EUROPE: Taking a hard look at oneself

Belgium is underperforming, compared to the successes of similar-sized economies such as Finland. Ambition, inspiration and investment are needed for positive change.

In the race for growth, it sometimes seems your competitors enjoy a head start.

No, not so much a personal admission but a reflection of the findings of a study conducted by consultants Bain & Co on behalf of VBO/FEB, Belgium’s employers’ federation. It is due to be presented today (June 13) at the latter’s Forum de l’Entreprise congress in Brussels.

The study, details of which have been released ahead of the congress, attempt to shed light on why it should be that Belgium’s corporate world, though of a similar size and boasting similar resources to that of, say, Sweden or Switzerland, compares poorly in essential qualities such as dynamism and growth.

Of Europe’s top 500 companies ranked by size, the report’s authors point out that 31 are Swiss-based concerns and 25 hail from Sweden, while a mere 12 claim Belgian roots.

Factors contributing to these results, as cited by survey respondents – senior managers in approximately 900 Belgian companies – include salary costs, local taxes and the lack of a sufficiently skilled workforce. These conditions, however, are not unique to Belgium and can apply in equal or greater measure to both Sweden and Switzerland.

Bain’s consultants come up with three somewhat different factors: a lack of audacity or initiative and individuals offering these qualities, and, lastly, a lack of means to follow through on growth initiatives.

Commenting on the study, the Brussels newspaper Le Soir took as its reference another similarly sized economy, Finland, and asked: “When will Belgium’s Nokia emerge?” By casting envious looks across at this Finnish success story, the paper highlighted the need for Belgian companies to make their constitution more open so it welcomes outside investment.

Above all, businesses should adopt a mindset similar to that of Nokia, which has transformed itself from a supplier of forest and rubber products to the Finnish economy, into a major global mobile communication player.

As Mikael Roos, of Softline Technologies, told Steve Silberman in an interview in Wired magazine (September 1999): “Nokia has validated the whole idea of Scandinavian companies playing an important role in global market development. When we travel now, it’s easier for us to be accepted. People listen.”

Coincidentally, Belgium’s corporate leaders can take heart from recent events in an apparently unrelated sphere.

In the world of tennis, the impressive performances of two young Belgian tennis players – Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters – in the final stages of the Roland Garros tournament, has brought national pride and may well inspire many to succeed in whatever field they work.

This is similar to the way the British will look to Tim Henman to lift their spirits at Wimbledon later this month.

Ambition, coupled with investment in ideas, talent and materials, is the exclusive preserve of no one. Sometimes all that’s needed to tip the balance is the right example.

John Shannon is president of Grey International

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