The Norwegian Australian Chamber of Commerce wants to find new ways to bring more Norwegian companies down under.
The Norwegian Australian Chamber of Commerce was founded three years ago, but hasn’t wasted any time establishing itself.
With nearly 100 members, the organisation wants to find new ways to support its members and bring more companies down under. The Norwegian British Chamber of Commerce and the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce are both more than 100 years old. Meanwhile, the Swedish-Australian Chamber of Commerce has been in existence since 1911. Given this history, one might think that a Norwegian chamber in Australia would boast a similar lineage, but it took until 2015 for the Norwegian Australian Chamber of Commerce ( NACC) to come into existence.
“The NACC wasn’t something that had been in the pipeline before we launched it. It ended up filling a gap,” Ms Sophia Demetriades Toftdahl, NACC President, notes. “There was the Scandinavian Club before us, but it was very much an old-school group and a lot of members grew old. No one wanted to be a leader and it sort of fizzled away.”
Ms Demetriades Toftdahl believes the closure of the Sjømannskirken [the Norwegian Seaman’s Church] in Sydney was a key turning point. The church needed funding and more volunteering to survive, but no one in the Norwegian community was aware of this until it was too late. If the Norwegian community in Australia had been organised, this could have been prevented. The closure of the Sjømannskirken was unfortunate, but it would help lead others to understand the need for community.
“Previously, no one had the drive to start the chamber. There was a group of us that thought we should do it,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl says. “The embassy was cautious about their involvement and support at first, but several companies said they would be interested as long as we didn’t host too many events they had to be present at”.
Ms Demetriades Toftdahl’s interests, experience and studies provided
a lot of useful resources for setting up the NACC. She also understood the importance of community being so far away from Norway. “I’ve always been involved in building communities that build strength, and this is especially necessary when you are this far away from Norway. Living or working in a place as far away from Norway as Australia is very different from living in a place closer to home such as Denmark or Germany. The distance itself makes it strange even if the country and it’s people are nice,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl points out. “Being a part of NACC is more than simply a business decision. It’s a place of belonging, community, trust and friendship”.
In order to be successful, the NACC needed a clear, actionable plan that would benefit members and show the Norwegian embassy in Australia they were serious in their efforts.
“Our first step was to create a strategic plan. We started organising
events and eventually launched groups in Perth and Melbourne. This allowed us to cover the cities with the most Norwegian businesses,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl details. “After about one year of getting it off the ground, the embassy got involved which was a big boost for us. It would have been nice to have their support from the start, but I also understand why they were cautious. They wanted us to prove that we were serious and in it for the long haul.”
The geography of Australia presents the NACC with a few logistical issues that some other Norwegian Chamber of Commerce chapters may not have to deal with. For example, Sydney is more than a four-hour flight away from Perth.
“We have to travel a bit and needed to set up communication via social media to keep in touch with all of our members,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl says. “It is quite important to reach out to everyone. Given the distance between our branches, we continue to look at ways we can improve our communication to ensure everyone can stay in touch.” Distance and communication challenges can also be an advantage. Those of us who travel a lot all make sure to catch up with each other when we are in town. Award-winning effort Despite being only three-years old, the NACC has already been recognised for its efforts. At the APAC 2018 International Chamber of Commerce Awards, it was named as the Small Chamber of the Year. Other winners included the British Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Karnataka Chamber of Commerce & Industry, a pair of organisations with more than 150 years of experience combined.
“This isn’t the world’s biggest award, but there aren’t that many awards for chambers to win. We feel like it is a great achievement and it validates our efforts in many ways,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl proclaims. “We were judged on our strategic plan and rapid growth, which proves our efforts were worth it. It wasn’t just a PR stunt.”
For the entire team at the NACC, the past three years have been an exhausting yet rewarding experience. While members have seen the NACC’s efforts in organising events, the efforts behind the scenes to get the organisation off the ground may be overlooked.
“It is a lot of work. We had to show we were serious as a business network before we could even officially apply to be a chamber. Doing that required us to jump through quite a few hoops,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl explains. “There was a lot of paperwork and expenses, which we had to pay for out of our own pocket. We learned a lot and it was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t easy to get this going.”
The NACC may be a relative newcomer, but Ms Demetriades Toftdahl is confident Norwegian businesses are already seeing the benefits that having a chamber brings.
“Not having a chamber in Australia puts Norwegian companies at a disadvantage compared to our European and Asian counterparts. We are stronger together.” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl states. “Norwegian businesses here have experienced both having and not having a chamber of commerce and they all mention how they can feel the difference. It is possible to get by without one, but the support and community is a valuable thing to have.”
Looking ahead, the NACC is optimistic about expanding even if there are a few challenges that will need to be addressed.
“Funding is always important. It can also be difficult to find people with the drive to volunteer. People who do volunteer find the benefits of experience and networking are well worth it,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl says. “We also want to keep expanding our operations. Hiring staff and ensuring we provide real outcomes for members. The most important thing is to keep building on what we have done. If we stagnate or simply maintain the status quo, we won’t survive.” Connecting with Asia Norwegian businesses have been eager to expand into Asia, eyeing both China and Southeast Asia where a growing middle class and strong GDP numbers have created new opportunities. However, the economy in Australia is solid with the Reserve Bank of Australia predicting GDP growth to average more than three percent in 2018 and 2019.
According to Ms Demetriades Toftdahl, this, along with Australia’s high per capita income, makes it an attractive place for Norwegian businesses, especially those already in Asia.
“Australia is quite isolated. We want to connect to Asia since this is a region Norway pays a lot of attention to. Australia is closer to Asia than Norway, but at the moment it feels like we are on the outside of this activity,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl notes. “We have to connect up to Asia. Australia should be seen as a part of it, not its own separate region.”
She adds that Asia shouldn’t be the final destination. A number of Norwegian companies are already operating in Southeast Asia and it makes sense for these firms to at least consider Australia. The NACC is looking at ways to get Norwegian businesses in Australia more involved in Asia as well.
For businesses, new opportunities and support are an important reason to join with a chamber of commerce. However, Ms Demetriades Toftdahl urges that they also be active and contribute.
“Perhaps the most important thing about being part of a chamber is that it isn’t about what you get out, but what you put in. If everyone contributes, everyone benefits,” Ms Demetriades Toftdahl concludes.