• Interview by:
  • Bernardo da Mata

Maria Monteiro: “The work culture in Portugal is wrong in certain habits. It’s getting better, but it’s still wrong.”

Maria Monteiro, Vice President at Gemcorp, has been living in London for over 13 years. The first of a set of interviews with prominent Portuguese expats.

Kingly Street is one of the hidden streets of Soho, central London, but like any other place in London, it was crowded with heterogeneous people, background noises and scents. In there, in a trendy coffee shop called Urban Tea Room with cheerful staff and an even nicer music selection, I met Maria Monteiro, Vice President at Gemcorp and an experienced professional in Public Relations and External Communications, living in London for over 13 years.

Smiley and relaxed, Maria chose a cappuccino to start with and I opted for a single expresso to remind us somehow of our distant, but always present, home country. It was a sunny morning in London and before we started our conversation, we spoke about the purpose of this set of interviews: to make the diaspora think of Portugal. We both couldn’t agree more on the importance of it…

After reading your curriculum, I came across your vast experience in political and diplomatic advisory for more than ten years before joining Gemcorp in 2016 and here’s my very first question. Do you see any relationship between diplomacy and investment?

One thing that the Portuguese Government instituted some years ago was economic diplomacy, which makes perfect sense.  If you would see how diplomacy was fifty years ago, or even before, it was all about fomenting already established political connections or creating them with countries that we didn’t have any relations at all. Now, it’s more about developing economic relations and, also, attracting investment to Portugal. So yes, I can see a direct connection between diplomacy and investment nowadays. Not that much before, but today it is definitely a quite important trait of it.

Focusing on investment, I know that you deal on a daily basis with investors from across the world, be it with the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce or your current company. Would you consider their interest in Portugal is growing? And how would you describe the Portuguese Market to a foreign investor?

Portugal has done really well in the real estate and the tourism side. It has had a huge boom, especially in Lisbon and Porto, which has also been seen with some concern. If you are a Portuguese who want to return to Portugal, who wants to invest in Portugal or even anyone else who wants to buy a property, it has become insanely expensive. Furthermore, there is a problem with the golden visas… You have a new wave of Brazilians, Chinese, Russians, French, Italians and others that are going to Portugal either to retire or to buy a property or even to take advantage of the tax system benefits related to their pensions. In the areas I referred to previously – Tourism and Real Estate, Portugal has done really well. The rest, I don’t see it growing as much as it can. If you want Portugal to become a financial centre for instance, like Paris and Frankfurt are trying especially now with Brexit, one can’t see Lisbon or Porto competing in that sense. For start-ups, yes. It’s an area that we have successfully taken, especially with the Web Summit, and we are doing amazingly well in selling Portugal as the new Mecca for entrepreneurship.

Portugal is expected to grow at 1.8% by the end of this year. How does the investment environment perceive it? If positively, is it being efficiently explored by the government and different economic players? Is the Portuguese economy attracting solid long-term investments in your opinion?

Yes, especially in those areas that I have just mentioned. Just look at the hubs that have been created in recent years around start-ups. I read the other day that Isaltino Morais (Mayor of Oeiras) wants to transform Oeiras in a kind of European Silicon Valley. The concept is great because if you are going to build a start-up, you are either a young person or a person with a huge amount of experience.

Imagine being that person with a great deal of experience, why would you leave your career and your solid life behind, if not to improve it? Portugal does really offer an amazing quality of life, which is fundamental to promote the country and its economy. If you get the right hubs to invest in Portugal, besides the tourism and real estate sectors, we have many other areas in which Portugal can offer significant advantages. The textiles, clothing, footwear, for instance, have an outstanding quality, but we need to export them even more. All those traditional areas, which we used to be good at, have been lost a bit. We should take the textiles back to the North of Portugal, for example. Producing again the dress you wear, the shoes you put on… This whole market that was always related to Portugal and that now stagnated a bit.

