Am­cham con­tin­ues to work on im­prov­ing trade re­la­tions and busi­ness sen­ti­ment

The Baltic Times - - BUSINESS -

Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory raised some con­cerns in the Baltics re­gard­ing trade, in­vest­ment and geopo­lit­i­cal se­cu­rity. Ques­tions re­main over the fu­ture of TTIP- The Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship. Latvia was the first coun­try this year to sign CETA, a trade deal with Canada. Latvia is de­ter­mined to con­tinue de­vel­op­ing trade ties across the globe. The Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce in Latvia is com­mit­ted to fos­ter­ing trade, in­vest­ment, part­ner­ship and friend­ship be­tween the U.S and Latvia. It serves as a busi­ness, knowl­edge, net­work­ing and pol­icy fo­rum for its mem­bers and part­ners. As Latvia cel­e­brates its 100 years in 2018, the Amer­i­can of Com­merce will em­bark on its 25th an­niver­sary. The Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce Am­cham speaks on be­half of 140 lead­ing U.S. and in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies in Latvia. Am­cham’s ac­tions are grounded in four core val­ues: in­tegrity, re­spon­si­bil­ity, co­op­er­a­tion and ex­cel­lence. Ar­nis Kākulis, Di­rec­tor of AECOM has been the President of the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce since 2005. He grew up in the US and ob­tained a Mas­ter’s De­gree in Ar­chi­tec­ture and a Mas­ter’s De­gree in Ur­ban Plan­ning at Wis­con­sin Univer­sity, Mil­wau­kee, USA. Kākulis sat down with The Baltic Times to dis­cuss some of Am­cham’s lat­est achieve­ments and plans for the fu­ture.

What were the high­lights and great­est achieve­ments last year for the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce?

Last year we had a very good year and we con­tinue to up­hold our mis­sion and val­ues. One of our golden high­lights was that we es­tab­lished of­fi­cially the gate­way to the USA pro­gram, the Lat­vian Gov­ern­ment didn’t at that point have a US eco­nomic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the States, and as such, the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce felt it was very im­por­tant to con­tinue to fos­ter this re­la­tion­ship of trade be­tween Latvia and the United States in both di­rec­tions. We kind of went out on a limb with the Lat­vian Cham­ber of Com­merce, signed an agree­ment, worked to­gether and cre­ated this Gate­way to the USA pro­gram, which has now evolved into a data­base of providers that can as­sist com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als who are look­ing at those op­por­tu­ni­ties. We are now start­ing to give that of­fer­ing to our mem­ber­ship at the Am­cham and to the Lat­vian Cham­ber of Com­merce mem­ber­ship. In to­tal, to­gether with the Lat­vian Cham­ber of Com­merce, we are reach­ing around 1,500 com­pa­nies that could use this ve­hi­cle, and that is also kind of on the cusp of TTIP. The sec­ond achieve­ment is, that based on this pres­sure, we es­tab­lished with the Lat­vian Gov­ern­ment, the Min­istry of Eco­nomics, Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and with the Lat­vian In­vest­ment and Devel­op­ment Agency. We fi­nally were able to get them to agree to es­tab­lish a Lat­vian eco­nomic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the United States. Last month, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive was se­lected af­ter an open ten­der, who will be tran­si­tion­ing to the US and tak­ing an ac­tive role from the Lat­vian In­vest­ment and Devel­op­ment agency to fos­ter this in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the US and Latvia. This was a lot of our do­ing and a lot of pres­sure that made it hap­pen. An­other achieve­ment is that we con­tinue to do a very strong par­tic­i­pa­tion in the for­eign in­vestors coun­cil, and lead most of the work­ing groups. Our mem­bers are the heads of most of them. We con­tinue to work on the tough is­sues, such as the grey econ­omy, cor­rup­tion, the le­gal frame­work of Latvia and po­ten­tial re­forms, so we are proud of that. The last high­light would be our con­tin­ued sup­port of the Hu­man Devel­op­ment Awards. It was a pro­gram that the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce started with the Amer­i­can Em­bassies. We have tran­si­tioned that to the Civic Al­liance now, who will con­tinue the lead­er­ship. It is one of the larger cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity ac­tiv­i­ties, along with sup­port­ing some of our other char­i­ties.

What are Am­cham’s goals and strate­gies for the fu­ture?

