Ana Firtel, Executive Director Of TheForeign Investors Council:

We’ve Preserved Unity And Independence

The two most important lessons we’ve learned from 15 years of successful activities are that we have preserved our unity and independence by insisting on firm rules, and that, with openness to dialogue and constructive criticism, we have shown readiness to constantly change in accordance with the challenges of each juncture

We spoke with Ana Firtel, Executive Director of the Foreign Investors Council (FIC), about the principles of the Council’s work and its new activities.

It was in July 2002 that 14 major foreign companies established the FIC. Now, 15 years on, the association has almost ten times as many members. What does the FIC ID card look like today?

– The Council today brings together 134 member-companies that operate in more than 30 different sectors, and that means a great wealth of experience and knowledge. Two thirds of them come from the European Union, while the remainder hail from the U.S., Russia, China, Israel, Australia and other countries. FIC members are an engine for the development of Serbia, as confirmed by the fact that until last year they had invested over $28 billion and that they account for more than 21 per cent of GDP. FIC members account for about 18 per cent of Serbia’s total exports and employ over 94,000 people. FIC members respect high ethical and corporate governance standards, which they demonstrate in working with suppliers, in their relationships with employees and in environmental protection.

What are the key principles that have held the membership together for a decade and a half?

– The first is predictability, because the rules that form the basis of our operations are very clearly known. The second reason why members have stayed together is equity. The existing rules apply to all equally, no matter which company is in question. The third key principle of the FIC is consistency, because over the course of the past 15 years we have remained consistent in terms of what we are advocating for. The fourth principle is inclusiveness. All activities start from the bottom up, thus we are led by the interests and activism of our member companies.

In such a large association, with members that don’t have equal economic strength or the same interests, how do you ensure equal participation and respect for the opinions of every member?

– Primarily through clear rules and thanks to communication in which nobody has a privileged position. Our Statute stipulates that all member companies have equal rights and the same obligations. However, in order for those statutory norms to have an effect they need to be implemented consistently on a daily basis. Trust is strengthened in this way, not through empty words, but through deeds, so that all members, both small and large, feel free to share within the association a certain problem they face and to devise systematic solutions jointly, together with other members.

It is also important to ensure communication in which none are privileged. Timely information is crucial in the 21st century, so within an association that contains many competitors it is vitally important for everyone to receive information simultaneously, without privilege.

We primarily advocate for the economic integration of Serbia into the EU, because we believe that harmonisation with the regulations of the EU can bring better doing business conditions for all

What are the main lessons of the 15 years of the FIC’s work when it comes to securing internal democratic dialogue?

– First is to strictly respect the rules. We are rigid in that, but we consider that as being very important for us, because when you have firm rules it is actually through them that you preserve your independence and nurture the trust of members that their voice will carry the same weight as the voice of some other member. Second is the need to be constantly open to dialogue, which implies openness to constructive criticism and a readiness to constantly change. One thing is certain – the Council has changed throughout the years, in order to strengthen its internal democratic dialogue. And there is no doubt that it will continue in this direction.

The FIC’s most famous product is the annual White Book, which measures the progress of the Serbian economy in terms of improving the business climate. How is this kind of index recognised as a measure of progress in economic reforms in Serbia?

– Year after year we record an ever-increasing number of references to the “White Book” as a source of proposals to solve problems in the economy. We also have ever more inquiries for copies of the book from world-class libraries, such as the Library of Congress in Washington DC or the Leibniz Institutes. What we bring is the view of expert practitioners who work in companies and deal with Serbia’s economic system on a daily basis. Alongside that, the fact that we are bring together companies from the EU and other parts of the world allows us to compare the situation in Serbia with the broader environment.

The FIC and the Government of Serbia formed a joint working group in late January to implement the recommendations of the White Book. How does that working group function operationally?

– The idea for the formation of the working group came from former Serbian PM and now President, Aleksandar Vučić. We accept this idea gladly, because we saw the formation of the working group as a mechanism that would enable us to discuss the recommendations of the White Book with the State on a more regular basis and in a better structured way.

The working group brings together members of the Government and the FIC Board of Directors, while operational tasks are conducted through subgroups comprising representatives of state administration and the chairs of the Council’s working committees. These subgroups are focused on seven key areas: taxes, labour rights, real estate and construction, inspection and food safety, e-commerce and e-government, bankruptcy and foreign exchange operations. For each area there is a defined working plan, a set of priority White Book recommendations to be fulfilled.

How does this new activity fit into the existing functioning of the FIC committees and the participation of the FIC in other government working groups and initiatives?

– It fits in completely and complements everything we’ve done to date and will continue to do. For example, the proposed plan of the Working Group isn’t some new, revolutionary plan, but rather is based on the White Book, but also on the two-year plans of the working committees, which define priorities in specific areas with a time component. We are represented in the Working Group by individuals selected by the membership, who carry predefined stances within the working committees and the Board of Directors.

The working group that we have formed with the Government of Serbia very nicely fits into, complements and is reinforced by our existing activities. It represents an upgrade of everything we’ve done so far and that we do

Two new FIC committees have formed in the last year, one for digitisation and e-commerce, and the other, the latest, for industrialisation and infrastructure. How did you decide on these specific committees?

– This is an interesting question, because it shows how we are motivated by members. They were actually the ones who first proposed new committees, and then voted and decided which two committees would be formed.

Of the six solicited proposals, two received the most votes. Thus, first, in September last year, the Digitalisation & E-Commerce Committee started working, and then, this year, the Committee for industrialisation and infrastructure also started.

What challenges arise in the operational management of such a large and complex organisation on a daily basis?

– The first and key challenge is to do multiple jobs simultaneously, and to do them to a high level of quality. The second challenge is to be financially independent, in other wordsor to remain faithful to your principle of financing activities solely from membership fees. This financial independence of ours has its own cost, because our budget is lower compared to similar organisations. When you have a lower budget, then you have fewer resources, but the quality of the product must not be lacking. These are the main operational challenges of our work.

The FIC decided late last year not to join the Mixed Chambers Council of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia. What does this decision mean for future cooperation between the FIC and the CCIS, and other foreign investors gathered within the Council?

– With the State’s decision to make CCIS membership compulsory, it gained a privileged position among business associations. This is the reality with which we were all confronted. Last year there was an invitation to for membership in the Mixed Chambers Council. In accordance with the Statute of the FIC, we considered this invitation at the Assembly and brought the decision not to join the council. I think the result of members’ voting was significantly influenced by the rule of overriding votes within the Mixed Chambers Council. This does not mean, however, that we will not cooperate with the CCIS and all other associations. We are strategically always open to cooperation with everyone on a project basis, on topics of mutual interest.