Making Catalonia an internationally competitive brand

BARCELONA -- What makes Catalonia is not just separatist movements and a different language. There's something economically unique about it, too.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

BARCELONA -- You mention the words Catalonia or Catalan elsewhere in Spain and the same stereotypes come up: always on time, good at making and budgeting money, and excellent at business. It's possible these stereotypes are grounded in truth. While making up about 15 percent of the Spanish population, the region accounts for one-fifth of the nation's economic output, one percent of the world's technical patents, and has seen significant growth four out of the five years of economic crisis that has most of the other 16 Spanish regions at a standstill or decline.

Perhaps Catalonia's economic stability is due to the region having about 400 public relations and economic advocates located in Barcelona and 34 offices worldwide, which are split into ACC10, a global organization that promotes Catalan business abroad, and Invest in Catalonia, which looks to attract foreign investors to the region. Together, they create an independent consulting agency that earns incomes and profits off of the companies it represents, along with some regional government subsidization.

According to Stephen Ozoigbo, a senior ACC10 consultant, it isn't unheard of in general for somewhat autonomous regions, states and provinces within countries to spread their economic wingspan with promotional offices abroad. Ozoigbo said Quebec, Canada has many offices and resources like Catalonia has, while the state of California is opening an office in China. He continued to explain that Spain has the typical trade and investment offices attached to its embassies and the regions of the Basque Country, Valencia, and Andalusia all have offices or representatives abroad, but none have operations of the magnitude and expanse of Catalonia.

"We have some of the best universities when it comes to training people in engineering and technical careers. The amount of talent we have is huge and extremely competitive," Ozoigbo said of Catalonia, going on to say the region is home to two of the top ten business schools in the world, 50 design schools with the design headquarters for Volvo and HP, and Spain's top-rated engineering programs.

Ozoigbo, who is based in Silicon Valley, represents Catalan companies from the West Coast down to Texas. On a recent trip to Barcelona, when he was visiting ACC10's headquarters, he described the company's field work as analyzing various sectors to find parallels between local economies and Catalan companies, like food and vinegar in Denmark and fashion and finance in New York. Because of Ozoigbo's location, most of his clients are in technology, but he has also helped a corking company set up in the Napa Valley and has introduced a Catalan industrial clean-up company around Texas oil country.

For Ozoigbo's clients on the coast, Catalonia is an easy sell. Barcelona "is an international and logistical hub for Europe," while the Tarragona city port is an international strategic topping point. He says Catalonia suits his clients for obvious reasons. "If you're a software company in Cali, your programmers are used to the Cali lifestyle," he said, sipping a fruit juice smoothie. Ozoigbo argues to clients that if you want your best programmer or designer to help set up the European Union office, you want them in the place they'll feel most at home. Plus, he says Barcelona is so popular with U.S. university students studying abroad that a company's international transfers are likely to have already been to Barna before.

Like the agency representing them, Catalan businesses seem to be more focused than other Spanish companies on pushing their products abroad. In fact, Catalonia accounts for more than a quarter of Spanish exports, with the much bigger Madrid region trailing second at 11.4 percent.

Since the start of 2013, for the first time ever, Catalonia has sold more to the world -- 54 percent of its exports outside of the region -- than it has sold within Spanish borders. "I think now there are a lot of people in Catalonia who think it's necessary to get out of their comfort zones and to do business not only in Spain, but to get out and do business with the rest of the world," said Xabi, a Catalan freelance illustrator with multiple international clients, who preferred not to give his last name. "Catalonia looks in Europe and Brazil, [while] the rest of Spain just looks to Latin America."

July marked the hundredth anniversary of the Catalan poet Salvador Espriu's birth. Xabi believes Espriu's work "Attempted canticle in the temple", about a man torn between his homeland and his wanderlust, is the perfect description of the Catalan mindset -- an intense connection with its homeland, but a desire to cross the Mediterranean and to see other lands, "like a bird leaving the nest."

From Futbol Club Barcelona playing in Palestine this month to Tous's teddy bear jewelry on display in malls in 43 countries, many Catalan companies are spreading their influence around the world, while maintaining their base and brand along the Mediterranean.

Photo: Castellers, UNESCO-protected Catalan tradition of constructing human castles, ACC10

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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