Charting a new course for the EABC

by Expat Life

This month, Expat Life sat down with the recently appointed President of the European Association for Business and Commerce (EABC), international business consultant Luca Bernardinetti.

In my eyes, this was a very smart appointment. Luca is a sharp, good looking and charismatic businessman, as may be expected of a lawyer-turned-businessman, a third generation Italian lawyer who came to SE Asia twelve years ago, realising that this is where the future was for international business. He presents himself very well and is a man of measured words as you would expect from a lawyer skilled in international relations.

With a background in banking and finance law, Luca has split his time between Singapore and Thailand in the past twelve years. In his most recent venture, he restructured the consulting and law firm Mahanakorn Partners Group (MPG) in 2016, where he currently serves as Chairman and Managing Partner. (The firm was originally founded in 1999 by Luca’s partner in life and business, Khun Vilasinee Thephasadin Na Ayuthaya. Last year, she was conferred the CEO Leader award 2019 by H.E. Khun Ittipol Khunpluem, Minister of Culture.)

In addition to heading the Banking and Finance practice at MPG, Luca is the only non-Thai member of the ICC Thailand’s Banking Commission, the leading global rule making body for the banking industry. He contributes to various universally accepted rules and guidelines for international banking practice.

Having grown up in a respectable family of Italian lawyers, entering the legal profession was never a question for Luca, even if his departure for SE Asia marked an unexpected turn. The Bernardinetti family’s law firm was formed in 1945 by his grandfather, Senator Marzio Bernardinetti, before the Constitution of Italy was ratified. His grandfather, father and mother were all lawyers, and hoped that Luca would continue the family firm. Naturally, they were opposed to him leaving Italy at first, although his father now agrees, perhaps reluctantly, that it was a good decision.

Now as EABC president, Luca is ably assisted by three VPs – Jan Eriksson (past president), Georg M. Wolff and Robert Fox and a board of international business community heavyweights: John G. Sim, Paranee Adulyapichet, Nicholas Bellamy, Farid Bidgoli, Jerome Kelly, Stefan Molnar, Alberto Strada, Thitiwat Thanapornnithinan and Luca Vianelli. Word on the street is that they had a shaky start, but I think that Luca is a man on a mission, and likely to get the organisation on the right track.

I met Luca in MPG’s offices on Wireless Road. We sat in one of the meeting rooms, all polished dark wood and black furniture, and Luca is the focus and bright light in the room. The atmosphere grows warm as Luca begins to discuss his plans for the EABC. I begin by asking him to define the mission of the EABC, as well as his objectives for the Association during his two year term as President. 

The EABC, according to Luca, is predominantly an advocacy association comprised by working groups that promote specific agenda for growth in a set of core activities – for instance, pharmaceuticals, trade, logistics and automotive. However, he clarifies, for all intents and purposes, the EABC serves as the European Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. Indeed, the EABC covers over 30 different countries in Thailand, encompassing not only the EU, but all members of the European Economic Area. 

Having said that, Luca plans to extend the EABC’s focus beyond advocacy, developing the organisation’s ability to attract, facilitate, and sustain foreign direct investment between Europe and Thailand. He envisions “a platform for businesspeople in Thailand to promote their companies’ interests, and to inform them of the challenges they may face – not just in Thailand, but as Thailand is taking a central role in SE Asia in the wider geographic Mekong region”. He’s also excited by a growing trend of outbound Thai investment in Europe – for instance, Central Group’s recent high end retail investments in Italy with the Rinascente Group and the Swiss luxury department store chain Globus, along with eight associated real estate properties at top inner city locations from the Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund (MGB) Group – and anticipates strengthened European-Thai economic cooperation in the future, such as through the proposed Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Thailand.

Speaking of cooperation, I remark that H. E. Mr. Pirkka Tapiola, the (Finnish) European Ambassador to Thailand, has done an excellent job of championing the combined strengths of the EU’s member countries. Luca explains that sadly Pirkka is likely to move back to Brussels next year, but remains committed to furthering the interests of European business in Thailand by working closely with the EABC. Luca shares a few of the plans they have discussed, including a reception at the EU Residence for European Ambassadors, Thai and European business leaders, and representatives from the Thai government.

This brings us to the subject of event planning, which Luca says will be integral to the EABC’s new focus on information sharing and networking.

EABC sets itself apart from bilateral Chambers of Commerce in that it does not organise evening networking events set around a bar theme. The events are typically conferences, luncheons and workshops, which Luca has already been working on planning – for instance, a lunch between the Thai Minister of Commerce, the Ambassador of the EU H.E. Mr. Pirkka Tapiola and other business leaders to discuss the aforementioned Free Trade Agreement.

In the past I have attended a number of the “networking opportunities” that the individual Chambers held but always felt that the joint (Tri or Multi Chamber) events were by far the more successful ones. I was pleased to hear that the EABC is not planning any of these evening drinking opportunities and would focus more on the business aspects of union. Working groups, representing the international community and engaging and connecting with our Thai hosts, the government and business communities. Breakfast presentations, working lunches – gone are the old days when business was done over several bottles of expensive wine at the company’s expense.

Luca agrees that partnership with other business associations and Chambers is key. He speaks with respect about the JFCCT and said he hopes to liaise and run joint events with them, the Thai government and the greater business community. This type of cooperation is obviously the future for the Thai Chambers of Commerce. Either this, a union with the JFCCT and or both. I tell him that I feel the 30 odd individual country Chambers are all a bit “jobs for the boys” and too cliquish for my tastes. You are either in favour or not, and me being me, I am far too outspoken to be in the “in group”.

Luca emphasises that inclusiveness will be key to the new EABC. He acknowledges that there has been rivalry between the bilateral Chambers of Commerce and the EABC; however, many wish to work together and the EABC will seek further cooperation with other Chambers and business associations. 

“We want to appeal to all European businesspeople in Thailand,” he says, “whether they are retired or still working, and we want to appeal to the Thai business community, as well as all those that may have an interest in investment in Thailand.”

I can see the role of the EABC being far clearer and more effective than it has been in the past. 

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