Glad you mentioned differentiating factors because that allows me to bring competitiveness to the table. Latest IMD’s ranking placed Portugal as the 39th more competitive country in the world, dropping 6 positions from a previous 33rd place last year. Do you believe that Portugal is not doing enough to be more competitive or is just difficult for a small country that recently dealt with a severe crisis to compete globally with such powerful and advanced economies?

Well, the main problem with Portugal is that our labour market is really closed. So, how can you be competitive if companies don’t grow as they should, are not investing or relocating to Portugal as they should? If the market itself doesn’t grow with them? Here in London, for instance, it’s very easy to establish a company. It’s incredibly competitive because it’s very easy for you to just rotate between firms. Portugal needs to be less bureaucratic.

Everything takes ages, everything is still very complicated. We need to simplify and digitize! We must perfect this area if we want our companies to be more competitive. Also because we need to keep in mind that we are a small country who cannot match, at a global stage, with countries such as the US, China and India. But we can tackle these problems by valuing our presence in the European Union and the dimension it gives us. We should definitely focus on the many areas that we are good at, invest in innovation and just make life easier for the companies which want to establish themselves in Portugal.

According to OECD’s 2018 Tourism Trends and Policies, “Sustainability is perhaps the most important challenge for Portugal” adding that the country “is experiencing challenges to remain in the face of change”. Despite this conclusion being drawn about Tourism, is it fair or even possible to extrapolate it to the whole economy? Is Portugal growing sustainably?

I must confess that I have been away for a long time, so if I were to talk about Portugal in 2006, I would say no it isn’t. But the Portugal I see now, especially with big companies like Galp, EDP and other big players, I do see them having sustainability programs and even, for that purpose, creating departments to deal with this issue. You wouldn’t have seen this when I left. Nowadays, you do see that, as many other countries do, we are putting a huge emphasis on sustainability. Even the company for which I work for, that deals with emerging markets, is taking sustainability very seriously. We must seek to ensure that anything we do and we invest in is sustainable in the long run.

And do you think Portugal will keep growing?

Yes, definitely! But we must improve the issues I was speaking of… The work culture in Portugal is wrong in certain habits. It’s getting better, but it’s still wrong. I don’t know how you want people to be productive and give their best when they are at work from 9 am till 9 pm. Here we only have that culture in the financial sector. One of the great things about London is the balance you get between work and private life. In Portugal, you have this amazing country by the sea, sunny, where you can do tons of outdoor activities and has so much to offer, but then people don’t always know how to conciliate office time with productivity. They take long lunch hours, have late-night meetings: very few people are in the office before 9 am… So this whole logic needs to be changed for Portugal to be more competitive and productive.

Are you suggesting that Portugal needs some sort of a mindset revolution?

Yes! I must say that the younger generation seems to have it because it doesn’t want to be stuck in the office 12 hours a day; we now live in an increasingly busy digital world. The younger generation wants flexible working because it is digitally connected in social media, interested in other things, it has hobbies, wants to spend time with family or friends and usually favours that balance. I strongly believe that Portugal is going to continue to change for the best with this new generation. Also, because it is becoming a much more cosmopolitan country. I see it now when I go back home. There are so many foreigners, who bring with them their cultures, and that diversity can only be good for the country.

It is interesting that you mention that because Eurostat released some data some days ago, saying that Portugal is the second country in the EU that most employs most of EU migrants living there. 84% of EU citizens living in Portugal did also find a job in Portugal, which is quite a positive image for integration and the sense of being an open and full of opportunities’ country. Is there a place for the Portuguese younger generation or even those EU migrants to make a difference in what were you speaking of before? Do you think the status quo, so to say, is ready and willing to receive their input?

I think yes, although we are still very traditional in the way we think and act, be it in the public sector or even in the private one. In part, because the private sector still depends a lot on the public one. As said, this whole new generation and the foreigners that now live in Portugal have contributed to the modernization and diversification of the country. After so many years away, that’s a concern I have when I think of going back to Portugal: how will I adapt to our working culture. I think a lot of expats share this same concern.

Which kind of country are you expecting to find?