There are three ma­jor work streams that we will be height­en­ing and em­pha­sis­ing over the next year. One is en­hanc­ing transat­lantic trade, un­der­stand­ing whether TTIP has a fu­ture or not. We need to con­tinue work­ing on the Gate­way to the USA pro­gram to as­sist the Lat­vian In­vest­ment and Devel­op­ment Agency in get­ting this rep­re­sen­ta­tive launched into the United States and giv­ing him a net­work of con­tacts. We will also con­tinue to raise aware­ness of these transat­lantic ties and con­tinue to com­mu­ni­cate TTIP and its fu­ture. The sec­ond pri­or­ity will be a slightly dif­fer­ent an­gle for us. It is what we call--pre­par­ing the fu­ture la­bor force of Latvia. We, as many Amer­i­can-based com­pa­nies, see that there is still a lack of highly ed­u­cated work­force that doesn’t leave Latvia. We need to give them the ap­pro­pri­ate job types and make sure they are trained for what is needed for the up­com­ing eco­nomic driv­ers of Latvia. So, tal­ent at­trac­tion, tal­ent re­ten­tion and even tal­ent re­cruit­ment back from coun­tries. We even see that at my com­pany at AECOM. I am start­ing to sur­face other AECOM em­ploy­ees who are of Lat­vian de­scent, who have moved, worked for our com­pany, but don’t even know we have a lo­cal pres­ence in Latvia. Two of them right now are con­sid­er­ing mi­grat­ing back. So, we are try­ing to re­in­force at Am­cham that there are pos­si­bil­i­ties to help the de­mo­graphic is­sue, by pro­vid­ing good jobs to peo­ple. It will have more of an ed­u­ca­tional em­pha­sis, which we haven’t done in the past few years. The third goal is to con­tinue to sup­port the im­prove­ment of the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment in Latvia. This year we will fo­cus on se­cur­ing a safe busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment with geopo­lit­i­cal na­ture be­fore we stand right now. We don’t see ag­gres­sive in­vest­ment in Latvia, ev­ery­body is a lit­tle more cau­tious. I think the more we can present to the busi­ness community that this is a safe place to do busi­ness by the ad­vo­cacy el­e­ments of re­duc­ing cor­rup­tion, and from a de­fence per­spec­tive--both cy­ber and phys­i­cal. It is im­por­tant to em­pha­sise that this still is a place safe for in­vest­ment, and we will con­tinue to work on that this year.

Is it dif­fi­cult to at­tract tal­ent back to Latvia?

It can be some­what dif­fi­cult, but not al­ways. You have to look at what the busi­nesses of­fer. If you are talk­ing about pro­fes­sional ser­vices and con­sult­ing ser­vices, I don’t think that the salary is­sue is as much of an is­sue, as their work and clients are more in­ter­na­tional and global, which means their in­ter­na­tional clients can com­mit to higher level ser­vice fees. Here you can take ad­van­tage of a slightly lower cost labour force, but pay them bet­ter. That is why we see a lot of the shared ser­vice cen­tres com­ing here tak­ing ad­van­tage of that. One of the bet­ter ex­am­ples that we were in­volved with is the Bar­clays Bank mi­gra­tion to an­other Baltic coun­try, Lithua­nia. There they have re­ally been able to im­prove wages to their lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional em­ploy­ees, and at­tract Lithua­nian tal­ent back from the UK with good white col­lar jobs, not just blue col­lar jobs. I think there is an op­por­tu­nity to in­still the cul­ture within our com­pa­nies, to not be afraid to pro­vide higher wages, but at the same time re­main com­pet­i­tive. Lat­vian busi­ness will not suc­cumb to adding an in­crease in their wages. We as cor­po­rate cit­i­zens have to try to em­pha­sise and call for an im­prove­ment in wages as this coun­try re­ally needs it.

EU Am­bas­sador to the U.S, David O’sul­li­van said TTIP is nei­ther alive nor dead. How has Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion af­fected it?

