• Madrid Investment Attraction

Sara Bieger (La Chambre): “French companies see Madrid as a bridge to Latin America”

On November 2, Sara Bieger was appointed general director of the Franco-Spanish Chamber, an institution to which she has been linked since 2006 and in which she has held both the vice presidency and, in the last two years, the position of president. La Chambre —by its name in French—, which has been present in our country for almost 130 years, is the foremost meeting point for French companies based in Spain and Spanish companies that decide to launch there.

In this interview, Mrs. Bieger explains the activities carried out by the Chamber and how they collaborate with Madrid institutions, highlighting their dynamism and the care they take of foreign companies

M.I.A.: How does the Chambre view trade and investment relations between France and Spain?

Sara Bieger: The French Chamber has been in Spain for more than 125 years. It will soon be 130. If we talk about the last few years, the relationship is very positive. France is very interconnected with Spain: it is the country not only with the largest number of French companies, but with the largest number of employees in its companies. There are 360,000 people working in French companies in Spain. France is Spain’s first customer. In 2021, Spanish exports to France reached 50,480 million euros while imports totaled 34,000 million. The trade balance is positive. France is also the third largest investor in Spain and occupies the first position in terms of accumulated turnover. According to our data, there are more than 1,600 French companies in Spain. The automotive sector is the sector that absorbs the most investment thanks to the presence of Renault, PSA and many other suppliers. In short, the relationship is fantastic.

M.I.A.: Where are these companies based?

S.B.: They are spread out between Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Andalusia. But it is true that most of the big groups are based in Madrid. In fact, a very significant proportion of France´s foreign direct investment in Spain is made in Madrid.  And that corresponds to the presence of headquarters.

M.I.A.: The predominant sector is the automotive sector, but what others are represented?

S.B.: In terms of investment flows, the first sector is the automotive industry and the second is the subcontracting for the parts to manufacture cars here. There is also a very strong presence of the industrial sector and mass consumption companies. We have Carrefour, which has 52,000 employees in Spain. Alcampo, Decathlon, Leroy Merlin, Kiabi, Alain Afflelou… France has always had an important presence in the retail sector. The big groups, those competing with the Americans, are French. There are also pharmaceutical companies, such as Sanofi, railway sector companies, with the likes of Ouigo and Alstom, banks like BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole and insurance sector behemoths like Axa. All the companies of the French equivalent of the Ibex 35 stock index are represented.

M.I.A.: What can La Chambre do for these companies? What does it offer them?

S.B.: There are two main lines of work. The first is the accompaniment of French companies that are in Spain or the Spanish companies that start operating in France. We accompany them in all the stages: from preliminary studies and market studies to identification of business partners, organization of agendas, cross-interviews, creation of subsidiaries and physical and legal domiciliation. In addition, we manage subsidiaries: we keep their accounting, tax representation, etc. We offer all the services that allow a company to establish itself in Spain and be able to dedicate itself to doing its job. We take care of the rest.

We do all this in collaboration with public institutions, such as the Madrid City Council, Madrid Investment Attraction, which is very dynamic, and the aftercare service it provides through CEIM (the Business Confederation of Madrid – CEOE). Then, once the companies are established here, they become partners and can participate in events of our networking platform, in which there are more than 500 companies. We organize about one hundred events a year in which companies from different sectors can interact with each other. We want to create opportunities so that, with the contacts they make, they can generate more business.

We have also set up sectoral commissions. We think that a good way for them to really get to know each other and collaborate is to learn from the good practices of others, that the issues that are on the table of a certain sector are discussed with experts. There is a Retail, Food and Beverage Commission chaired by the commercial director of Alain Afflelou, and another for Mobility, Logistics and Transport where the presidency is held by NTT Data. We have commissions for People and Talent, Energy and Climate, Lifestyle, Culture and Sport, Digital and Technology, a club of financial directors and a club of directors that we have named “Eugenia de Montijo”. These commissions give people the opportunity to get to know each other and become business partners. The Chamber has become a meeting place.

M.I.A.: France is the country that generates the most employment linked to investment in Spain and Madrid. How do French companies benefit in return?

S.B.: Spain is an important market with a strong sales potential, and it offers access to the Latin American market because Madrid is a bridge to Latin America. From here contacts are generated and the possibility of starting up in Latin America is made easier. Having a language in common also helps. There are general directorates here on which Latin America, or one of its countries, depends. They can also find qualified personnel here. Moreover, with the pandemic, many French companies realized that having production centers far away complicated matters for them, so they turned their attention to local markets. Spain is a natural market for them. And I think they also come here because of the aid they are given, particularly from institutions. Both the City Council and the Community of Madrid offer many incentives.

M.I.A.: On October 3, a La Chambre Business Forum was organized jointly with the Madrid City Council on the future challenges posed in terms of mobility and logistics. How did it come about? What conclusions would you highlight?

S.B.: It came about because we think these are issues that are on the agenda of CEOs. Supply chains have been disrupted and there are issues with suppliers. Logistics and supply chain managers have always been important, but now even more so. The aim of the Chamber is to hold meetings on interesting topics for our members. The collaboration with the City Council arose so that they could explain what they do to solve this type of problem and to listen to the companies. Deputy Mayor Begoña Villacís and Councilman Borja Carabante came to explain Madrid’s plans.

We are sponsored by NTT Data. A study was made among the companies of the Chamber to see how their supply chain has been impacted and its conclusions were presented. Among them, that it is essential to strengthen public-private partnerships, promote entrepreneurship, bet on sustainability, innovation, technology and digitalization and mobility as a social right. And there was talk of promoting the first sustainable mobility hub in Madrid. The idea is to exchange good practices and raise awareness about what the City Council does. On another occasion we did something similar with the Madrid Nuevo Norte project. In this way, companies can know what is out there and submit their proposals for the tenders that come out.

M.I.A.: How do the large French companies that are leaders in these sectors intend to address the challenges that were raised at the Forum?

S.B.: Many companies have established a ‘control tower’. They invest so that they can have better visibility and warning systems, to know what is happening at all times and have better control of variables that were previously controlled using historical data. Now one cannot trust historical data. Companies may have problems with microchips affecting their supplier and they must look for another one. With this control tower they monitor much more closely what happens and rely on digitalization, because an artificial intelligence system can warn them. The dashboard is now much more accurate. It is becoming more sophisticated because the difficulty is greater than before.

M.I.A.: How does La Chambre think French companies will fare in Spain and Madrid this year and next?

S.B.: We are working, in collaboration with the Chamber of Barcelona, on the first French Business Climate Barometer in Spain.  Spain and specifically Madrid, attract many French professionals for its quality training offer, advantageous tax regime, new ways of working and infrastructure network, with an international airport and a good railway network.

M.I.A.: What is La Chambre’s relationship with Madrid’s institutions and local government like? Do you think that institutions such as M.I.A. could do more to increase the presence of French subsidiaries in Spain?

S.B.: There has always been a good relationship with institutions. I’ve reinforced that message in my presidency because I think it’s a great thing for business. Above all, we have taken advantage of the aftercare service created by the City Council and CEIM so that, when French companies have to decide where they are going to invest, they know that in Madrid they will be treated well. This service consists of taking care of the companies that are already there. It is not that they are going to leave from one day to the next, but they can end up leaving if an effective communication channel is not established in which they can present their demands: if they have problems with a license, if they must bring machinery and do not know how, if they are going to be given some help … It makes it easier for you to communicate with the administration. In Madrid, many things are being done to attract companies: tax treatment, accompaniment, acceptance of licenses to operate. The relationship with the City Council and CEIM is very good.