U.S. Ambassador to BiH Maureen Cormack held a speech on the margins of the “U.S. Business Promotion and Networking Forum” in Banja Luka on Friday, September 22. She met with a group of mayors and that was an opportunity to discuss how the mayors have improved the business climates in their municipalities, focusing on the best methods to drive economic growth and ways the U.S. Embassy can support development at the municipal level.
We deliver her speech as a whole:
“Good morning and welcome to the “U.S. Business Promotion and Networking Event,” the first event of its kind here in BiH. The U.S. Embassy is proud to partner with the American Chamber of Commerce in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to bring all of you together today. Thank you for joining us, and I hope that you will find this event not only informative, but also inspiring, as we work together to encourage economic opportunity and growth throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. We look forward to sharing with you important information about the presence of American businesses in BiH and across the region, how the U.S. Government supports businesses, and where the potential exists for a stronger commercial relationship between the United States and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This event will inspire the development of new ideas, new synergies between businesses, government, and the international community, and a new level of partnership between all of you participating here today, leading to concrete economic results.
We’ve laid out a few goals for today, which I’d like to discuss briefly with you.
- To increase investment and business partnership opportunities for U.S. companies
Secondly, we want to increase investment and business partnership opportunities for U.S. and U.S.-affiliated companies. There are only about 30 U.S.-incorporated businesses, U.S.-branded franchises, and U.S.-owned companies operating in BiH, most of them (but not all) in Sarajevo. You may even be unaware that some of them are U.S.-owed, from Addiko Bank, to the Marbo chips factory right outside Banja Luka in Laktaši. That is why we invited some major American names to speak with us about how they entered the Bosnian market and to compare the business climate here with other countries in the region. NCR opened operations in Banja Luka this June, and recently announced the expansion of its global footprint and committed to creating 200 jobs in Banja Luka in the next two years. 100 of these employees will be hired by the end of 2017. NCR tells us it was drawn to Banja Luka for many reasons, including developed infrastructure, business-friendly taxation policies, and the city’s talented workforce that offers impressive technical and multilingual skills, critical to serving the company’s large, global footprint. We look forward to partnering with them on business goals!
- Support for AmCham
Another goal we have in mind is to increase cooperation with the American Chamber of Commerce. The AmCham is the embassy’s key partner in supporting and advocating for American businesses in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This includes advocacy for a better business environment, something that will benefit all companies, both foreign and domestic, and lead to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s overall economic growth. AmCham has among its members several companies with business operations in the Republika Srpska; for example, Affidea, Marbo, m:Tel, Nova Banka, Sector Security, UniCredit Bank Banja Luka, and Lanaco. They are active AmCham members and we would like to use this opportunity to connect you with some of the resources we have available to support you as members of this important business association. Today, you will hear from AmCham members and U.S.-affiliated companies from around the country about their experiences doing business in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- Information about USG support
A third important element is to introduce some of the programs the U.S. Government has in place to support American businesses. American companies are contacting us all the time for information about Bosnia and Herzegovina, and through presentations from the United States Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Commercial Service, and USAID you will find out more about how American embassies help our companies and contribute to overall economic growth in the countries where we work.
Positive News about U.S. Businesses in Bosnia
One of the questions I’m frequently asked as the U.S. Ambassador is, “Why isn’t there more American investment in BiH?” First of all, let’s start with the positives. There are American investments in Bosnia and Herzegovina; we estimate a total of about $250 million in FDI from the United States since 1996. About $200 million of that total has come from one major investor in the past three years – the U.S.-based, global investment firm, KKR, through its ownership of Telemach. The other significant investor is the private equity firm, Advent International, which owns Addiko Bank and serves over one million customers in BiH, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro.
U.S. investment has been good for this country. KKR is just one example; since 2014, the firm has invested approximately $200 million in developing BiH’s telecommunications market. KKR is also good for American IT businesses, and that synergy is important. Over half ($21 million) of the goods and services they have imported into BiH in the last three years came from the United States. Both KKR and Advent have faced major challenges in the Bosnian market, which they will discuss during the next session. My embassy will continue supporting these and other American investors, exporters, and brands that are contributing to economic development in both our economy and yours.
Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina faces many challenges. I’ve heard from many of you personally that you have difficulties filling jobs with skilled labor. The fact is, the current condition of BiH public schools is unsatisfactory. BiH students, their families, and BiH taxpayers in general deserve better than the status quo. Improvements are realistically possible. I have rallied the international community to come together to work on both improving the quality of education and the political issue of integration.
I’ve met with all kinds of local, international, and American companies in BiH – from farming startups, to light manufacturers, to software developers – and they consistently cite the quality of education as a major hindrance to expanding their investments. Several business leaders have told me they’ve even had to turn away new business because they were unable to expand their labor force fast enough to meet demand. This is counter-intuitive in a country with a very high youth unemployment rate.
I have been pleased to discover during my time here that several companies have started their own, in-house efforts to address shortcomings in the education system and to shape students and the unemployed into the workforce that they need. I know some of our AmCham members, particularly information and communications technology companies, have invested significant capital in helping students develop their skills and make themselves more marketable employees. I’ve enjoyed learning more about some of these innovative programs. For two years now, I have met with Coca-Cola’s impressive “Summership” internship participants, and I was also pleased to help open Microsoft’s new “Skills Center” training facility in Mostar and to support Skills Centers in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. I look forward to other opportunities to support increased engagement in important private sector initiatives like these. To that end, I am also working with our embassy team and companies here in BiH to launch a “Business Council for Education,” with the goal of bringing together companies and communities, to address this issue. I know we can do more, together.
Education is not the only challenge. As you are well aware, BiH is a very tough place for foreign investors. Companies looking to establish regional or local platforms carefully scrutinize potential returns and risks, and compare them to other markets. When they do this, one of the first things they see is that the World Bank puts BiH at number 81 out of 190 countries in its “Ease of Doing Business” ranking, making BiH the least competitive economy in Southeast Europe. Compared to rankings of 47 for Serbia, 51 for Montenegro, and 43 for Croatia, it is easy to see why companies might choose to run their regional operations elsewhere in the Balkans.
American investors tell us they face many obstacles here, like corruption, non-transparent public procurement procedures, and unpredictable fees, which can affect them anywhere, from the municipal to the cantonal, entity and state level. The business community, working through the American Chamber of Commerce, can play a key role in promoting a better business climate and maintaining zero tolerance for corruption. This may not be easy, but it is critical for BiH’s future prosperity. When American companies see BiH taking serious steps to tackle its corruption problem, they’ll be much more likely to invest here, knowing their investments are safe.
Investors need to know what to expect when they enter a new market. A stable, secure Bosnia and Herzegovina that is firmly on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration is key to improving the country’s business environment, as well as its overall image among American and other foreign investors.
Note on the Positives – Including USAID Diaspora Project
The United States sees improved economic conditions as absolutely key to the future of this country. In cooperation with the EU, we are focusing our assistance to support improvement of the business environment in line with BiH’s European path. Our commercial team works closely with U.S. businesses to inform them about market opportunities and help them with their investments on the ground. Our public affairs team is working with communities and leaders to help BiH improve the country’s education system. USAID is working on reducing para-fiscal fees and strengthening certain municipalities’ attractiveness to investors.
USAID is also executing a new, five-year, $5.2 million project to catalyze the contributions of BiH’s two million plus diaspora worldwide to socio-economic development in BiH. Our goals for the project are ambitious – we want at least 140 diaspora firms to graduate from the program; we want to increase diaspora investment by $22 million by the end of project; and we want to set up more cohesive diaspora business networks and investment support. We are doing this in several ways, by:
- Helping to develop a framework strategy for diaspora investment at all levels of government;
- Expanding diaspora direct investment through technical assistance and grants to eligible early-stage small and medium-sized enterprises; and
- Developing platforms, such as a one-stop shop for diaspora investors and an online diaspora business network, to provide targeted business services.
In conclusion, the embassy (working with partners like AmCham) is helping investors and exporters capitalize on the potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in sectors like IT, tourism, agriculture, and energy. We hear regularly from U.S. businesses who are interested in the Bosnian market, and we’d like to see more of them in BiH. We are ready to help drive stronger economic ties between the United States and BiH. BiH needs to be ready too. With a demonstrated commitment to improving the business environment from government at all levels, investors will come, including from the United States, and we look forward to supporting them.
Thank you and I wish you all a productive and rewarding discussion.”