and benefit from things. Learn the language, and when single start dating a Bulgarian who does not speak English, this way you learn fast! Join a Bulgarian club instead of only the international or Dutch club.
Pay a fair salary, and show respect by implementing (western) HR rules to your Bulgarian employees as well. Travel the country, ask your colleague for suggestions and share your enthusiasm about your trips with your local team. Everybody is proud of their country so hearing that a foreigner loved the roses in the Rose Valley, will give a smile of recognition.
You have lived all over the world. In your view, what is the most important thing in dealing with different cultures? Is there anything unique about being Dutch that makes it easier to cope interacting with various cultures?
Difficult question, for me the eagerness to learn and understand is the most important element. Essential is Respect for the other party and his/her background. When you do not understand something do not assume that the other is wrong, funny, or the food not tasty.
All you experience is just something Different. Nothing less, nothing more. When truly interested in understanding this difference I have experienced success. My personality and work style is a combination of “Dutch No Nonsense, Latina Liveliness and American Ambition”. Maybe I will add something Bulgarian to this in the near future, as I still learn so much from my foreign teams every day!
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