Welcome to Uhljebistan: the Croatian Chamber of Economy, Beyond Useless

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The Croatian Chamber of Economy is the international face of investment and business. TCN takes a closer look on February 26, 2017. All is not well. 

As people who know me well will tell you, I really don’t like to complain. I love to focus on the positives about Croatia, and there are many to dwell on. It is just that when you focus on the negative once in 100 positive articles, that is the article which will get the widest reach. 

And so I try and keep my negative articles to a minimum, and if I do write them, they are written with a point in mind, and with constructive criticism. The last time I criticised a national institution almost a year ago today, it had immediate (and beneficial) consequences, and the institution is better for the experience, even though it didn’t thank me at the time. 

There is one national organisation that I and 115,000 other company owners have been financing on a monthly basis for the 14 years I have run a business in Croatia, about which I have never written, but one which symbolises everything wrong with Croatia today, and one about which I honestly and genuinely have never heard a positive comment. 

An institution which I, like those other 115,000 company owners, are forced to contribute to its gravy train each month, on top of all the other taxes that come my way. I am thankfully at the lower level of payments (minions like me pay 42 kuna a month, medium-sized companies 1083 kuna a month and the big boys 3,973 kuna a month), but together we send more than 18 million euro a year (136 million kuna – source: Croatian Chamber of Economy 2017 plan) in homage to the big chiefs at the Croatian Chamber of Economy, formerly known as the Croatian Chamber of Commerce. 

And for what? As one of my colleagues said to me this week, despite paying almost 500 kuna a year, year on year, for many years, she has not received as much as a pencil. 

This isn’t the rant of some bitter person who was overlooked for a job (in fact, quite the opposite – I was offered some work by the Croatian Chamber of Economy last week, work I would be happy to discuss doing), but more an article from a paying member of the Croatian Chamber of Economy, who is tired of the incompetence, arrogance and indifference of the anointed few in the big city. In order to keep your attention a moment longer – for I intend to look at my four experiences of dealing with this institution, known as HGK in Croatian, over the last ten years – here is a picture. 

The picture above is the opening paragraph of a text that almost went out as the attention-grabbing opener on a brochure for a new luxury Croatian brand later this week. That it will not go out is not thanks to HGK, who did not spot anything wrong with the text above, but were alerted to it by one of its members – one of the businesses in the luxury brand to be launched, who told HGK that the English was shocking. With a deadline of less than 24 hours to finalise, who to call to make the English better? Which is how I came to see this joyful text which, if it had been written by a 12 year-old, would have been just about acceptable. The fact that it was written for and on behalf of the Croatian Chamber of Economy for an official brochure aimed at an international audience, makes it more than a little shocking. This in a country where young Croats speak among the best English in Europe (I have six almost bi-lingual writers working with me), a country with so many bi-lingual diaspora workers, that finding someone who can write English this badly for an official publication is quite a skill. 

Unless it was a cousin… 

I digress. My first real encounter with HGK was about 7 years ago. I was broke, suffering heavy losses with the real estate crisis. I was also father of a young daughter with a second on the way, living on a Dalmatian island with few prospects for work for a fat Englishman whose Croatian sucked. I was short on life skills, but the one thing I did know how to do was write. Could I make a living from writing? What were the opportunities? Who had the money? And so my research brought me to HGK.

Their website sucked, especially the English. But they had the databases (at least I thought so at the time…) of their members, and they were the key to reaching every business in Croatia. My idea was simple – to work with HGK and its members, offering to build a section of their site, or an independent one, properly profiling in English each Croatian business wishing to have a window to the international market. A one-page (or more) profile of the company, its activities, its contact details, all nicely arranged by sector, so that when people were searching for a building company in Croatia for example, they would come to the site, get an overview of all the building companies on the site, and make direct contact. My suggestion to HGK was that they emailed their members, because they had the databases (at least I thought so at the time…), and interested members could pay to be included. One email offer sent to all the databases they had (at least I thought so at the time…), possibly some financial support to get started, and a great benefit for Croatian business. 

I never got further than the first phone call, or perhaps it was an email. 

Now several years later, I took a look a the HGK site for the first time in years. I decided to search for my company, Bradbury doo, in the search box on the site. No results. No representation of my company whatsover. I googled my name to try again, and ha! – there was one result, but only a mention of me speaking at a conference co-organised by HGK last week – for free of course. 