As far as I know, his state­ment is prob­a­bly very ac­cu­rate. We know that the new US ad­min­is­tra­tion has not sup­ported a lot of ex­ter­nal trade type ini­tia­tives. The very quick clo­sure of the Tran­spa­cific Trade Agree­ment kind of shows that there might not be that pres­i­den­tial sup­port for TTIP, but I don’t think it is dead. There is still quite a bit to go be­fore fi­nal­is­ing it. I think it was very smart that they didn’t try to rush into fi­nal­is­ing it dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but ac­tu­ally kept the frame­work, will work at it and see if it goes any­where. That’s why from our per­spec­tive, you can’t wait for it to hap­pen, I don’t think it will hap­pen in the near fu­ture. I don’t think there will be an ac­tual TTIP. There will be some ac­tions to en­hance trade amongst smaller sets of coun­tries. It was very com­pli­cated, when you take the en­tire Euro­pean Union, try to gain con­sen­sus and agree on the pack­age de­tails--it was not an easy task. As you see, the Lat­vian side is quite pos­i­tive, they quickly rat­i­fied the Cana­dian Euro­pean Trade Agree­ment (CETA). I think Latvia was num­ber one in ac­cept­ing that agree­ment. I would imag­ine the one with the US is sim­i­lar, so we feel it is very pos­i­tive to break down the bar­ri­ers, be­cause the bar­ri­ers are still very great for small-medium en­ter­prises to en­ter into the US, and it is not easy. And those bar­ri­ers be­ing lifted slightly in the TTIP or that type of trade agree­ment is just a pos­i­tive. I don’t see large trade part­ner­ships hap­pen­ing un­der Trump, but it is hard to tell, it is very un­pre­dictable. The Amer­i­can Cham­ber has to be in a po­si­tion to work with whichever gov­ern­ment is es­tab­lished in the US. We work very closely with the US em­bassy to un­der­stand what is go­ing on to pro­vide our mem­bers with the best in­for­ma­tion pos­si­ble. I think this ad­min­is­tra­tion, com­pared to any other ad­min­is­tra­tion, has been prob­a­bly the most chaotic at its be­gin­ning points. You re­ally can’t un­der­stand if it is pos­i­tive or not, as it is very hap­haz­ard. I don’t think it is do­ing a lot for these smaller coun­tries, es­pe­cially the ones that bor­der Rus­sia with un­cer­tainty. I think it is not help­ing the sit­u­a­tion, it is mak­ing it more un­clear, more un­sta­ble, more un­cer­tain, which won’t help Latvia at­tract in­vest­ment from the US or from any­where else nor vice-versa. Ev­ery­thing that Latvia in essence has to of­fer, is rel­a­tively small scale, even the largest of things, the tech­ni­cal en­gi­neer­ing things, and fiber­glass things that are hap­pen­ing in the US. Lat­vian busi­nesses are build­ing fac­to­ries there, I don’t think that will stop, as it is cre­at­ing lo­cal jobs, but ex­port­ing prod­ucts. I don’t know, the jury is out on that. Will it be con­tin­ued or will it be stopped? I am not sure what will hap­pen with that, but who knows.

The US Em­bassy tra­di­tion­ally hosted In­de­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tions, but last year the Am­cham or­gan­ised it in­stead. Tell us about this tran­si­tion and your plans for this year.

We tran­si­tioned the In­de­pen­dence Day pic­nic from the Amer­i­can Em­bassy to Am­cham. We felt it was our duty to take on the lead­er­ship role, as it has al­ways been a re­ally nice event. Last year, we held a nice pic­nic at the Ethno­graphic Mu­seum and we will do it again this year. The US em­bassy had that cul­ture of in­clud­ing fam­i­lies, not only fam­i­lies of those com­pa­nies that are rep­re­sented in the US and here, but also the mil­i­tary community, the ex­pat community and any­one hold­ing a US pass­port. It’s a re­ally great event and shows the US spirit on a large scale.

Am­cham will cel­e­brate its 25th an­niver­sary in 2018. Are you or­gan­is­ing some spe­cial events to cel­e­brate this event?

There will be some spe­cial events. We usu­ally cel­e­brate the ma­jor mile­stones as a Gala event. At the 20th year an­niver­sary, there was a large black-tie Gala event. This year it will also take place in a very for­mal and pres­ti­gious way. It will be the 25th an­niver­sary for Am­cham, the same year that Latvia has its 100th year an­niver­sary. I would imag­ine there will be some themes that will over­lap there for the event. It is sched­uled for April, 2018 and it will be a rel­a­tively large-scale event.

Am­cham held its 24th An­nual gen­eral meet­ing on march 16th.

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