Led by a prince, Belgium business leaders say they, too, must adapt to globalization.
An economic delegation from the heart of Europe chose an interesting time to arrive in Seattle, with the dollar near a record low against the euro, Boeing protesting the loss of a major Air Force contract to Airbus, and Microsoft still stinging from a $1.35 billion fine by European Union antitrust regulators.
The head of Belgium’s business federation offered a perspective on those issues Tuesday and described his country as “much more than the EU.”
The country of 10 million people has become a mecca for international trade and celebrates low tax rates along with the best beer and chocolate in the world, said Rudi Thomaes, chief executive of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises.
But it’s no stranger to foreign competition in the era of globalization, he said.
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Countries increasingly buy what they need at the best price, regardless of nationality.
Belgacom, a telecommunications company half owned by the Belgian government, recently chose to buy equipment from Chinese company Huawei over a European provider, said Thomaes, former director of Alcatel-Lucent Belgium.
He compared that with Boeing’s loss in the United States. “While influenced by national interests, good governance means buying the best product for your needs, and I think that is what happened,” he said.
Thomaes described Belgium’s famed chocolates as a perfect fit for Starbucks coffee, and its expertise in tropical medicine a potential help for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Members of the Belgian group visited Starbucks and the Gates Foundation on Monday.
The country’s charm offensive even included royalty. Belgian Crown Prince Philippe accompanied a delegation of about 100 business leaders and government officials in the two-day visit to Seattle.
The group stopped on the way to Vancouver, B.C., where the prince will speak on environmental sustainability at the Globe 2008 conference.
Thomaes also stressed that theme in meetings with U.S. government officials. Europe and the United States need to agree on targets to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and increase the amount of energy from renewable sources, he said.
Europe and the U.S. “should have exemplary behavior,” he said, “because we will have to convince young nations like India and China to save the planet for our children.”
At the Gates Foundation, Thomaes promoted Belgium as a center for telemedicine. The technology involves using wireless networks to help patients in Africa who have diseases like tuberculosis but little access to medical care.
The networks connect them with doctors in Europe who can analyze their medical data and train African doctors in ways to treat them.
While Microsoft has tangled with antitrust authorities in Europe, Thomaes said, overall “the Microsoft story in Europe is a story of success.”
Another local company with large operations in Belgium is truck maker Paccar, which gained a major presence in Europe after acquiring DAF Trucks in 1996.
Over the past 12 years, Bellevue-based Paccar has revitalized DAF. It has more than 2,500 workers in Westerlo, where it makes truck cabs and axles, and delivers them to a final assembly line in the Netherlands.
Paccar is now one of the largest U.S.-owned companies in Belgium and one of the most profitable, said Paccar Chief Executive Mark Pigott. It generated sales of about $6 billion in Europe last year.
Yet for new investors, the weak dollar is a hurdle, and it isn’t necessarily good for Belgian businesses, either, said Thomaes. “A lot of our companies are actually suffering from this problem,” he said.
“It somewhat destabilizes the normal trade flow and it has affected the profitability of European companies,” Thomaes said, though the strong euro has helped offset rising oil prices to some degree.
For the United States, he said, “at the end of the day a weak currency is not an element of a strong nation.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com