American-Lithuanian Business Council president: Geopolitical tensions has made Lithuania more attractive to investors

Eric Stewart of the Lithuanian American Business Council   Photo Ludo Segers

The council’s president Eric Stewart also notes that, while the United States of America used to be primarily an exporter of capital, it has recently started working to attract investment to its side of the Atlantic. This, he says, also presents plentiful opportunities for Lithuanian companies to do business in the US.

I would like to ask you about your organization. What is it? When did it start? What are you trying to achieve?

We are the American-Lithuanian Business Council and we were founded in Washington D.C. in April of last year. So we are a very new organization. It’s all American companies doing business or striving to do business in Lithuania. Our focus is really to ensure that there is a healthy dialogue and conversation between the government of Lithuania and the American companies that are investing and doing business here.

Do you have any Lithuanian ancestry? What is your relationship to Lithuania?

No, I don’t. In fact, my relationship to Lithuania is as the former deputy assistant secretary from the US department of commerce in charge of Europe. So the Lithuanians knew me from the times in Government. And the businesses, American companies know me well from doing business in this part of the world as well.

And so they asked me if I would consider creating and running the organization. But really the idea wasn’t mine. It came from the companies that recognize that there are a lot of opportunities in Lithuania. And as a business community, they wanted to ensure that they were well-organized and well-prepared and that we didn’t miss opportunities to strengthen relations between America and Lithuania.

There’s been much talk lately about the geopolitical situation in the region. Do you think this is affecting Lithuania’s attractiveness as a market for investment?

I do. I think it has a very positive impact on Lithuania, as a matter of fact. Lithuania is very focused on energy security, energy independence and that’s creating opportunities for American companies to provide LNG, to explore shale, to potentially build nuclear power plants.

I also believe that, and this is based on my conversations with government officials and with businesses, Lithuanians are going to take a more global view towards their business, and where they are doing business, and do not just look across borders, but I think they are going to look even further out. And focus on, hopefully, America.

That’s one of the areas were we will be encouraging it to focus. But I suspect, it will take a strong look at Asia, as well, having opportunities for Lithuanian companies to do business there. But then also attracting Asian companies and American companies to do business in Lithuania. So I actually think it’s a net positive.

Has Chevron been active in the organization? Has it been a member of your organizations?

Yes, they are a member of our organization, our founding member. Chevron is, obviously, a great American company. They had interest in shale gas exploration. Frankly, the regulations scared Chevron a little bit. They still remain active in our organization. They are still members of our organization. But whether or not they’ve been on a new tender, that’s a question you have to ask Chevron.

What Lithuania can do in order to attract more American investment and in order to gain more trust from American companies?

I actually think that companies that do business in Lithuania absolutely love it. And most of the companies that are doing business here continue to reinvest. I think that’s one of the areas that we spoke about today with government officials of Lithuania. And I think they do a very good job and I just wanted to remind them to continue to do a good job focusing on the current investors. Because they will be the ones who will be the fastest to reinvest.

But I also think we need to have a comprehensive strategy on attracting new investment. And that’s part of the role of my organization because we are based in Washington D.C. I’ve traveled with Lithuanian Ambassador [Žygimantas] Pavilionis across the United States. A few weeks ago I was with your prime minister in Los Angeles doing a business event in the Californian business community. So, getting the word out, getting out the secret that Lithuania is a great place for doing business is part of our focus.

I think, from a policy standpoint, the most significant issue that the Government should tackle, and we are encouraging them to, is reforming the Labor Code. It’s very old, it’s very outdated. It needs to be changed. I think the recognition is there. But as with any issue, any time you are dealing with labor, it’s a very very tough political issue. So it will depend on the Government to decide how they tackle the issue, but if they were to do it successfully, you can potentially see even further growth from the companies that are currently doing business here. Because the Labor Code currently is so restrictive, it’s holding back some of the companies from potentially investing even more and hiring even more.

