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New Chairman Pledges to be ‘More Relevant‘ in British Chamber Shake-up

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“The days of sitting back and relaxing have gone,” says Duncan Graham, relatively new chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary. “I think thatʼs why seven of the board left. Now we’re back to reality.”

Duncan Graham

Graham says that when he first visited the BCCH on his arrival in 2011, the welcome was somewhat underwhelming.

“The guy that I spoke to at the time, wasn’t really interested. I wasn’t expecting a red carpet, but […] it was very much: if you want to join, there’s the form.”

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish-born financial adviser left that paper blank, and promptly joined the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle, where he was soon an active vice-president.

Fast forward to early this year, and the mood at the BCCH had changed radically. With membership numbers dwindling and more than half the 11-person board resigning, Graham was invited to take over.

In his view, after playing a subordinated, if well subsidized, role to the U.K.-funded British Business Center for a number of years, the BCCH had lost its way.

“There really wasn’t much happening. There was no drive for new members. I think some of it was the motivation of some people on the board. It was a good thing to have on their CV, especially working for a big corporation.”

Taking the helm from June 1, Graham, along with the new, seven-strong board and slimmed-down office staff, are in the middle of a revamp. This includes a drive to attract smaller, British-linked businesses.

As a statement of intent before the summer break, the first item in the new era was more of a social event – watching Wimbledon Ladies’ tennis finals on the big screen at the Marriott Hotel, together with victuals at an affordable HUF 7,000. That attracted some 80 guests.

Not that Graham is out to ignore the larger corporations that have formed the bulk of membership of late: next on the agenda is a swish CEO dinner at the Gundel restaurant with Zsolt Pártos, managing director of Tesco Hungary, along with British ambassador Iain Lindsay, on September 18.

The new chairman freely admits this is at prices (HUF 30,000 for members, HUF 45,000 for others) hardly compatible with small business finances, but says this is all part of the segmentation of events designed to appeal across the spectrum of potential membership.

“This is for board level members. We’ll have other, cheaper events. Some will be free,” he insists.

Three months in, the BCCH has already attracted half a dozen new members and lured back a handful of apostates.

“We’re at square one. And we’re getting on with it,” says the first British BCCH chairman for 16 years. What he doesn’t say is: “If you want to join, there’s the form.”

Duncan Graham Bio

Born in East Lothian, Scotland, Duncan Graham was soon heading south with family to live in Aldershot, southwest of London, attending school in nearby Fleet. At 19, he returned to north to read English as what today is Napier University, Edinburgh, only to interrupt studies when offered a position with Royal Insurance in the Scottish capital aged 20.

In 1987, Graham took over as pensions manager for Cornhill Insurance (owned by Germany’s Allianz), covering the north of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, before, with the birth of his first son, he took the entrepreneurial path, establishing his own, fully-regulated, financial advisory business in Edinburgh.

Along the way, he gained the U.K. Financial Advice and Practice qualification, plus membership of the Institute of Bankers in Scotland.

Moving full-time to Hungary in 2011, he founded G&G Wealth the following year to provide private financial and investment services, across Europe and the Middle-East.

Graham was soon immersed in the expatriate corporate-social scene, both as an individual and with the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle – not infrequently using his appreciation of a “good dram” at whisky-tasting events to ensure a convivial spirit.

Now president of the St. Andrew’s Association, his marketing skills have raised attendances at the annual ball from a 40-strong gaggle to some 230 in a few short years.

The event raises funds for local charities, including Tabitha House, a Budapest hospice for children.

 “I gained a reputation as an events guy. And I quite enjoy it. I enjoy the micro-management and thinking: what would I want, would I want music when I’m eating? Luckily, it’s worked!” he says.

Now aged 56, while firmly ensconced in Budapest, having married his Hungarian wife, Patricia, this year, he pays regular visits to the United Kingdom to meet friends and family.

A keen golfer, Graham is a past board member of the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, near Edinburgh, the fifth oldest club on record.

The ‘Dangerous Game’ of ‘Black-hole’ Brexit

BCCH chairman Duncan Graham gives his view on where we are with Brexit.

“Amazingly for me, there are still British companies arriving [in Hungary]. But these decisions were made some time ago, and I think they just said irrespective of what happens, we’re just going to get on with it.

“My personal view is that we’ll still end up with a deal. I think Brexit will happen, but there will still be a deal. I think Boris Johnson is playing the game and making the noises because he has to for the Conservatives’ [support].

“But I think when they come back from a nice long holiday, and then they say: bloody hell, we’ve only got six weeks to sort this out, it’s not long enough!

“I think what he’s trying to do is snap Brussels out of this idea that we’d never contemplate a no-deal Brexit. And we’re trying to show ‘Yes we will! Yes we will!’ So you have to give in on the [Irish-border] back-stop, and everything will be alright. But it’s a dangerous game.

“I think business people have got a much stronger grasp of the implications [of Brexit] than [British] politicians have.

“They really don’t know. They have to turn to the business sector to say: we’re chatting about it behind closed doors, but we don’t really fully grasp what the implications are. Can you please help us; because we are busy telling our constituents we’re going to have bent bananas again, and we can have pounds and ounces again, and all this crap! Whereas, in reality, they don’t really have a clue as to what’s going to happen. The politicians have led us into a horrible black hole.”

Editor’s note: Graham was speaking just before the U.K. Parliament retuned from its summer break, and the subsequent attempt by MPs to block a no-deal Brexit, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to call an early election. A week really is a long time in politics.

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