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Bill Drysdale: A BBLF Fan with A Passion for Bulgaria

November 19, 2004
Bill Drysdale: A BBLF Fan with A Passion for Bulgaria

Bill Drysdale is one of the co-founders of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum and its first Chairman. Currently, he is Honorary Lifetime Member of the Forum with special responsibility for the development of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among its members. He also used to be a Board Member and Finance Director of the Bulgarian International Business Association (BIBA). His extra-business titles have also featured Honorary Consul of Austria for Scotland and various part-time Board appointments in professional, cultural and charitable organizations. BBLF is also happy to have him as Chairman of this year's BBLF Annual Awards Jury.
Throughout his professional career, he has been closely involved in encouraging and assisting foreign investors into Scotland, Poland and latterly Bulgaria. As part of the KPMG team, he took a leading role in the privatization process in all three countries, acting in some cases for the Government and present shareholders, and in other cases for foreign investors. During his last ten years in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Bill, as everyone calls him, created a strongly western business environment in the KPMG practices and assisted in doing so in many client companies.
His exceptional expertise is now being used by no one less than the Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg himself, who has entrusted Bill with the responsibility to improve the business efficiency of his office and act as one of his close Advisors on a range of matters other than political issues.
Aside from that, Bill is also a terribly interesting man, not least for his amazing passion for old cars and old machinery that you can sense in the total exhilaration he falls into while speaking about that very absorbing hobby of his. Being able to pursue it in Bulgaria is just one reason why he is so much in love with this country.

Bill, what is you background, prior to coming to Bulgaria?
I started my career in Scotland. I lived there all my early years working for KPMG - first in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh. It was a very lively economy, we had a lot of foreign investment coming into Scotland. Even in those early days, companies were encouraged to take a lot of corporate social responsibility. And this proved to be a remarkably good training for what came later in my career. I had a taste of foreign contact, because during those years in Edinburgh I was the Honorary Consul of Austria and that enabled me to use my German, which is really useful these days. It wasn't until I was 50 that just by chance I got the opportunity to go and work in Poland.


What was it that challenged you to work in a post-communist country?
That was rather a lucky break. KPMG were looking for somebody in 1992 to build and develop their business in Poland and in fact it is interesting that at that time Maxim Behar, the current Chairman of the BBLF, had already been working in Poland for three years. So we have a little bit of history in common (laughs).
I took over an office of KPMG with 60 people in 1992, and by the time I left in 1997, we had a staff of 400 with an average age of 27, which was very rewarding.


How did Bulgaria follow after that?
In 1997, just as the Bulgarian people forced the government to resign and the currency board was established, KPMG approached me to ask if I would like to move to Bulgaria. That was a tough challenge, a very hard decision. Bud I decided Why not! and joined a team of very competent colleagues. Again there were about 60 people when I arrived here. And when I retired from KPMG in 2001, there were almost 200 in the office. Of course, it's a smaller country than Poland. This was the beginning of the Kostov government and those were challenging years for Bulgaria. A lot was achieved! We acted for many years as the most successful advisor to inward investors.


How did you grow to the idea of becoming one of the supporters of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in Bulgaria?
These were very exciting times for the development of post-communist communities. It became more a vocation than just a job for me. There was so much to do outside work. I was fortunate to get to know leading people in top companies in Bulgaria and together we talked with Robert Davies and his team from the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) and established in 1998 the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum. It was actually built - although this is not very well known - on four years of previous work done by the IBLF in Bulgaria, very successfully I must add, on a number of donor-funded projects. In 1998, twelve companies got together and formed the BBLF in the presence of and with the tremendous support of HRH The Prince of Wales and President Petar Stoyanov. In those early years while I was still in Bulgaria, with the help of Evgeny Ivanov, the first Executive Director, and with Ralitsa Gospodinova, who took over from him, we established the base, we put out the first pillars of CSR. We did preliminary studies on how business ethics and good corporate practice should be applied in Bulgaria. But it has to be said that the real, exponential growth of the BBLF came after I retired and under Maxim Behar's leadership. And it has been quite remarkable. It has not been simply growth: it has been a single-minded commitment to CSR, to promotion of the now very well known Business Ethics Standard. Now BBLF has become very much more than just another business association.