Do you think that the US-EU free trade agreement, if the negotiations are successful, will benefit America or Europe more?

I don’t think that matters. I think we are both gaining. It shouldn’t be a fight of who is gaining more. If you are going to get richer and I am going to get richer, aren’t we both happy? But we shouldn’t squabble over who gets even more rich.

It’s a net positive, again, for Lithuania if the TTIP, the free trade agreement, is to pass. And just to simplify a little bit, so people understand what we are talking about and what kind of barriers we are trying to knock down. Car safety standards are one of the issues. If you are going to manufacture and sell cars within the transatlantic relationship, you have to test those cars in America and test them in Europe. Why can’t we come with a safety test that we both can agree on and save the cost? That’s going to lower the cost of everyone’s car. And everyone can appreciate a cheaper car than the one they have to buy now.

So those are the kind of practical things that we are trying to break down. But even for moderately successful, we don’t have a full comprehensive package, but we are able to knock down some of those types of barriers, it is still going to have billions of dollars of impact on our relationship. And we are all going to gain from that.

You have met quite many Lithuanian officials, the prime minister, ministers of economy and energy. What was the main message you wanted to actually pass to them?

To remind them to continue to have dialogues, to continue to have conversations, and continue to communicate their priorities to our companies. And when I say “our companies”, I mean business community, because that impacts Lithuanian companies as well. But also an opportunities for us to continue to raise things like the Labor Code.

And I think reminding them that the importance of, again, making sure that the current investors are happy. Because if you are going to the grocery store and you buy a candy bar and you like the candy bar, chances are that you are going back to buy the candy bar. And it’s similar for the companies. If they are here, they’ve made an investment. They are not looking to make an investment for one or two years. They are looking to make an investment for fifty years. And so, you want to make sure that the investor is happy all the time. And while it’s important to go find new customers who like that same candy bar, you want to make sure you are taking care of the ones that are already enjoying it.

There is a lot of talk about America’s investment in Lithuania. Do you know any successful examples of Lithuanian investment in the USA?

I do know that there are some companies in the IT field. I have talked to a number of Lithuanian companies even in things like recycling, not just IT. So we are seeing interest, but it is a far way to go. For Lithuanian companies America is obviously a huge place to do business. But we now that the US, for the first time ever, has programs to help foreign investors do business in America. And so that’s new for us. Those countries have foreign promotions, but we never had them. So the support mechanisms are there for Lithuanian companies.

But also there is a potentially new opportunity during the prime minister’s visit – he had meetings with the vice-president, he also had meetings with the minister of agriculture and there is a new commitment to try to find ways to open up America in the agricultural fields and the meat fields for Lithuanian companies. So that can be a new opportunity for Lithuanians to focus on the US.

I’ve been in Chicago. I’ve been to Lithuanian restaurants in Chicago. The food is great. They are clearly doing very well. So if can find the way to open up those businesses, it should be a nice opportunity for Lithuanian companies.

There are about 1 million people of Lithuanian decent living in America. Quite a few of them are running businesses, are successful in their private lives and professional lives. Does Lithuania do enough to try to engage them, to get them to come to Lithuania and bring experience? Are we using our great diaspora in America in the right way?

Yes, I think so. I think there is a relegate network. I think your Embassy in Washington does a really good job of being in touch with all honorable consuls. Every year there is a big event around the national day in Washington and there is diaspora coming from all over the United States for those types of events. And they also network with them very well and make sure that Lithuanian news is known, taking advantage of the Lithuanian roots and the pride that Lithuanians have.

A great example of a new company that joined our business council recently is Jimmy John’s sandwich company. He is Lithuanian and he has now joined our council. So we are helping him to get him involved. Very famous executive in America, very successful sandwich company. So we are helping to get companies like that to get more engaged and, frankly, taking the advantage of their pride of being Lithuanian and finding ways, again, to further deepen our ties. Be it political or business.

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