Percy Barnevik: “Corruption? Well put them in jail now...”September, 2022
Barnevik? There is no businessman in the world who doesn’t know him. The Economist named him one of the best businessmen of the decade in the world!
My friend, Ambassador Piet Steel, one of the most important people in the Belgian giant "Solvay", looked at me amazed, while I carefully examined the program of the upcoming first visit to Bulgaria of the European Round Table of Industrialists. Ordinary people, no heavy gold watches or special “Brioni” suits, businesslike, punctual and very pragmatic. With one addition - businessmen who managed at least half of the important European business. No economic decision of the European Commission could be voted without their opinion.
The book, “The New Global Leaders”, which subsequently became a global bestseller, was already heavily advertised and featured only three names - Percy Barnevik, the owner of Asea Brown Bowery, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, and David Simon, the head of British Petroleum. Even just the fact that one of the three would be in Sofia, already has put Bulgaria on the world map.
The breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel went quite well. Barnevik and the group around him asked question after question, filled their notebooks and didn't even touch the fresh croissants in front of them.
It was a time when laptops were heavy and clumsy, like small briefcases and the iPad and all the other tablets hadn't been invented yet. What impressed me the most, apart from the precise and meaningful questions, was a blonde, middle-aged (whatever that means) Swedish woman with a tailored gray business suit and hair pulled back in a bun. She always stood by her boss's side, even as we walked through the streets of Sofia, carrying a portable fax machine with handles like a small shopping bag.
For someone, who is running a multi-billion-dollar business, communications were obviously very important, but, surely, what he was learning firsthand in Sofia, was no less important. His eyes were constantly scanning everything around him and he was absorbing every single word, said by the Bulgarian representatives of large international companies who were participating in the meeting. They were also quite eager to learn how to become more successful in their businesses.
“Look, our market is still small, it has only been free for ten years, there is no way to develop business quickly in this environment... If you were here, what would you do?”
“Well, I'm here”, answered Barnevik, and everyone laughed. And he continued: “Now you have to answer yourself what is your biggest problem - whether the level of the market, the consumption, the duty or inflation...”
“No”, interrupted one of the foreigners who has spent at least a few years in Bulgaria. “Corruption, the misunderstanding, that you can earn with honest and honorable work, with ideas, with perseverance.”
“Understood”, said Barnevik. He closed his notebook, put the heavy but yet comfortable “Montblanc” pen in his pocket and said: “Everything is clear now, let's go to the next meeting.”
The next meeting "opened the eyes" of the entire group and made them much more optimistic that something could happen in Bulgaria. It was with the President Petar Stoyanov and everyone in the delegation - Percy Barnevik (ABB), Baron Daniel Janssen (Solvay), Karel Vinck (Union Miniere), Dimitris Daskalopoulos (Delta Foods), Piet Steel (European Round Table of Industrialist) and many more powerful names in the European business were very impressed by his words. Stoyanov spoke about integrity, belonging to Europe, values... words, that weren’t in the vocabulary of any Bulgarian manager. The whole group left the Bulgarian Presidency really excited and in a very positive mood. On the way to the Sheraton Hotel, no more than 200 meters away, everyone was telling their colleagues how Bulgaria will succeed with such a president.
We literally stormed into the big hall on the first floor of the hotel, where a hundred journalists, photographers and cameras were waiting for us... I had to open up the press conference, to introduce the guests, to give the floor to the participants. But it didn't happen. Percy Barnevik somehow naturally took the microphone from my hand, greeted everyone and started by saying how impressed he was with President Stoyanov and the Bulgarian businessmen he met with in the morning, and how he regretted that corruption is such a big problem in our country.
And then a journalist interrupted him.
“Well, you are the "guru". You write books, give lectures, run companies worth billions. Give us some advice on how to deal with it.”
Barnevik had not yet given me back the microphone, as if he had been waiting just for this question. He answered in a very loud voice and with rather sharp gestures, waving his hands:
“It's so simple. I told your President. I am telling you now too, but in a very loud voice, briefly and clearly. Corruption? Put them in jail now. Find them, bring them to justice, convict them. You don't show an ounce of tolerance. Right now, don't delay it for a minute... Only then we and all representatives of big international businesses will come to Bulgaria.
We all know, that what Barnevik advised then, remained rather unheard. Despite that it didn't "put" anyone in jail, it was like a small spark of hope, that gave impulse and motivation to thousands of businesspeople to believe that they can achieve their goals with honest work. And they did. Not so much thanks to all subsequent governments, but, of course, in spite of them.
And when Percy Barnevik found himself at the epicenter of a big scandal in Sweden because of his pension contributions, he returned a very large part of them to his former company Asea Brown Bowery. Years later, he created the charity “Hand in hand” and opened up more than 2 million jobs positions in 10 countries, mainly in Africa, by training hundreds of thousands of unemployed people how to do business.
Because he can obviously do that.