Polyglot Group has been doing business with international & multicultural companies based in more than 50 countries all around the world for over 20 years.
In celebration of these partnerships, we will be promoting bilateral trades by interviewing some of the key players.
Keen to know more about the current challenges faced by the countries we are representing such as Latin America, Europe, Asia & the US, we are thrilled to share with you our interview with Vincent Swinnen, Trade Commissioner & Director of the Wallonia Foreign Trade & Investment Agency (AWEX).
Could you please introduce your organisation?
The Wallonia Foreign Trade & Investment Agency (AWEX) is the agency which primarily assists the region of Wallonia (in Belgium) to establish trade in Australia, in addition to assisting Brussels in achieving their Australian expansion. I’ve been working with AWEX for almost 14 years, and for the last 3 years, I have been fortunate to be its Director.
AWEX has constantly worked to help the 2 regions expand by seizing Australian investment opportunities. It is an active organisation of constant progression; for example, the subdivision that caters to the Flanders Region (in the Northern territory of Belgium) has just moved office from Canberra to Melbourne to increase business prospects.
What type of services can you offer Belgian companies looking for new business opportunities in Australia?
We offer various services, depending on what type of assistance the company requires at a certain stage. Initially, we conduct research in order to evaluate and assess the suitability for the product or service in the Australian market, and then we provide information about this match. If the company is satisfied with these findings, AWEX then provides assistance for the expansion to Australia. This assistance is often in the form of providing networking opportunities, such as organising business meetings for example.
AWEX’s head office in Belgium even provides some financial incentives for businesses looking to assess international opportunities by travelling to international destinations, including trips to Australia. AWEX also supports businesses through tradeshows: each year, we represent an average of 3 to 4 organisations this way. This is a great opportunity for organisations, as we access major tradeshows such as the AOG (oil and gas) and AusBiotech tradeshows. Currently, we are planning to return to the Fine Food show, probably in 2017 or 2018.
So you’ll represent the brand at the tradeshow?
Yes, we usually have a stand showcasing various companies. We can represent organisations through two different types of stands; the first of which is an information stand situated closer to the entrance of the tradeshow. The second option is a larger structure which encompasses several different companies. Recently, the AOG (oil and gas) tradeshow implemented this second option, and we represented a panel of 8 companies. This illustrates the success of tradeshows, and tells us that our efforts are fruitful.
How many Belgian companies are operating in Australia?
I believe there are approximately 22 to 25 companies which have successfully established in Australia (this does not include the companies from the Flanders Region). There are of course, additional companies which access Australia through distributors.
Have you seen a real difference between the time you took office and today?
Yes, our progress is particularly evident as we first established the office back in 2001; a time when we were the first organisation to enter the market. Since then there have been significant changes, as supported by studies. Statistics show a continuous increase in export from Wallonia to Australia over the last decade. These findings are imperative: the ease of entering the Australian market is common knowledge. So yes, there is certainly more interest in this area, and we are seeing constant progress.
How do you perceive the Australasian region in general (regarding ease for doing business in Australia for Belgian companies)?
Generally speaking, I understand that the Australasian region offers easy entry for a majority of industries. There are a few industries which may encounter some obstacles, such as the pharmaceutical industry and the “parapharmaceutical” industry (hygiene products). These industries may have some difficulties in complying with regulatory bodies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which at times, can be difficult to understand.
Despite these specific examples, Australia is generally a region of easy market access. Although Australia is somewhat isolated, it is easier to do business with Australia compared to Belgium (where it is geographically quite challenging). This is highlighted by companies utilising Australia as a geographical “jumping platform” to access Asia. Businesses often firstly expand to Australia, and then consider investing in the Asian market. This can be an effective business strategy, as for some products, being Australian is already a mark of quality. In addition, being distributed in Australia can be attractive from an Asian point of view.
If you go beyond barriers for doing business, when it comes to operationally establishing an office or starting a business in Australia, what are the common difficulties or mistakes that you see companies doing over the years?
Realistically, they need to be aware of Australian business laws and regulations, such as understanding the terms of VISAs, especially in relation to working in Australia. It is essential for a business to seek professional help for crucial administration such as establishing a legitimate local entity.
Australian payroll differs from that in Belgium in areas such as taxation, so it’s also important for organisations to obtain an Australian accountant. One vital point Belgian businesses need to understand is the supremacy of the contract in Australia. This is crucial for a business which operates under a contract. This importance is highlighted by a recent instance where a company wanted to end its exclusivity contract with a distributor. The termination of the contract was hugely problematic due to the supremacy. This aspect of common law is very different to the applied law in Belgium (and supposedly France, too). Generally businesses need to be aware of all aspects in Australian law.
Belgians are known to usually be quite good with foreign languages such as English. Would you agree?
Yes, today speaking English is particularly important, especially in order to share a common language in the global business environment. Clients do contact AWEX in other languages (such as French, Flemish or German), but if I respond English, they will also switch to English. This is important for overcoming communication problems. Speaking a language other than English is always beneficial, however I do not believe it will facilitate a job in Australia. English is really the essential language.
Do you perceive the business culture as being very different between Belgium and Australia?
Yes, the business worlds are completely different. It may be a cliché, but I do believe Australia has a more relaxed business culture. In Australian companies, hierarchical segregations are lessoned, so there is increased access to the business’ management and direction. In addition, all individuals of the organisation are contactable. Australian business culture is also more “straight to the point”, and often, that’s something we explain to our clients. Explaining this discrepancy is necessary, as often clients are overly formal in their initial contact with Australians, which can be viewed as excessive. Belgium organisations need to be aware of Australia’s relaxed business culture and understand that formalities are typically rare in most sectors.
The first one would definitely have to be our mutual love for a good beer! All jokes aside though, the biggest similarity between Belgium and Australian business cultures is that both take business seriously and dedicated time and effort to their work but are also not afraid to let loose sometimes and enjoy ourselves at work.
Otherwise, other both Belgium and Australia have smaller populations: Belgium is a small country with a population of 11 million inhabitants whilst Australia has only 23 million. Our demographic means we export more than Australia: we actually export 90% of Belgium’s total production. However, I am sure Australia also exports a significant amount, especially with its Iron Ore activity.
What do you think are the main industries in Australia which present opportunities for Belgian companies?
We understand there is a shift from involvement in the mining, oil and gas industry to the bio-tech sector, and AWEX supports this trend. There are certainly several companies which are interested in the bio-tech sector. In addition to bio-tech, AWEX is involved in the food industry: not only finished products, but also raw products such as additives. We are also interested by E-commerce and various services.
The potential industries are plentiful, and I receive daily requests for various sectors, so I limit my focus to an average of 2 or 3 industries per week. The large range of companies mean their product or service can be quite unique (a fine cutlery company, for example). Despite that cutlery company being quite specific; Australia offers huge opportunities due to the large tourism (and hotel) market which values these premium products. This exemplifies the diversity of opportunities in Australia.
Thank you to Vincent for his insight and for taking the time to speak to us. If you are interested in knowing more on what AWEX provides and how the organisation can help you, head over to their website to find out more.