2020 AmCham Board of Directors Report

Delivered by Olivier Marquette, AmCham Bulgaria President, on the 2021 General Assembly, May 18th, 2021. The Report was approved unanimously by all members.


Dear Members and Guests,

On behalf of the AmCham Board of Directors, I would like to welcome you to the 2021 AmCham Bulgaria General Assembly.

I would say: What a day! Finally we meet in person. To me it is a very special moment, since it is my first trip to Bulgaria since July 2020. Actually the last time I visited Bulgaria was in relation to Amcham again, since it was to lead our last General Assembly. To you it is, probably, among the first physical events since COVID-19 openings.

As you know, that we have scheduled it for December 2020. It was not just an intension but following our General Assembly calendar. It was several times postponed, and now we are here.

Our goals today are to review our 2020 activities, to approve our financial report, to approve the Budget 2021, to elect auditors for 2020, and – very importantly – to vote for the New Board members.

Let me just recall what we did in our last GA back in July 2020. With the approved Amendments to our Statute, we paved the way of the Chamber for its strategic development and strengthening. For us, business ethics, fair representation of American companies in our Board, and restrain with government interference are corner stones of those changes.

Today’s GA will start officially at 6 p.m. So, I will continue with our Board of Directors’ Report for 2020.

Membership

As of today, we have a solid membership base. 2020 was the full budget year in which we were able to monitor how the 2019 Reorganization of the chamber and the introduction of our new membership tiers impact and motivate members. And we did it even in pandemic circumstances. Despite COVID-19, I am confident that last year we achieved planned visibility and enriched our members with benefits.

In 2020 we had a stable fee collection that met the budget. We had quite some movement in our membership base, as any organization managing through the covid pandemy.

I am proud to share that as of today our organization is strong and well positioned.

At the moment we record 308 members, of which 23 are new members, which we warmly welcome.

Priorities 2019-2020

Let me restate our priorities for 2019-2020. They are:

  • Sustainable business environment and Rule of law
  • Digital economy and Innovation
  • Education and Human capital development
  • Regional and Transatlantic cooperation.

I am confident that all of our activities in 2020 met our priorities as per design and execution. To be frank, the first priority for 2020, which was not on our list, was to adapt to covid-19.

Watch the 2020 Report in video

ADAPTATION TO COVID-19

COVID-19 significantly impacted our personal lives. I hope neither of you has lost any relative or friend. Our prayers are with those that suffered such losses here in Bulgaria, in Europe, and in the USA.

AmCham Board

Our Board managed to follow our duties and to make strategic decisions to guide the Chamber, despite the corporate and personal stress and constrains due to COVID-19.

Over the year we continued, or even excelled, some of the work of the Chamber, found new partners, and focused on our members’ needs.

COVID-19 didn’t obstacle our most valuable partnership and ally: the U.S. Embassy team lead by Ambassador Mustafa. I would like to thank her for her great partnership, to Justin, to Miguel and the whole Commercial Service, to the Political Section, to Drake, to Peter, and the Agriculture Department and to all people at the Embassy who interact with us on daily basis. We value your friendship and work a lot.

AmCham Team

GAs provide a great opportunity to focus the lights on the people who are doing the work on the background of our organization. In 2020 the AmCham team listened to our members’ needs. The team has initiated another restructuring of our members based on the industries you represent. It will lead to much more focused work of our committees or even an introduction of new ones. Thus we will be able to continue meeting your needs and your business goals.

The team played well in the critical juggling with a lot of policy and advocacy matters.

Also, their active work helped to establish or to upgrade solid partnerships that augment our agenda. They were and still are instrumental in our coordination with the U.S. Embassy team.

United Against COVID-19

In 2020 together with the U.S. Embassy, the Bulgarian Donors’ Fund, and America for Bulgaria Foundation we made something unique in the histories of those four organizations. The “United Against COVID-19” Fund collected more than 1 million leva for less than a month. This joint cause gave a true example to the public: nearly 700,000 people were reached, in almost 300 places across Bulgaria, and totaling of 112 projects were funded – some of them received just this support for a long period of time.

