Looking for storks, swallows and flowering trees in Sofia

“It’s been at least 10 years since I have been in Bulgaria, and a lot appears to have changed - and not… Upon landing in Sofia on the 1st of March, the Bulgaria Air cabin staff handed all passengers a martenitsa, a small red and white yarn made bracelet, which I tied around my wrist. It is meant to wish the bearer health and happiness on the day of Baba Marta ("Grandmother Day"), a unique Bulgarian tradition.”

Jeroen Plag

A blog by Jeroen Plag, head of Client Coverage Europe at ING, on a business trip in Bulgaria 

According to local folklore, March is the month associated with sending off winter and welcoming spring. One is supposed to wear the martenitsa until end of the month (or if you see a stork, swallow or flowering tree for the first time), and then it is attached to a tree as decoration. A nice welcome back to Bulgaria!

Together with the local ING team we discussed opportunities with regard to both international subsidiaries of our international client base as well as local clients, and Croatian and Serbian clients whom we service from Bulgaria as well. Also there are many corporate clients from Turkey looking to enter the market, which presents a great opportunity through our Turkish operations.

The country is well known for its invention of yoghurt, but more importantly, has seen a steady increase in other core sectors like machinery and equipment, automotive supply, IT and business process outsourcing centres. With a highly educated (loads of engineers) youth, who also speak their foreign languages, IT inbound investments have seen an increase of 24% - so it’s a great time to identify the opportunity in the various sectors where we are supporting our clients in their relevant business developments.

However, Bulgaria also faces a number of long term challenges that limit its otherwise significant economic potential, such as a shrinking labour force and lack of reform in the energy sector, education and healthcare. Elections are due in March, however, much hard needed change is not foreseen for this large and small country – more than double the size of the Netherlands, it only has around 8 million inhabitants and a third of the Dutch GDP per capita.

The northern part of Bulgaria attained autonomy in 1878 and all of Bulgaria became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Having fought on the losing side in both World Wars, Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People's Republic in 1946. In 1990 Bulgaria held its first multiparty election and began moving toward political democracy and a market economy. The country joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

On the topic of innovation, I also attended a very energetic session with local colleagues about their innovative ideas that had made it to the final rounds of the ING Bootcamp last year. And now, another great app has been developed which will surely make it to the finals this year in Amsterdam - I was asked not to provide too many details here, so we can keep it as a surprise! It was also in Bulgaria 15 years ago that the first online banking portal for corporate clients was invented. The platform, formerly known as ING Online, has been merged into InsideBusiness and now provides 7,000 corporate clients across the CEE network with one point of access to ING services and products.

I will be watching for storks and swallows and flowering trees for the next couple of weeks and have provided my children with martenitsi as well - it is always appreciated to bring at least something small home to the family after travelling. Next time that I have my muesli with (Bulgarian) yoghurt in the morning, while checking my bank account via MyING, I will be sure to think back to my latest trip to Sofia!

 

Follow me: @jeroenplag