Forbes Romania: What can you tell us about the recent economic collaboration between Romania and The Swiss Confederation?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: As a member of the European Union (EU), Romania is one of the beneficiaries of Switzerland’s contribution to reduce economic and social disparities in the expanded EU. The Swiss Government, in its programme of assistance to the new member states, allocated Romania a grant of 181 million Swiss francs in order to implement a programme dedicated to develop SME’s in several sectors, such as production, tourism, medical services and energy wise technology. By the end of this year we will have committed all 181 million Swiss francs and by the end of 2019 all projects will have been completed. To this day, there is no problem and this is the first time when I see, as an Ambassador, a portfolio of projects with zero problems.
Forbes Romania: Which Swiss companies have been persuaded by Romania’s potential so far?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: There are big Swiss companies here, like Holcim, Nestlé, all good trademarks in Switzerland, but most of them are small and medium companies, active in many sectors. When I arrived here, in September 2011, they were complaining that the turnover was not as high as before, there was only a 10% increase. But there are possibilities of expanding, Romania has a huge potential and most of the Swiss investors are very happy for their businesses, because they can expand very fast.
Small niche companies also have good performances here, once they find a good partner and settle down. For instance, there is one melting aluminum and producing taps and other industrial accessories. They chose Romania because it is a member of the European Union, it is safe and it is easier to protect the know-how and the secret of fabrication than in Asia or other countries. I visited the factory and the people there were very dedicated and put a lot of energy and faith in the business. There are a lot of companies coming here for the well trained working force and for the good cost of salaries.
Forbes Romania: What is the feedback you have from the companies here?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: The problem is on the administration side, because of the authorisations and the paperwork needed. The best reform the government could do would be to simplify the very cumbersome bureaucracy. In Switzerland we had a crisis in 1975-76, when a lot of companies went bankrupt in my canton. The first thing the authorities did was to simplify procedures in order to avoid overlapping, because we have a federal state with communal, local and federal administration: the idea is to provide the documentation in only one place. We call it “one stop shop” and it is much more friendly for investors, because it is the administration that does the work, not the investor.
The other thing that is perhaps missing here is delegating more responsibility to the civil servant. Civil servants try to do their best, but, due to limited authonomy, they will not take responsibility, which is understandable. Further more, they should be paid correctly and have more responsibility. And finally the basic rule should be trust, not mistrust.
Forbes Romania: What are the main problems preventing companies from coming to Romania and what is your advice for them?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: Companies cannot afford to be involved in corruption, so the first rule is no corruption. As an ambassador, I have instructions to denounce companies if I find out they are doing strange things. But having said that, I have lived in other countries where corruption was much higher than here. In Romania corruption is a problem, but I see it going down. For instance, there are not many countries that put a former Prime Minister in jail because of corruption. The legislation regarding asset declarations is much more advanced here, actually that is why there are scandals, that is why there is the impression that Romania is very corrupt.
Another problem is Romania’s image, which is maintained by the media and also by the Romanian diaspora. Big companies that have 10 millions to invest in Europe gather their board members. If they have to choose from Romania, Portugal and Denmark, the first country out of discussion is Romania, because the members of the board don’t trust it, the name is not good.
Forbes Romania: Will the recent vote in Switzerland change anything in Romanian – Swiss relations?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: Swiss people have recently accepted (by a very narrow majority) the initiative requesting the government to conduct autonomous immigration policy and quotas. It was a bit of a surprise. My government has to implement now the text and they are trying to propose to the EU Commission to respect the decision of the people in Switzerland. It is a very complicated process, but there are no changes now until the implementation of rules. So it should be business as usual on our side. It doesn’t change anything. We receive a lot of calls asking about visas, but it is not the case.
Forbes Romania: What are the main advantages when coming here?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: When I invite the Swiss coming here to my residence to talk about Romania, they always start with critics, but I say „Stop!”. This is a very safe country, much safer than most countries, I feel safer than in Switzerland. The investors already know that, I try to talk to those who come here for the first time.
For investing, there is a huge potential everywhere: industry, agriculture, IT, it is just a question of starting. There are very well trained people and there is a positive approach to work, once the people are paid correctly. The economic fundamentals are
also among the best in the EU, according to the Maastricht criteria. A lot of EU countries would be happy to have your results. A huge advantage for Romania is the 16% flat tax, which is lower than in Switzerland. Location is also very good.
Regarding advantages and obstacles, let me give you an example. In Transylvania there are a lot of incredible pipe organs in churches, but they have not been properly maintained in communist times. There is a Swiss organ maker that came here in 1992 and he managed to create a school in Hărman, Sibiu, with Swiss private money, in order to train specialists for maintaining these incredible organs. But the government does not want to recognize the school, because there are no experts on the Romanian side. There is this excessive formalism, which I partly understand, as a civil servant, but sometimes I get nervous (laughing). Again, we had a very nice exhibition of Swiss watches at the National History Museum, but the top expert I found in Switzerland was not recognized here, because he does not have an university degree, the system allowing professionals to become „maîtres” being very different in Switzerland. But well, these are very special examples.
Foreign investors coming here have to know where they put their feet and understand the context, but it is the same everywhere. Then you must have a good partner and you need patience and enough cash (for small companies), so if it doesn’t work from the start, your core company doesn’t shut down. Regarding the image, it is a long-term approach. My mother was Sicilian and when I grew up in the 60s, Italians were not well regarded in Switzerland. Now they are well-respected, so it took one generation to change.
Forbes Romania: You are not a businessman, but, as a personal preference, where would you invest yourself, in what field?
Jean-Hubert Lebet: I am not an investor, but I am very fond of wine. I always tell the Swiss coming here to ask their local wine shop to bring Romanian wine.
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