Plamen Bikov, Executive Director of the Regional Association - Blagoevgrad
Plamen Bikov graduated from the American University in Bulgaria with a degree in Business Administration. He has worked as a Foreign Trade Expert at “Bulgartabac Holding” for 12 years. Since 2016, he has been Marketing Manager at the engineering company “Rapid Progress”, which is a leader in the CAM technology market in Bulgaria and one of the most successful official representatives of Hexagon in Europe. In 2021 he became the Executive Director of BIA’s Regional Association - Blagoevgrad, as he loves his hometown and believes that businesses can be truly successful only when there is a proper business environment in place - regionally and nationally,
What are the current and most pressing problems of doing business in Blagoevgrad?
In the first twenty years of the transition, Blagoevgrad enjoyed a good standard of living, which was based on three main pillars - the Bulgartabac factory, the Southwestern University "Neofit Rilski" and the American University in Bulgaria. Cigarette production provided 800-to 1,000 people with jobs and good incomes - funds that flowed into the local economy. At certain times, the number of students exceeded 10,000, the towns’ streets were bustling with life, dozens of new restaurants and clubs, local shops and businesses, and many families supported themselves by renting out properties. Blagoevgrad became attractive not only for people from the district but for young people from all over Bulgaria, too.
Unfortunately, the last ten years have been difficult and the town’s appearance has changed. In 2011, the Bulgartabac factory was privatised and within the next 5 years the staff was almost entirely laid off. Hundreds of specialists were suddenly jobless and the current industry and business in Blagoevgrad were not prepared for that. As a result, many of them found new jobs in Sofia or abroad and settled there - a ticking time bomb for future business ventures in the city due to the declining qualified personnel.
An additional negative factor for the development of Blagoevgrad was the drastically reduced number of students - a trend observed throughout the country. The shift to learning online during COVID has exacerbated this problem.
We should also add the insignificant investment in the city that usually leads to new jobs. A serious obstacle in this respect is the zoning of the development programmes, which places Blagoevgrad and Sofia in a common region with serious differences in the economic indicators and characteristics between both cities. The completion of the Struma highway is still on hold, which will certainly boost the business climate here.
Of course, there is an encouraging number of companies that are doing well with collective efforts and the right policies. New business niches and jobs are being created. As an example, we could point to the German company Ottobock, which opened its production and administrative base in the city at the end of 2021 and allowed several hundred specialists to grow.
We believe that good times for Blagoevgrad lay ahead because it has everything required to become the region's business centre – proximity to the capital and a fast connection to it, a strategic location near two neighbouring borders, opportunities for training young people and many natural resources for tourism development.
Is the business voice heard in the dialogue with local authorities?
My in-depth observations cover a year - the period after I took office. Local government representatives understand the vital importance of business to the city and strive to maintain a warm relationship with it. There were meetings with the President of Bulgaria as well as the Minister of Economy, where we discussed many of the region's problems. At the end of 2021, there were numerous meetings with the City Council. BIA’s Regional Association, in partnership with the Municipality of Blagoevgrad, consulted with local companies to clearly outline the directions in which the joint efforts should be concentrated. The results highlighted the need to improve the economic environment, provide industrial space, explore the opportunities provided by the two universities to provide qualified staff and promote Blagoevgrad as an attractive destination for investors. In this regard, plans are already underway to build a green industrial zone, which will have specific rules and norms for construction, with increased criteria for green systems, use of renewable energy and waste management.
This year RA-Blagoevgrad celebrates its 40th anniversary. How does it feel to be the executive director of one of the first regional structures of the Bulgarian Industrial Association?
My position is first and foremost a responsibility - a responsibility to form a new attitude in the local business community towards joint action and joining forces in a common organization. The daily battles of each company have shifted the focus away from the big picture - improving the overall business ecosystem in the region. Our job is to convince each entrepreneur that when they have an effective organization with tradition and authority beside them- their voice will be heard, their concerns will be addressed and their ideas will be considered. The Bulgarian Industrial Association has always defended the interests of Bulgarian business - regardless of political processes and trends, and we believe that together we can demand adequate solutions and better conditions for growth.
What do enterprises from Blagoevgrad and the region most often turn to you for?
The main interest for companies is the organization of corporate management and optimization of production in the spirit of new technologies. This means the use of specialized software such as ERP systems for the overall organization of the company, which is suitable for all companies. Also, software to monitor and analyze production data for industrial companies, which helps raise the overall efficiency of the available equipment, optimize processes and, last but not least - create a safe working environment.
There is a willingness of many companies to participate in projects, mostly under the competitiveness, modernization and cross-border cooperation programs. The issues in most cases are related to the application procedures and the requirements for participants. Bulgarian institutions still have a way to go in terms of communicating clearly with potential applicants and getting information out to a wider audience. Another area of cooperation with local business representatives is the digitalization of companies, in which our professional experience helps a lot.
What are the current projects you are working on?
Our goal is to create a local business advice centre to serve entrepreneurs in the South West, which will be a kind of hub for all businesses in the region. We are currently focused on improving the competencies and skills of our staff. We have planned intensive training in the field of applying for funding under Horizon Europe, European Innovation Council, TED European public tender and INTERREG programs.
What are the requirements for membership in RА-Blagoevgrad and what is your wish for the entrepreneurs in Blagoevgrad?
RA-Blagoevgrad’s doors are wide open to all honest companies with a vision for business development in the region, who believe that with joint efforts we can significantly improve the economic and regulatory environment. I wish local entrepreneurs more confidence in their common interests and causes.