When I return, if it’s the same from what I see now, it will be a very modern country. Very diverse as well! You still have the “tascas” (a traditional Portuguese pub) but now you also have the Michelin restaurants. I like that you have a little bit of everything. However, I find it a shame that the housing prices went up the way they did. We went from a severe crisis to all of sudden having houses that are being sold for more than one million, one million and a half. These are London prices! This is insane, to think that the prices practised now in Lisbon are similar to London.  That is something I hope will be corrected. It will never go back to the prices we had five years ago, but I am hoping that the real estate bubble is corrected. And I expect to find an even more open-minded country.

Some critics say that Portugal did not invest enough on strengthening economic, political and even cultural ties with Portuguese-speaking partners. Would you agree with this critique? If so, do you think there is still time for Portugal to invest in or to call investment from these countries? Or have we already lost the train, so to say?

No, I don’t agree with that at all. I believe we’ve established very good relationships with our former colonies for instance. I think the emphasis is on the Portuguese-speaking countries to establish a mutually advantageous economic relationship because we have the same language and it is easier to do business in that same language! We also have a legislative approach that facilitates investment and trade. We share the same culture. It is easy to understand how to do business in Portuguese-speaking countries.

Will CPLP play a special role in that?

CPLP throughout the years is not doing enough on the economic side, I must say. It’s great to maintain the culture and the language alive. In the educational and cultural side, CPLP has played a major role. But did this help in terms of promoting economically the relations between countries that speak the same languages? I believe we still have a long way to go.

You served as Press Advisor to former Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso and now you can certainly see how Political communication is changing. Communication between politicians and the people, the electorate, is now more direct, more instantaneous and more rapid. Is this affecting the mindset of investors as well? And, if so, as we observed in the last European elections, a new political situation is emerging… Do you think unpredictability is the new normal for Politics and Economy?

With social media, the political landscape has completely changed! Now, everyone is free to say whatever they want, when they want and they have an audience for it, which wouldn’t be the case before. You have politicians with little experience, who wouldn’t even have a voice 15 years ago and now have a strong one. Lots of people don’t want to follow the system, they think change is good, whatever that change is. They vote for that change and that is what brings the unlikeliness to the table.  We see politicians thinking completely outside of the box, that you wouldn’t even perceive them as being politicians and suddenly they win elections and become Prime-Ministers and Presidents. Even here in the UK, it’s still very hard to envision that in one year we might no longer be part of the European Union. That for me is really odd. An island detached from the rest of the continent… And there is also the question of who will be Prime-Minister by then? This is the sort of thing that 5 or 10 years you would know exactly that the next prime minister would be a Conservative or Labour.

Is Portugal ready for Brexit?

Oh yes, I think so. We have tried to envisage Brexit as an opportunity. We are not looking to compete with London as a financial centre…

May I ask you why?

We don’t have a banking centre nor big investment funds. So the whole idea of us luring a Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, JP Morgan, HSBC Private Banking to Portugal isn’t realistic. You can, of course, have a symbolic presence, but it’s not going to be the main financial centre in Europe. It’s not going to happen anytime soon. I think the idea of betting on the start-up world, hosting the web summit, trying to create little hubs for entrepreneurship and making us competitive as, for instance, San Francisco, is a great thing. If it happens or not, remains to be seen.

Portugal will hold general elections in October this year…

My God, time flies…

What are your expectations for the next political cycle in Portugal?

I think that Portugal is going through a positive phase right now. Although Portugal has still a lot of challenges, it has attracted a better international image, more people are moving there, more companies are being created. But we cannot forget the sacrifices that the country had to make to get here and we cannot again run into the mistakes of the past. When I go there, I see people in general more relaxed about the future. Therefore, I wouldn’t anticipate a great change.

If you could highlight two challenges for the future of Portugal, what would they be?

I would definitely change the working culture. That’s one of the things that is holding me back. I mean I love the life we lead in London, conciliating my personal time with the professional one. I go to work, I focus on my work and then I get to go home in time to still enjoy my family. It’s amazing. That for me is super important! I think the companies in Portugal have to start being a bit more flexible. The second challenge is to expand beyond tourism, real estate and exports, attracting more foreign investment and betting on innovation.

  • Bernardo da Mata