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Glenn Vaughan of the British Chamber on business, Brexit and belonging

20:31 12/03/2019

When he’s not helping people generate applause in the English-language theatres of Brussels, Glenn Vaughan is bringing businesses together to achieve acclaim of a different kind. But, at the end of the day, his hobby as a theatre director and day job as chief executive of Belgium’s British Chamber of Commerce both come down to helping people create and connect, he says. With Britain’s exit from the EU looming large, those skills are arguably in more demand than ever. Vaughan is keen to emphasise that the British Chamber has been in Brussels since long before the EU’s existence and that the important relationship between Britain and Belgium will continue after Brexit. But the UK’s referendum result has certainly altered the nature of his job. With the British Chamber a non-profit member-led organisation, businesses often look to it for a “calm assessment” of the situation that “filters the noise”, says Vaughan. He talks to ING’s Dave Deruytter about planning for the worst and hoping for the best, finding opportunities in a crisis, and looking at his burgundy passport through different eyes.

How did you land in Belgium and at the British Chamber?

Coming to Belgium was a happy connection of different parts of my professional life. I started my career as an economist working for a local authority in England. I was interested in the way local economies work, with business obviously being a core part of that. I worked a lot in South Wales with unemployed miners and steel workers, creating programmes to reintegrate people into the labour market. Then I got involved in European programmes, as an important way of financing those projects.

As that international experience built up, along with experience of dealing with the European Union, I was asked to come to Brussels to run some of those projects and help others set them up. That first campaign team secured around €2 billion of regional funding for Wales. Of course, once you are here you start to enter the lobbying world.

I had this experience of the economy and helping business on the ground but also as a lobbyist, and that is the core of what a chamber of commerce does. It’s about relationships, finding friends, people who understand where you come from – it’s a business network but it’s about people. There’s this often-repeated phrase that people do business with people that they know, and like and trust, and that’s the core of it. This job brought together all those things.

How does the chamber keep pace with the changing business world?

Everything we know comes from our members, that’s the bottom line about this organisation. I do pick up a lot along the way, but you can’t be the expert on all the things that are going to come along. We have members who are real experts and that’s something that networking delivers – a database of knowledge to draw on. An example would be when British companies are thinking about coming here to Belgium, like an engineering company I’m talking to at the moment. They are going to have a range of complex questions. I use my ability to interrogate their situation, then identify sets of expertise they are going to need.

Are you getting enquiries from firms leaving the UK due to Brexit?

In the above case Brexit is a driver for them, but that’s only one example. We’ve certainly had an increasing number of enquiries like that from companies that have their European base in the UK – both British-owned companies and companies from the US or India, or elsewhere, who have invested in the UK for Europe. Often the issue is that they have a lot of customers in mainland Europe and want to be able to assure them they’re going to get their stuff when they expect to get it. So logistics and customs, and whether products are accepted as meeting the standards, are the main issues.

October to December last year was a peak, before the agreement on the transition period. When the transition agreement was made, the temperature went out of it, but now enquiries are rising again.

How can you help businesses navigate Brexit?

Our starting point is: you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Companies will have to make changes that might not be needed, but better to do that than find you can’t fulfil your customers’ needs. Businesses are saying ok, how would I deal with ‘no deal’? You don’t want to spend money unless you absolutely have to. But, for example, they might train staff for a certain scenario – such as export procedures for a country outside the single market – and decide that’s helpful anyway. They have learned their craft here but are now considering that the single market may no longer be their home market in the same way.

What about the future relationship between Britain and the EU?

Our bottom-line message is that Britain and the EU are always going to be really important partners. The British Chamber has been here since 1898; we are here for the long term. Belgium is a hugely important trading partner for the UK – it’s still one of our top 10 export markets, so there are basic economic realities. And secondly, the importance of Belgium is reinforced to a very significant degree because it’s our gateway to the rest of Europe.

We have lots of examples of British companies that have come here first in their process of internationalisation. They learn the ropes, build expertise and very often add capability with Belgian people joining their organisation. Belgium is a kind of exporting superpower. I always talk about the example of Supergroup, the company behind Superdry [whose owner recently donated £1 million to the campaign for a referendum on the final Brexit deal]. Belgium was their first overseas market over 20 years ago. They built a relationship with their Belgian distributor and from that experience they opened stores in France and beyond. And now they export to 100 countries. That’s a common story. There are also lots of successful Belgian companies who have used the UK as an additional route to their globalisation.

Are you involved in advising British citizens?

I’m also chair of the Brussels British Community Association (BBCA), which is a wide network of cultural organisations. People I meet through the BBCA are very connected to the Anglo world, especially culturally and socially, but most Brits I know here don’t have ‘British’ lives. They are English-speaking but they also speak French and Dutch and are often very internationalised.

But as British citizens, of course, people have a lot of practical concerns about Brexit, and the prospect of ‘no deal’ is of very great concern. One thing we’ve been doing is providing opportunities for them to get together with other Brits, and with experts, to tease out their specific questions and circumstances and find who can help them understand their situation. There’s a basic human need to share what you’re worried about, and these are fundamental issues for people’s futures.

We have the great fortune to live in Belgium because the legal environment is very positive. British people are thinking much more than they ever did about taking Belgian citizenship. Lots of them, like me, have lived here for years – I have my burgundy passport, I am a European citizen, why would I ever need to think about that? But now I’m applying for Belgian citizenship.

When did you realise you were here for the long term?

When I came here aged 27 we had a toddler and my wife was pregnant. I thought we’d come for a couple of years, I’d get something good on my CV and then we’d go home. Then after four years I started a new job… but the real trigger point was deciding to sell our home in the UK and buy a place here. That bricks-and-mortar decision then solidifies other things in your life. The big integration factors were things like having kids in the local school, social clubs, standing on the touchline at football matches with other parents, and going to parents’ evenings.

Tell us more about family and free time

Like lots of children here, our two sons feel both Belgian and English. Here they feel a bit more English; in the UK they’re more conscious of their Belgian-ness! During the World Cup we had both flags up, but they were more upset about the Belgian loss. Both have been to UK universities and have returned saying they want to stay here.

My wife was a theatre director in the UK. She started a little youth theatre group at the Warehouse Studio Theatre in Schaerbeek, in 1999, with five students. Today the English Youth Theatre has 80 students. In some of my free time I direct theatre too; I’m directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as part of the American Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary celebrations next year. For a while I avoided that world because my wife is a monomaniac for theatre. I thought if I do, we’ll never talk about anything else. But eventually I decided if I don’t, I’ll never see her!

You use a lot of the same skills as director of an organisation, because your job is to help people create, and that’s what we do in business.

this article first appeared in ING Expat Time. Photo: Bart Dewaele

Written by Paula Dear



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