At a time when inward investments to Europe is dead in a ditch, Filippe De Potter shines in a Belgian success story
The arcane world of inward investment promotion in London has a regular visitor from Flanders, a region with its picturesque towns of narrow streets nestled among the rolling hills of Belgium. Arriving at the riverside financial capital, Filippe De Potter, the Director of Inward Investment at Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), nicks the show from under the noses of trade promotion elite.
Filippe De Potter tells us high-spirited stories about how he brought Indian investors to his region and his country, Belgium. For this travelling salesman, London is one of the venues where he poaches Indian business diversifying in the Europe.
To begin with, he is gifted with finest hardware, the geography, to attract business. Over 60 per cent of the European purchasing power is situated within a tight 500km radius around Flanders. This means customers can be reached and served in the fastest of times. Flanders is relatively close to large industrial and consumer centers, such as the region around Paris, the Ruhr area and the Benelux. Consider this: it is easier to reach more ports in the UK from Flanders ports, than from any port in the UK itself.
Brussels is also home to the NATO and European Union headquarters. “No wonder a large number of international governmental and non-governmental organisations as well as corporate representative offices and treasury operations are based there. They like to keep abreast of European policymaking and the effect this has on their activities,” he says. But it all started with 50 Indian families setting up diamond business in Antwerp. In Antwerp, Indians’ share of the $26 billion-a-year diamond revenues has grown to roughly 65 per cent from about 25 per cent in the past two decades.
Though Belgian port has had a love affair with diamonds for centuries, of late Belgium seems to be directing some of its passions to new sectors. “The diamond industry helped to spread the word to India. There are diverse investments nowadays, from technology to manufacturing,” says De Potter, who is driving the efforts to attract investors from new sectors.
Indians seem to be in a mood to indulge amiable De Potter. JBF Industries started its Belgian operation in 2009, when companies where foot-dragging in the investment front due to global recession. JBF Industries, last year, started up its new PET polyethylene terephthalate plant based in the city of Geel, and will be a co-location plant next to British Petroleum’s (BP) PTA facility The plant, designed to produce 432,000 m.t./year of PET, is Europe’s largest PET facility.
Several Indian companies, particularly in the IT and software sector, have established base in Belgium to cater to the Belgian as well as European markets, one such recent example is collaboration in the telecom sector between Tech Mahindra and Base Telecom. “We are bigger in trade with India than the UK with India,” says De Potter. Belgium is India’s 12th most important trading partner, accounting for $17.6 billion worth of imports and exports in 2013/14. The UK meanwhile lies 17th in that list, exchanging $16.3 billion worth of goods and services in the same period.
Tech Mahindra, a specialist provider of connected solutions to the connected world announced the opening of a new Belgian delivery center in Antwerp last year. Following the recent opening of a delivery center in Düsseldorf, Germany, this new Belgian facility is the next important milestone in the growth journey as the company derives 31 per cent of its revenues from European markets. Tech Mahindra already has a development center in Brussels and with the opening of this second Belgian delivery center, the company aims at further growth in the region.
“The transport infrastructure is one of the major reasons for many to move here,” says De Potter. Although Flanders is rather compact, it features four world-class ports, the most concentrated waterway network in northern Europe, three airports for cargo and passengers, and an extensive rail network for national and European destinations. Last but not least, Flanders also has a high density of toll-free roads.
Chennai-based tyre manufacturer will attest this with vigour. The Emerald Resilient Tyre produces a wide range of solid tyres used in various industrial segments. A major player, it exports its products to more than 120 countries worldwide.
Having determined that the time was ripe to make further forays into the European market, Emrald Resilient Tyres opened a new branch in Kalmthout, near Antwerp, at the end of 2010. According to VI Srinivas, CEO of Emrald Resilient Tyres Europe, the company launched the brand new operation because of the accessibility of the region.
Then there is best of the software, the people of Flanders. “They not only rank among the world’s most highly educated and productive workforce, but they are also well-known for their high level of linguistic skills,” says De Potter. Due to the fact that the people of Flanders live right at a point where Europe’s three major cultural groups meet, many speak up to four languages, English included, which helped an Indian business exodus.
Furthermore, the Government of Flanders is deeply concerned with creating an optimal business climate for companies that settle here by offering a wide range of tax benefits and financial grants, ranging from tax exemptions to beneficial tax regimes. Belgium – and Flanders as a region – has the most open economy in the world, according to the 2013 KOF Index of Globalisation.
Recently Amir Khan movie Peekay (PK) became the first Bollywood movie to be shot in Bruges, a picturesque town in Flanders, which led to a spurt in Indian tourist footfall in the country. De Potter is enjoying this excessive attention. He started off his career promoting French business in Belgium. “It is a complete role reversal now,” he says. Even European career trajectories seem to have Bollywoodish happy twists nowadays.