British Chamber Networking for Better Bilateral Outcomes

Interview

Duncan Graham

Nine months into his latest two-year term as chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary, Duncan Graham shows little sign of slowing down. Indeed, he wants to carry on for a while yet, saying he feels a need to make up for lost time.

“I’m very keen to stand again. I think the main drive behind that is I felt robbed of two years during COVID,” Graham tells the Budapest Business Journal.

The BCCH had been an influential lobbying association in the period after the change of regime in Hungary but was in a much-weakened position when Graham agreed to stand in May 2019. Two previous board members, Kam Jandu of Budapest Airport and Dennis Diokno of FirstMed, persuaded him to run for election.

“They said, ‘Look, there’s a real danger here that nobody takes it; it might become irrelevant or disappear completely unless someone runs with it,’” recalls Graham, an authorized securities trader and wealth manager in his professional life.

He, in turn, persuaded others to stand for board positions in those elections. “We put a lot of effort in, and then, just as we started, COVID hit. We had two years of video conferences, and I thought, ‘Well, this is just brutal; I haven’t had a chance to do anything.’ So, I feel that I’ve really only had three years as chairman, not five.”

Given all of that, is the chamber in 2024 where he wanted it to be? “I definitely feel we’re on the right curve. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly where I wanted to be. But the positives at this point are that our perception amongst other nationalities and businesspeople in the country has changed.”

Graham estimates membership “had halved over probably 10 years” but says things have now turned around.

“We were down to about 74 members when I took over, and we’re back just over 100. We are smaller than AmCham or the German Chamber but are seen as being quite dynamic, with good quality, popular events, and to be speaking to the right people.”

Events, Dear Boy, Events

Events, the chairman says, are crucial to everything. The chamber had begun to piggyback programs organized by others, which meant the money went elsewhere, and companies ended up asking what they got for their membership fee.

“We organize at least two business events a month of some nature, led by our outstanding ‘CEO Dinner’ series supported by senior professionals from across the business spectrum. Whether for larger companies or SMEs, we’ve gone for regular meetings and sports events like our Royal Ascot race day at the Hilton Budapest to pick up our visibility in the market.”

With the help of executive director Oliver Strommer, Graham spends much time courting new members or trying to persuade former ones to return. BP, for example, came back after a three-year break on the back of one of those sporting events, a Six Nations rugby-watching party. The two big standouts in 2023 were Rolls Royce Aviation and Jaguar Land Rover. So, what is the mix of members like today?

“I’d say we’re still heavy on the large company side. We’re making a conscious effort to bring smaller companies in, and we’ve had some success with that. But it is hard to get away from the big companies and creating events that they would like with our somewhat limited resources.” There are currently four office staff members, one of whom is the part-time bookkeeper.

“Effectively, we’ve got three active employees, and it’s a little chicken and egg. If we could get our numbers up over the next few years to 120 or 130, it would give us a little bit more resource to employ somebody else and so grow more.” That future growth is most likely to be among SMEs, Graham thinks.

“There isn’t a huge number of medium-sized companies in this country; they are really quite small, or they’re absolutely huge. We have a very good ‘hold’ rate, with members rejoining each year. I’m sure that will change; as we get more SMEs, the chances that some of those will leave will grow. It becomes a slightly different dynamic, but we’re prepared for that.”

There is a natural tendency to try and learn from our neighbors in the region. Graham recently visited his opposite numbers in the British Chamber of Commerce Czech Republic. He admits, however, that he had not heard of many of its members, Czech businesses that are tied into supplying the German automotive market.

Mentoring Scheme

“We’ve decided we’re going to do some work together. They will help us join a mentoring program they launched last year, an international initiative called ‘Power Talks,’ which offers flash mentoring for young women. In September 2023, BCC Czech became a global partner of L’Oréal, and we are now looking for a partnering company in Hungary to help us deliver this project. We would need some of our key executives to give up some time, which is another set of questions we must work on, but you have to start somewhere,” Graham says.

While he isn’t keen on giving up hosting rights, Graham says he is happy to work with other international chambers in Hungary. He says there are good links with the German and Italian Chambers, and he hopes to build stronger bonds with AmCham following its annual meeting in December. And how about the relationship with the British Embassy?

“The British Embassy has been excellent. We have an excellent working relationship. The embassy supports our events and is represented at our board meetings at the highest level. The embassy is open to ideas we suggest, and we receive help from the Department for Business and Trade team. The embassy will encourage us to use the stunning British Residence for high value events too.”

Graham says he has seen little impact from Brexit, probably because most members sell services rather than goods (Tesco would be an obvious exception). Interestingly, he asked that the BCCH be allowed to stay within the EU Chambers organization, which it helped found, a request that was accepted. In the coming years, whoever is chairman of the BCCH will take over the rotating presidency of EU Chambers.

It’s clear that much of the remedial work at the British chamber since 2019 has come from Graham utilizing his own network.

“Yes, a lot of the initial headline stuff has been me, but often, it’s only because I’ve met people at events. I like networking and meeting new people. But now it needs to go up a level. I need the entire board to really contribute to this. With Andras Modos of EY as vice chair and Douglas Arnott of EDMF as treasurer, I’ve seen a big difference, especially in the last 12 months.”

It seems that if you are not already a member, perhaps you ought to expect to be contacted soon.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 23, 2024.

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