How do you see the commitment of our members to CSR policies and how has that been growing?
It has been impressive. Anyone can see on the BBLF website how much companies in Bulgaria have been doing to benefit society. BBLF also has its very prestigious Annual Awards whose Jury the Forum has kindly invited me to chair for the selection of the Award winners this year. We have a very distinguished line-up of professionals here who are going to serve on the panel. BBLF has invited companies from its own membership, together with the membership of the other principal business associations in the country to submit projects for the Awards scheme. It is really the enormous emphasis on what companies can put back into their community which I like very much.
I believe there is no way for BBLF and CSR in Bulgaria to go backwards. During the communist years it is true that there was a system of social responsibility by companies: all kinds of facilities for their employees, most of which have now been outsourced and many of which were not economic. Employees were asked to do all kinds of voluntary activity and it became not so much a pleasure but an obligation. Therefore voluntary work in the community was not taken too seriously. Now we have totally changed that attitude. An enormous number of companies in the private sector, and of course also in the public sector, are now diverting a great deal of resources to encourage voluntary work by their staff and management to projects which help the community, improve the environment, and develop the education of their people. I am enormously impressed with what I see.


As part of your work in Bulgaria, do you have any impressions of the challenges foreign investors have been facing here?
In the beginning of the Kostov years, when I arrived, there were very many opportunities to take a stake in companies that were being privatized. There were a number of very big Greenfield sites, new companies set up, major companies from Western Europe and the USA who acquired an interest in big successful Bulgarian companies. So, we saw strong growth in the economy. In the last few years since I returned to Bulgaria, we have thankfully seen progress towards the privatization of some of the big entities - the BTC, Bulgartabak, the electricity industry. These are, if you like, the projects of today's government.


You said you retired from KPMG and then returned to Bulgaria again. What was it that brought you back?
Yes, in 2001 I did retire and I went back to Scotland. This allowed me and my wife to set up a holiday accommodation business by renovating an old farm in Scotland. And also it let me create a modern, custom-built garage for my classic cars. But then, really to my total surprise, in late 2002, on the generous recommendation of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and with his warm support, I received a call which I could not possibly refuse, to become an Advisor in the office of the Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha.  This was an extraordinary piece of fate! I could not believe I had been invited to come back and work in Bulgaria. I have been extraordinarily lucky to work closely for such a remarkable man as the Prime Minister.


What does your work for him comprise?
When the Prime Minister made some inquiries about an Advisor, he was looking for some help in creating a more business-efficient environment, creating a more structured system for his day-to-day working office, and bringing some element of good business practice to what you could call the civil service. It's actually the kind of service where every time the government changes, most of the people change, particularly at the PM's office. So, we had here a new team - a team of very competent people, but who hadn't all worked together before. My fundamental mission was to establish the best possible working practices in the office. In doing that, I have been very privileged to have been accepted as really the only foreigner in the immediate team of the Prime Minister.
I guess outside my central mission, I also have the opportunity to work and help to carry out my own recommendations with the team here and to act as one of the several personal assistants of the Prime Minister. It is a back-room job - a job where I am one of those who help to give the PM the bullets and the real success is in him firing them.