At the bottom of the home page was a link to the Croatian Company Directory, but I was not there either. I changed my company name 4 months ago, and checked the old company name. The court register, from where HGK gets this data, was updated months ago, but not their register. Looking up my old company name, I found the basic company details one finds at Companies House in the UK – all in Croatian of course. How much more user friendly would my idea all those years ago, funded by the businesses themselves, have been?

I tried again with HGK a few years ago. Two amazing Swedish environmentally friendly products – a compressed air leakage management system and a revolutionary oil filter system which cleans oil so that it never has to be replaced – yes REALLY – had clear environmental and business advantages for Croatian companies working in production, transport and other sectors. If I could be introduced to those databases that HGK had (at least I thought so at the time…) this could be a win for everyone. I even managed a couple of face to face meetings this time, but nothing came of it, and no databases were produced. 

2016 was the Year of the HGK database. Finally I was to see the magic and the power of HGK information.

It all started of course – as all things do in Croatia – with a connection. One of my writers was well connected to one of the HGK senior team, and an email introduction yielded a very helpful HGK employee, who was very obliging, forwarding at least three relevant databases, for which many thanks. Would I have got the same level of service without that connection? Perhaps, but let’s be generous and say yes.

The only problem was…

The quality of the information was shocking. In order to get it anywhere close to the quality of 2016 info necessary for my needs, I hired a very competent researcher to update the database. Forty hours later…

The reason I wanted the databases was because I was starting the first national portals for cycling in Croatia and for Croatian wine. You may wonder why these two topics are not already well covered as they are key elements in Croatia’s efforts to attract year-round tourism, and I would share in your wonder. It was in the pursuit of wine information that HGK really excelled, and if I am honest with myself, it is the HGK wine sector which is the main driving force for this article.  

Croatian wine. If ever there was a wonderful sector of business HGK should be shouting about, it was wine. 130 indigenous varieties, the EU market open, a great promo op. Information available online about Croatian wine? Almost zero apart from some private blogs (BIG shout out to Cliff Rames of Wines of Croatia in particular). If I could get the wine database, it would help me build Croatia’s first wine map, complete with contact details, a useful tool for all. After a couple of phone calls and an email, the HGK wine team sent through the database. I was beyond excitement. My map, with latest official list of winemakers, would be live the next day.

And then I looked at the database…  

There were, according to the HGK wine man, 235 winemaker business in Croatia, which seemed to me to be a very low number, especially as the Hvar Wine Association had 13 members on the island. But ok, he is the man that knows. I was then a little taken aback to find that only 64 of these 235 winemakers had websites, according to the HGK wine man. But ok, that could be possible, as there were many small winemakers without online presence. And then I counted 68 of the 235 winemakers on the HGK wine man’s list which had NO details whatsover, apart from the winery name and location. No phone number, No email. No address. No bloody use.

I wrote to the HGK wine man to thank him for his database, and I pointed out that there were many errors and omissions. In what became standard procedure from the HGK wine man, there was no response.

That was in May. After that, and with lots of patient research, we finally built Croatia’s first wine map, increasing the HGK wine man’s database of 235 winemakers to over 850, all with some form of contact details. I wrote to him again in early September:

We have recently launched the first national portal in English for Croatian wine, with the aim of bringing the Croatian wine story into one place and making it much more accessible to foreigners (and locals) interested in Croatian wine. We are building the first ever maps of Croatian winemakers, wine bars, wine festivals and shops to buy Croatian wine abroad, as well as providing in-depth information on all aspects of the Croatian wine scene.

You can view the website here http://www.total-croatia-wine.com/wine-shop/810-croatian-wine-now-shipping-all-over-eu

I would be very interested in discussing cooperation with this initiative with yourself for a project which is promoting your members. Specifically I would be hoping for some financial support from HGK in return for promoting yourselves and your members.

I will be in Zagreb on Monday – would you have time to meet?

The response. The typical HGK wine man response. Total silence.

And so life went on until a few weeks ago, when an influential Zagreb contact arranged a meeting with a senior person in HGK. I should be working with them, he said, and the senior HGK person was very welcoming, and a meeting was set. When I arrived, the senior HGK person met me with profuse apologies that my arrival had coincided with a journalist from The Guardian, and the senior HGK person would have to go with the journalist to meet the Croatian President. Totally understandable. I was handed over to three HGK colleagues, including my old friend HGK Wine Man, whom I didn’t instantly recognise.