By our calculations, 70 or 80% of the funds were collected thanks to our members.

Again, this success is a shared one. We would like to thank  all sponsors for their generosity. Please join me to applaud both groups – donors and those we call “the backbone of any society”: the NGOs, the teachers, and the medical workers.

COMMITTEES AND WORKING GROUPS

Healthcare Committee

If we have to make some ranking, our Healthcare Committee wins the trophy. It was reestablished in 2019, self-organized its work in early 2020, and pushed hard to achieve strong motivation of its members and to craft a genuine content and image. The highlight of their work is outstanding “Healthcare as an investment” Report which will be among our main policy shaping instruments in 2021.

In parallel, this committee set a platform with their peers at the German and Swiss Chambers, and the Digital Innovation Cluster. We jointly proposed to the Ministry of Health the establishment of an Advisory Board. In it we will have a seat, our voice will be heard, and will help the healthcare policy implementation in Bulgaria. If we succeed here – I am certain we will – we will be in a position to proactively work for the proactive improvement of the healthcare system. This will benefit the whole society.

In 2020 we supported the joint AmCham EU position on the new EU Pharma Strategy too.

These efforts will complement and build-up on those of the U.S. Embassy and their work with the Ministry of Health. COVID-19 showed that the healthcare system needs significant change and targeted long-term investments no matter which political party or coalition rules.

I would like to use the opportunity and thank the Leadership group of the Healthcare Committee for their work and dedication.

HR and Education Committee

For another consecutive year, the HR and Education Committee was able to connect the HR professionals across AmCham. They shared best practices and inspired their colleagues to continue working for their organizations to thrive or cope with challenges.

In 2020, the HR Committee organized a webinar with the Social Minister Denitsa Sacheva, and provided excellent proposals that found place in the Amended Labor Code.

They took part in the Entrepreneurial Women’s Program in Bourgas, that was launched by Ambassador Mustafa herself in the Fall.

Energy and Mineral Resources Committee

This committee had a solid track of activities in 2020. It had excellent exchange with its peer from the German Chamber, as well as served as a platform for the development of the energy sector by introducing new digital solutions.

An important event that was co-organized with the U.S. Embassy and Bulgargransgaz, was the LNG Round Table that explored the diversification potential of Bulgaria. Also, we had a webinar on Intelligent Utilities, jointly with SAP.

Tax Committee

The Tax Committee is led by Milen Raykov, EY, whohelped us shape three of our position papers:

  • on the 60/40 Rule;
    • on VAT Amendments, and 
    • on Corporate Income Tax.

Communications, and CSR Working Group

The Communications and CSR Working Group is our internal network of 600 PR, Marketing, Digital professionals. Their expertise serves as the bridge between members and the Chamber.

EVENTS

Have a look at these photos. The first one is dated February 20th, 2020 – just less than a month before Bulgaria’s first lockdown. You can see how happy and close together are the people on it.

The second one is from our GA on July 9th. You can witness the distance between people, masks, and probably you can sense the smell of sanitizer too. New reality adaptation.

Internal Events

Thanks to our team, excellent platforms such as Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams, we were able to create online content for the benefit of our membership despite the distance. Thanks to the skills and talents of our members, many of them volunteered for moderators, speakers, content-makers to make those event a reality.

Our internal events helped our members e-meet with each other via committees and working group formats, as well as provide support and solutions in the early months of the lockdown.

We had the pleasure to have Ambassador Mustafa exclusively before our membership.

External Events

Through the year, we had top-class webinars with key representatives of European and Bulgarian authorities. Having them prove that AmCham is well-positioned institutional-wise:

  • EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel
  • Then Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Dontchev
  • Then Labor Minister Denitsa Sacheva
  • Then Transport and ITC Minister Rossen Jeliazkov
  • Eva Maydell, Member of the European Parliament.
  • National Bank Governor – Dimitar Radev
  • Ivo Konstantinov, our commercial attache in the USA.

Special Formats and Partnerships

Earlier, I mentioned the restructuring of 2019. It was in basis of one special format “AmCham Connect”. It allows the Large Corporate Members to share before other members their knowledge and vision of the next level of management and growth.

