DAVID LINDSAY speaks to David Milne and Margaret Alder about the new company Europe-Assist, aimed at assisting foreign direct investors, exporting Maltese skills and services while advising on securing precious EU funding for the public and private sectors
When Malta joined the European Union back in May, many believed the foreign direct investment would begin to flow in and that Maltese companies would suddenly be included in the new EU-wide market. While the opportunities did, in fact, present themselves on 1 May, such opportunities, for the most part, have failed to take on a tangible form.
Many have offered up criticisms, pointing fingers of blame at the endless bureaucratic red tape at government institutions created to foster such economic activity and the fact that many Maltese still need to find a solid footing in Malta’s new marketplace, which overnight grew from some 400,000 to well over 400 million.
Aiming to provide an alternative to this state of affairs, David Milne and Margaret Alder have set up Europe-Assist, a new company geared toward three main objectives: to assist in outward bound business and skills to Europe and vice-versa, and to assist government, public service and the private sector in capitalising on the EU challenge through securing funding and information services.
Speaking about how the idea for the company first came about, Mr Milne recalls, “We became aware of the gap between opportunities and action by talking to people in the business community about capitalising on the European market following Malta’s entry into the European Union. While that was probably the biggest part of what our thinking was. But the other side of it is also to attract foreign companies to Malta.”
Mr Milne and Ms Alder are both expatriates with a long-term presence in Malta, and both bring valuable backgrounds to the enterprise.
“Once we began discussing the idea, it became apparent that we both bring different skills into this mix,” he explains. “My own background is as an academic and researcher, with a special focus on small states.”
Ms Alder, whose background is in information technology, has been working in Malta for a number of years and has been instrumental in assisting companies to start up in Malta.
She explains, “I know there are organisations within Malta which provide services for start-ups, but they are large and can be considered as somewhat unfriendly by outsiders. Additionally, smaller companies tend to be a bit nervous when dealing with large organisations. The companies I was involved with have been small in comparison to the big organisations and appreciated a friendlier approach and a more personalised service.
“When David and I spoke about the possibility of working together, he suggested there was potential for bringing companies from overseas, from the Nordic region in particular, into Malta and providing them with the assistance to set up business here and to make the transition, should they be interested, easier.”
While the venture is still relatively young, Mr Milne cites interest from the Nordic region and from one Icelandic company from Reykjavik in particular.
He explains, “The head of this particular company is part of a network of people I have been associated with in the Nordic world through researching business ventures. He had an interest in looking at warmer locations for Nordic people, particularly during the long, cold winter months.
“There is quite a lot of interest in relocating people from the Nordic world, temporarily or permanently, to Malta. This would not necessarily be tourism related but perhaps employees looking for longer periods in which to enjoy more encouraging weather patterns of sun and warmth. Also, one of the advantages of course with Malta is the fact that it is an English speaking location, which, apart from Gibraltar, is unique in the Mediterranean region and makes Malta an extremely attractive prospect.
“After expressing his interest in coming to Malta to have a look, he then visited Malta and a number of possibilities arose after meeting with a number of business leaders with similar business interests and projects.
“That’s the kind of area in which we try to be instrumental in linking entrepreneurs from overseas with people who would be best served for them here. We expect he will be back and that we will continue to look at business opportunities for him here.”
Europe-Assist also aims to be instrumental in exporting Maltese skills, Ms Alder explains, “Maltese IT skills export very well but it has been difficult to get them accepted because many IT companies have already gone to India for the skills needed. But once they have had Maltese working with them, the companies inevitably try and recruit them directly because they are so good. So providing the right people are chosen, since not everyone likes to travel for long periods of time, it becomes easy to find them placements. This is a lot easier now that Malta has joined Europe, and Maltese skills have been successfully exported into Europe and can be seen working Prague, Paris, London and many other major European cities.
Mr Milne adds, “One of the problems with the Maltese market, especially in IT, is its fragmentation in that there are some very good people and firms but the don’t necessarily have the scale to bid on larger projects, while others are simply lacking the experience to do so.
“Here the company will aim to provide a solution to this state of affairs. In this case, and under Margaret’s leadership, there is the possibility of bringing Maltese IT players together within a common framework so that they can withstand the larger projects. This is another example of taking Maltese skills and getting them out into the European marketplace.
“Malta’s comparatively low wages represent one of the competitive advantages when making a case for Malta as a good business location, plus the fact that working conditions in Europe and Malta are similar, more so than more distant locations such as India, for example. Travel time is also an important factor in this respect. To be able to call a meeting, to fly the appropriate people to Malta or vice versa is also comparatively inexpensive and quick.
“Our mix of skills, where Margaret has all the strength in business and a good deal of experience taking Maltese companies overseas and in bringing foreign companies to Malta, has been extremely useful. I, meanwhile, bring to the business the network that I have, particularly in the Nordic world, and some of the public sector-geared side of the business.
“The project that first linked me to the business community in Iceland had to do with the study on how small island states could best take advantage of their circumstances. For example, Iceland has been an enormous success and many lessons for the business community in Malta can be drawn from other locations. I’ve been involved in this area for some years now.
“I am also a political scientist by training and the company also has a public sector aspect of assisting government to access funding available from the EU and to make more of a success of adapting to the challenges of Europe.
“This area is also part of the challenge for Malta, in that it hasn’t drawn nearly as much funding from the EU as it could. On both the public and private sector side there are research grants involved and having competed in this field before, we are also in a good position to offer these kind of skills as well. Can also help individual companies to gain such funding.
“This is one of the areas we hope to delve into in due course, but at this stage we are giving a priority to the business and private sector side of the business.”