Initially you came back for a year, but it has long been expired. What is the background to your staying in Bulgaria so much longer?
When the PM consulted with HRH The Prince of Wales about finding somebody for this job, that is where Robert Davies, who is well known to BBLF, came into the frame again and agreed that having found someone with my background who knew Bulgaria seemed worth pursuing. The PM seemed reasonably content to run with it and therefore IBLF established a consultancy contract with me and seconded me to Bulgaria for initially one year. The second year was then taken over by the UK Foreign Ministry who sponsored my post. I have been fortunate that after an extension of one year, the Prime Minister has obtained the agreement of the British government to allow my post to continue through until June 2005, which is when the next Parliamentary elections are. For me this is a special challenge, because it allows me to follow through the early work I've done. I am not a political Advisor. My work is essentially not in any way related to the forthcoming elections. I am working on operational matters, not political matters, but there is a lot to do in that too.


What are your impressions of the Prime Minister's involvement with the development of CSR in Bulgaria?
The PM is a great supporter of the BBLF. He is a passionate believer in the Business Ethics Standard too. Indeed, every time I go to his room I see it on the wall behind his desk and he really treats it almost like the Ten Commandments (laughs). He is thus a very important ally. He has consistently been willing to encourage the corporate sector to put things back into their communities. He has lived and worked abroad for many years and he has seen that happening, not least in his adopted country of Spain. So, he is a good friend of the BBLF.


It has been for the first time in your career that you are part of the government, rather than part of business. How do you see the interaction between business in Bulgaria and the current government?
Indeed, I can see some very strong interaction going on, not just of the Prime Minister, but also of Ministers Velchev, Shouleva, Passi, Kouneva, to mention but a few. Excellent interaction with the business community and very big support for what BBLF is doing.
I see many suggestions, requests and recommendations being made by business to the government - a lot of them are made very sensibly, forcefully and practically and they deserve to succeed. I also see a number of poorly presented initiatives and there is a big division between the two. The acid test is: play to the strengths of the ministers that you want to make suggestions to, get them on your side. We have classic cases of ministers who have a very important job to do and in close interaction with business. What I can say to business now that I am on the other side is: Use the linkages, the communication channels you have with these people who are in leading government and ministerial positions, but who also understand business because they used to be part of it till very recently. BBLF is one such excellent channel - it is indeed a first-class communication channel. I think it has served the business community very well in keeping open the links of communication with the government.


We have heard you say you have a passion for Bulgaria. What is it that makes you feel like this about our country?
I do. I have always thought that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (laughs). Bulgaria has a lot in common with my own country. It is a beautiful place, a small country - a small country that in the past has had large and aggressive neighbours, just like Scotland. It is country that is changing dramatically, just like my own country did in the 1970s. It has a marvellous cultural and architectural heritage, which I also very much appreciate.
I have also been fortunate to be able to pursue here some of my absorbing hobbies, one of which is collecting old cars. Here I started by buying a 1965 Volkswagen "Kostenurka" (the Bulgarian for "turtle") - the Beetle. I have a wonderful original example of this that I use regularly. I travel around the countryside with it, driving it myself and truly enjoying it. I love Bulgaria for having allowed me to indulge in this passion for old machinery and old cars (laughs).
I bought my Kostenurka from a truly fascinating guy: he is 95 and used to be a Captain in the army of King Boris III. He used to collect cars himself. In the same garage where he kept the Beetle, he also had a 1928 BMW Dixi. I bought that as well and currently I am in the middle of restoring it. I hope by the end of this year it will be exactly like it came out of the factory in 1928 in Munich. It was one of the very first BMWs of all time. I am very grateful that my good friend Irena Komitova (General Manager of Kamor Auto, the licensed distributor of BMW for Bulgaria), who is also one of the founding members of BBLF, may allow me to exhibit my Dixi in the BMW showroom at their grand opening next spring. For me it is a delightful hobby to pursue in Bulgaria, because it has allowed me to engage a Bulgarian engineer to lead the work on my BMW, as well as a number of expert subcontractors to do the very complex and delicate job of restoring it.  Project manager for this venture is my good friend Philip Stanimirov, manager of the Diplomatic Club in Boyana, who for several years assisted my wife with running the Federation for the Welfare of Street Dogs in Bulgaria (another CSR project advertising a particular problem well known to anyone living in Sofia).


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