Another way to engage with members and create content was through partnerships on topics such as LNG and Energy Diversificaiton in Bulgaria.

We, also, intensified our regional cooperation with AmChams in Europe. Jointly with chambers from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia we co-organized events such as “Biden-Harris Policy Impact on the World” and “CEE Future of Investment conferences.”

NEXT EVENTS / Strategic Projects

Three Seas Initiative

With strong pace AmCham got engaged with the “Three Seas Initiative”. Our strategic interest in it increased since the news of hosting the 2021 Summit and Business Forum was announced. Bulgaria is the host country for 2021. The Summit and the Forum will be on July 8-9th.

We all know that this is a unique opportunity in its early stage of formation. As of today, AmCham Bulgaria is the Business Forum co-organizer. So far we got engaged with various stakeholders for the sake of regional economic development.

ACE Best Practices Sharing Conference

As you remember, AmCham Bulgaria won to host it in 2020. But it was postponed, same as the 2020 Tokio Olympic Games and Euro 2020.

In October this year, cross finger,s we will welcome the CEO’s of 45 AmChams in Europe in Sofia.

POLICY AND ADVOCACY

Since March 2020 the monitoring and reaction to the newly introduced Emergency Act and its amendments was among the top priorities for the Board and several committees. We selectively picked on which business topics we should be vocal. In some of those months we bombardiered the local authorities with letters and positions, as well as utilized our reputation to engage with their representatives in series of high-profile webinars.

In an extraordinary period such this pandemic, AmCham preserved its position as one of the most impactful business associations in Bulgaria. For us it meant just this: to join forces and knowledge with members and partners, and to propose solutions, as well as to provide feedback to the government, if some economic measures are wrong.

However, the world was not only coronavirus. The so-called “Business as usual” policy activities included our proposal on Bulgaria’s future AI Strategy. Thanks to our “homework” we did in the Digital Sustainability Forum format in 2019, we present our statement to the Ministry of Transport and ICT.

Earlier I mentioned the Labor Code and our HR Committee proposals to it. Also, the Healthcare Committee started to gain momentum, and we addressed the National Healthcare Insurance Fund 2021 Budget. It was a crucial moment for AmCham’s positioning in this field.

Considering the opinions of the members of the Communication and CSR Working Group, we supported the initiative of bTV Media Group for improvement of the people-metrics system in Bulgaria.

Rule of Law

Set high in our agenda and in Ambassador Mustafa’s priorities, Rule of Law found rich soil to grow. The seeds were planted with the Joint Board Meeting with German-Bulgarian Chamber that was attended by the U.S. and the German Ambassadors. It was followed by a Webinar on FCPA with Vanessa Sisti from the Department of Justice, and Jessica Kim (US EMB) for the memberships of AmCham and the German Chamber.

Following the pulse of the political and public tension, we initiated another joint project with the German Chamber: an internal survey on Rule of Law and Corruption. Its results showed that businesses desire major improvement of the business climate, red tape reduction burden, and severe fostering of digitalization.

I am certain that the next Board will continue with this priority and we will have business-wise initiatives in the field of Rule of Law.

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

Three Seas Initiative

The Three seas Initiative gave is the opportunity to start intensive communication with the Atlantic Council (D.C.), 3seas Investment Fund, and Amber Infrastructure Fund.

AmChams in Europe

AmChams in Europe, and particularly – AmCham EU – helped us to expand our reach with European Commission, and to position Bulgaria while discussing digitalization, investment climate, U.S. Election, Three Seas Initiative, etc.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

We rely on the transatlantic support of USCC and enrich our knowledge on the American economic agenda and strategic matters such as EU Digital Taxation, Data Protection, Intellectual Property, healthcare, Tariffs Relief, etc.

Bulgarian Embassy to the U.S.A.

Our contact with the Bulgarian Commercial Attache Ivo Konstantinov is very important in order to help Bulgarian companies to have smoother start of their operations in the United States. On the other hand, AmCham is seen as the main business association that an American new-comer to Bulgaria, attracted by Ivo and Lyubka Katchakova, should engage.