The meeting started as most do in Croatia with state officials. Lots of smiles, open notebooks, exchange of business cards. Nothing ever gets written down, and with the notable exception of the lady working in the tourism sector, I quickly realised I was wasting my time. I talked about Total Croatia Wine and the building of the map of 850 winemakers, at which point the HGK Wine Man informed me that I had actually not included a couple of important winemakers. My apologies for overlooking two, after I had added more than 600 to his list AND found contact details to the 68 that did not exist in his database.

We talked about funding, and how HGK could help with our projects. There is LOTS of money available for promotion for wine, he told me cheerfully, only you don’t qualify for any of it, he told me (it seemed, even more cheerfully). It is reserved for markets outside Croatia. There was one project where I could apply for funding. He said he would forward details. A few days later I did my follow up email to the meeting, requesting details of the project I felt I could apply for.

I got the standard HGK Wine Man response. Silence.

And that was that. I finally gave up thinking that HGK served any purpose in life apart from lining the pockets of the chosen few and their cousins, when I received an unexpected phone call from HGK last week, while I was on the bus from Varazdin to Zagreb, begging for my help. It was really urgent. There was a new luxury brand being launched next week (March 1, so don’t miss it), promoting 16 quality Croatian businesses in one brand. All was ready. Or at least it was until some of the HGK members (the ones like me, who don’t get pencils) noticed that the English in the brochure was not of an acceptable standard. Could I help and do something that afternoon? I asked them to send the text through and I would have a look. I got as far as the first sentence:

The Beautiful Croatia

In the south-central Europe, where the blue Adriatic Sea meets the silver mountains and mighty rivers, lies the beautiful Croatia.

After recovering from the shock about how it was possible for the Croatian Chamber of Economy to find someone writing such retarded English in 2017 in Croatia, when almost every young person speaks excellent English – and even worse, for it to go totally unnoticed until one of the non-pencil receiving members pointed out there was a problem – I and (mostly) a colleague got the document into respectable shape. 

I was shocked, really shocked, that an organisation which was making millions of euro from hard-working businesses each year had such disrespect for them that they could not even ensure a decent promotion of business in Croatia. I decided to have a closer look at the HGK website, and here I saw my non-pencil present dollars at work. 

One page will suffice – it is the page I will be focusing on until it changes. And if it doesn’t change within 24 hours of me sharing this article with HGK President Luka Burilovic, that will tell its own story. The page is called Croatia, Your Business Partner, and it contains two sentences:

The brochure is most comprehensive set of data about everything an enterpreneur and anyone visiting Croatia wanted to know and should know about the coutry.

Croatia your Business Partne is sort of extensive but concise fact sheet about the country, it’s people and economy.

In case HGK don’t see any problems with this text (entirely probable based on my experience), apart from being bland beyond belief, there are spelling mistakes in the words ‘coutry’, ‘enterpreneur’ and ‘Partne’ and ‘it’s’ is short for ‘it is’, not the possessive pronoun. And I would be happy to give the writer a lesson in the use of the indefinite article any time. 

There is a news section in English on the HGK website. Great! At TCN we publish a minumum of 3 business articles every day, so about 150 already for 2017 as we approach the end of February. I was curious to see how active HGK was in promoting its 115,000 members. The answer? Since the start of 2017, six posts, one of which is totally blank (how long did that take to produce?) and another about HGK worrying about car prices (do they not get enough money from the people doing the work in Croatia?)

As a fully paid up member of HGK, I would like to know who hired the writer to write the text above with the title The Beautiful Croatia, and the Croatia, Your Business Partner? And on what criteria were they hired – English language ability or friend or family connection? I believe I have the right to know that information as a fully paid up member of HGK.

My message to HGK – fill your jobs with cousins, mistresses, half-brothers, kindergarten friends, pet elephants if you must (we all know how Croatia works) – but please don’t insult the hard-working businesses of Croatia any more than you do already by doing such a piss poor job. Do you not have any self-respect?

We will be monitoring the Croatia, Your Business Partner page to see if there are any changes. If there are none, that is confirmation of what we suspect, but if there are some, it shows that this article has had a positive effect, and I would be happy to continue constructive discussions in a less public manner in the future. I have learned that there are three types of people in Croatia – those in the system, the majority who do not matter, and those who generally do not matter but have the ability to shame. TCN is going well these days, and that puts us in the latter category more and more. It will be interesting to see if this page changes, as a result of this article. I am happy to work with HGK along the lines of our initial discussions, but I would understand if this article makes me less likely to do so. But I would not accept any work before this page changes, or we are told under what criteria our English language prodigy was hired – The Beautiful Croatia. 

And I am not holding my breath for a pencil either. 



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