Lviv’s Danish business leader
Lviv’s Danish business leader
Danish businessman Lars Vestbjerg has been living and working in Lviv for just six years but has already managed to make his mark on the city’s fast-maturing international business community. His interests include property, footwear manufacture and investment, and throughout his career in Lviv Mr. Vestbjerg has matched the vigorous pace of his business activities with an active social and professional life that has seen him play a key role in establishing the European Business Association in West Ukraine while also representing his native Denmark and the broader international investment community.
In 2003 you came to Lviv to set up a production facility for Sika Footwear. Why did you select Lviv?
The idea of opening up a production facility in Lviv actually dates back to 2002 as we began looking at regional options for a future production plant. The main reason we chose Lviv was because of the great logistics. Everything we produce here in Ukraine gets sent to Denmark for further distribution so good transport links are crucial and in that respect Lviv is perfect.
What were your first impressions of Lviv?
When I was first appointed as general manager of the new plant I knew that the job should be preformed in Lviv. I must say that initially I knew very little of Ukraine and still thought of it as part of Russia. It was only once I arrived that I realised what a completely new and fascinating country Ukraine was.
What was Lviv like in 2003?
I arrived at the beginning of March, which is perhaps the worst time of year to see the city, with dirty sludge and low grey skies casting a morbid spell over the city. We had a very rough landing that was so full of bumps and screeches that I began to think we might crash, and from the airport we went directly to the factory site, so my initial impressions were not very uplifting. I was presented with a depressing picture of a dirty city that left me feeling uncomfortable. Luckily I was soon able to discover the beauty of Lviv and feel at home here.
How much of a challenge was it to set up your business in Lviv?
We were prepared for a registration process but unfortunately we were also confronted by corruption, with officials seeking payment in order to speed up and sometimes to skip formal procedures. It was clear to me that if I began paying bribes then I would become trapped in corruption, so we rejected their demands. This led to some tense situations and I once actually invited the authorities to close my production plant down and then face the media inquisition, which managed to dissuade them. I would advise anyone looking to do business in Ukraine to refuse to pay any bribes or make any unofficial payments or you will be doing it continuously. However, I can also say that in the six years in which I have been doing business in Lviv I have noticed a decrease in the amount of bribery that goes on, which is a positive trend.
You were managing a large plant in Lviv during the country’s famous 2004 Orange Revolution pro-democracy protests. What impression did those historic events make on you as a foreign observer?
In 2004 you were the brains behind the creation of West Ukrainian branch of the European Business Association. What were your main objectives?
The idea for a professional body linking Lviv’s international community grew out of necessity. I simply noticed that West Ukraine has a large number of Danish and International investors who are all facing more or less the same issues and challenges in their businesses but who had no representation among local government. At the time I was contacted by the European Business Association in Kyiv and we drew up plans for a West Ukrainian branch. Until 2007 I served as Chairman of the Board of the EBA in Lviv and I continue to serve in an advisory role. Today the EBA in Lviv has over 120 members are we are constantly expanding.
You are involved in the Lviv real estate business. How will the local market reach to the global financial crisis?
The Ukrainian property market has had its good and bad times, and at the moment things are bad with the global financial crisis impacting on the market. However, the market remains broadly attractive to investors. It is important to think not only in terms of foreign investors but also of making real estate affordable to ordinary Ukrainians.
What would be your advice to local officials looking to prepare the city for Euro 2012?
I would say to them that the best form of promotion is word of mouth. The Lviv authorities need to support the city’s existing international business community and we in turn will be happy to tell potential investors how easy it is to do business in Lviv. Now that Ukraine is a member of the World Trade Organisation there will be plenty of investors interested in this huge new market and it is crucial that everything is done to make them feel comfortable doing business in Ukraine.
How has Lviv developed over the past six years?
I like life in Lviv because I am a big fan of architecture and even after six years there are elements of Lviv’s architecture which still amaze me. I love just being in the city and going about my daily business. Researchers claim to have proven that the Danish are the happiest people in the world, but I don’t know how they reached this conclusion because when I walk the streets of Lviv I am greeted by happy, smiling, communicative people. In six years Lviv has changed a lot. It is a young, student city with people from all over the country coming here to study and bringing something new and fresh with them. This provides a tremendous boost to the city’s cultural development. In the business sphere you just take a walk in the city to see the development. The old Soviet shops have bewen replaced by modern, European-style businesses which give you the impression of a vibrant European city.
What Ukrainian dishes have you developed a taste for?
My personal favourite is solyanka soup. I had never tried it before I visited Ukraine but it is now my favourite soup dish in the world. I also enjoy the tradition twelve Christmas dishes. It is a different way of celebrating Christmas compared to our Danish traditions, but it is very tasty!
What do you miss about Denmark?
Most of all I miss the easy way of doing things and the lack of time-consuming, bureaucratic procedures. Here in Lviv our bookkeepers are constantly visiting the tax authorities and being made to wait for hours or asked to produce an endless list of different stamps and papers I’m waiting for the day when all this will be possible over the internet. If this system was stress-free it would let people do their jobs instead of standing in queues at the Tax Administration and sitting in traffic jams on their way to meetings with the authorities. As Ukraine integrates into the international community, already via the WTO and also possibly through both NATO and the EU, these obstacles should lessen.