European Commission

In our pursue of protecting the fair business competition, AmCham opposed the protectionists measures that the government of Bulgaria tried to introduce by masking them as support for the local businesses in COVID-19 times. Our advocacy demarche reached to the European Commission. In response, we received two official replies saying that our signals are well accepted and further response by the EC will follow. As it did.

CSR OUTREACH

I mentioned it as one of the activities of the HR Committee. I would like to highlight it here too.

The Women’s Entrepreneural Academy in Bourgas organized by the U.S. Embassy gave the AmCham opportunity to engage with strategic topic and to complement the efforts of the Embassy.

MEDIA

Our CEO was and still is very active in  public communication. Being digital savvy and utilizing his AmCham experience, he was able to speak about the economic impact of COVID-19, as well as to present our balanced view on measures and challenges before the national economy.

His most remarkable appearance in 2020 was on the State Department’s Investment Climate Report.

Of course, other topics included the Three Seas Initiative, the AmChamEU’s Transatlantic Report 2020, and other.

PARTNERSHIPS

AmCham is seen as valuable partner thanks to our brand and our solid membership base.

We were invited by the Transparency International Bulgaria to provide feedback in the process of transposing the EU Whistle-Blowing Directive.

Our institutional support to the next generation of Bulgaria was well accepted by Tuk-Tam NGO and their U.S. Alumni Club at the 2020 Hive 2020 career forum. This was another initiative that was supported by the U.S. Embassy and our members.

In 2020 we established a relationaship with the U.S.– Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce in America. They are seen as a potential bridge with and liaison with the Bulgarian business in America, and with the Federal and State Authorities in future.

AmCham and the German Chamber supported the efforts of the Media Literacy Coalition in a high-profile event. It aimed to raise awareness on media literacy, fake news, and disinformation. Ambassador Mustafa delivered a key-note there.

Our heavy involvement with the Three Seas Initiative led us to have strategic and operational exchange and planning with the President of the Republic of Bulgaria and his team, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy, as well as with the SMEs Promotion Agency, and the Investment Agency.

For months we were very active in the idea of positioning Bulgaria as the new top-nearshoring destination. However, it wasn’t well structured and there was some lack of institutional leadership. So, after one major webinar, in the end of the year we withdraw from it.

The need of an unified voice of the “foreign business” as well as to support the InvestBulgaria Agency idea of nearshoring, we started intensive exchange with other bilateral chambers.

REBRANDING

It was about time to change our logo and to align our communication channels to our new identity. Moreover, the rebranding process complements our strategy to upgrade and enhance the Chamber. Some of the milestones are the Statute Updates, reorientation of our communication, membership restructuring, committees encouraging.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A report cannot be complete, without acknowledgements. Actually, I think that they show how complex and solid organization we are, since there are so many people we have to thank.

First, I would like to thank our Board of Directors. It was an extraordinary term but we managed to guide our ship well. I take the opportunity to thank those seven board members who are leaving the chamber:

  • George Alexandrov
  • Iva Todorova
  • Kostas Papagiannis
  • Levon Hampartsoumian
  • Lubomir Minchev
  • Simeon Stoychev

I would like to thank Petar for his outstanding performance and stamina.

We are quite lucky to have Miguel Angel Hernandez as the Commercial Attache of the U.S. Embassy. He is taking care of so many things, and we are glad that AmCham is high in his agenda.

I would like to thank our Patron Members for entrusting us to develop our organization with their engagement.

More importantly – I thank all of our members that are with us and share the same vision and values.

I would like to thank the Committee and working groups leaders for their dedication and shared resources.

I would like to mention a few of those individuals and members, that truly supported our work in 2020:

  • Healthcare Committee Leadership Group
  • EY Audit
  • Penkov, Markov and Partners
  • Boyanov & Co.

Lastly, I would like to thank the Amcham Team for their ideas and execution for another successful year. During the last year and a half we welcomed two new members of our team.

Kalina is managing our digital platform, and Petya, who joined in January, is handling the relationship with our members.

Once again, I would like to thank each and every one of you that contributed or are still contributing with time, money, knowledge, or advice for the progress of the Chamber.

Thank you.