What is the role of the British Chamber in encouraging investment from the UK to Panama?
The BCC started in 2012, growing out of what was a businessmen's lunch club into a full-fledged chamber. We have 137 members as of April 2016, and we have a variety of activities to support those members and businesses that want to invest in Panama. We work closely with the embassy and often conduct joint events, with the support of the ambassador and his team, which is especially important for a young chamber such as ours that is still building credibility and contacts. He also helps us lobby for members, attends our lunches, and invites speakers from the government.
What makes Panama an attractive destination for UK firms?
The UK is the third-largest foreign investor in Panama. Its perfect geographic position as a regional business hub offers advantages for new companies. Furthermore, there is an openness about Panama for foreign companies. That said, it is not as easy to do business here as it might at first seem; still, it is no harder than other countries in the region. There are many regional headquarters here from such UK companies as Bi-Water, GlaxoSmithKline, Diageo, JCB, Unilever, and London & Regional. Panama has also always had a close relationship with the US, and that seems to rub off a bit on its attitude toward the UK. Panama is a land of opportunity; almost every conversation is a business opportunity. The economy is growing fast, though as a service-based country the sector still has room for improvement.
What are some of the biggest obstacles that firms come across when entering Panama?
Bureaucracy is always a major hurdle, and Panama is no exception. The BCC tries to ensure support from the embassy for its members. The Anglo-Saxon mentality of businessmen from the US or the UK can differ from the local business mentality; however, Panama is an interesting country in the sense that it is developed in certain aspects yet still has a scope for development in other aspects. That kind of hybrid nature can be challenging. The BCC seeks to help British businessmen and companies deal with all of these challenges. Investing in Panama is a long-term project; it is difficult to come here and get a quick win. That is something every investor needs to know. Investors need to be patient and committed.
Do you also play a role in attracting investment from the UK to Panama?
We have not done that much to date; however, we are seeking to do it too. We are also part of something called the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (COST), a multi-sector group made up of government representatives, private sector companies, and business associations. This is important for us, considering the negative image that Central and South America has in terms of transparency and fairness in tendering public offers. Another initiative started by the Panamanian Chamber of Commerce in which we take part is the Anti-Piracy and Anti-Contraband Commission. Considering that 70% of cigarettes smoked in Panama are contraband, the significance of the problem is undeniable. The BCC is involved because one of our members is British American Tobacco, and they have a lot of interest in fighting contraband. The same goes for alcohol and other products. We want to work more closely with other British chambers around the region, as well as the chambers of the US and other countries. We all have the same interests and have to work collaboratively. We will indeed seek to make more trade missions to attract more British companies to Panama and support more British investment in the country. With just one full-time employee, we are essentially all volunteers and there is a lot to achieve, but we are ready and willing. We have a great team here, with everybody bringing in their own specialized fields and areas of expertise to cover all angles for our members.