Bettina Kirnbauer has been the ambassador of Austria to the Czech Republic for three years, but already previously she had worked at the embassy in Prague for another three years. She therefore knows our country very well and can express why mutual cooperation between Czechs and Austrians is so successful and diverse. In this interview for TRADE NEWS, she also emphasizes that there is great potential for further growth, whether due to geographical proximity, similar mentality or the complementary structure of our economies.
When choosing export markets, Czech companies may tend to overlook Austria at the expense of the larger neighbour Germany. What would you point out as the main advantages of the Austrian market and the most important reasons why Czech businesses should expand to your country?
Our geographical proximity is a big advantage here. For South Moravian companies, for example, Vienna may be closer than Prague. Austrians also have a very similar mentality to Czechs, so there is usually a very good understanding between us. With its high purchasing power, Austria is at least equal to Germany, and it has rich customers in both B2B and B2C. Many multinationals have their HQs for the CEE region in or around Vienna, and there are about 390 such corporations in the whole of Austria. With its relatively compact size and great regional diversity, Austria is also an ideal test market for the entire German-speaking region, which includes up to 100 million potential customers.
Opportunities spanning from ICT to film industry
Which industries offer the most promising opportunities for Czech companies in Austria? There are growing segments such as construction, energy or pharma, but could you please add more and be more specific about them for our readers?
There has always been a close cooperation in sectors that are key for both countries such as mobility or engineering. Given the huge pressure for innovation in these industries nowadays, new areas of business are emerging all the time. Specifically, the growing ICT and electronics sector offers many opportunities for Czech companies, as services such as digitization, automation and AI are in high demand in Austria. Czechia is also ahead of our country in e-commerce. In addition, Austrians may not be so aware that your country is strong in certain fields or specific industries such as aviation and space industry, new materials or film industry. As you can see, the potential for our cooperation is still very promising – particularly in today’s turbulent world.
Austria is one of the largest direct investors in the Czech Republic. But can you please name some Czech companies that have succeeded in Austria? Ideally, companies that have branches in your market and employ people there?
Currently, almost 540 companies with Czech shareholders are recorded in the Austrian commercial register, and many more Czech companies are interested in doing business in our country. The Rohlik.cz online store launched its Austrian branch Gurkerl.at at the end of 2020. Today it supplies 40,000 customers and has just expanded its delivery to the greater Vienna area. The Pilulka online pharmacy only recently expanded to the Austrian market. Aiming to move medication sales to mobiles, the company believes it will quickly become a top three player in the online pharmacy field.
The IT company Whalebone, whose vision is to protect one billion customers worldwide from cyberattacks, is a member of the Startup Campus of the largest Austrian telecommunications company A1. Trask also delivers its IT solutions in our market, while its customers include large corporations such as Erste Group, Raiffeisenbank or Vienna Insurance Group. In 2020, the company opened a branch in Vienna. The Fruitisimo fruit bar brand has also expanded to Austria, having already opened three bars in and around Vienna.
High quality, professional know-how and digitization. These are the strengths of Czech businesses
What do Austrian entrepreneurs and investors most appreciate about cooperation with Czech partners? By contrast, where do they see room for improvement or intensification of the cooperation?
Austrian entrepreneurs particularly appreciate the fact that they can find enormous industrial and professional know-how and reliable partners in the Czech Republic, all that in close geographical proximity. In the latest survey run by our Advantage Austria Prague department, branches of Austrian companies in Czechia mostly appreciated the high quality of suppliers, advanced digitization and solid infrastructure as well as market stability. Responsible payment culture and other aspects of trustworthy cooperation were also assessed much better in your country compared to the global average.
These main plus points may sometimes become victims of their own success, as the Czech supply capacities or available workforce are no longer sufficient. But at the same time, we are always surprised by the wide range of sectors in which Czechs excel, beyond the well-known ones such as such as automotive or engineering.
Language skills also play an important role. Austrian SMEs who operate in the Czech market are particularly looking for workers with a good knowledge of German, and there are often not enough of them. For this purpose, the joint campaign Šprechtíme has been running for over ten years now, supported by the German and Austrian embassies, the Goethe-Institut, the Austrian Institute and other organizations focusing on German language teaching.
Speaking about our proximity- cross-border cooperation programmes such as Interreg are a hot topic these days. How do you rate this example of AT-CZ cooperation so far? What were the best results of previous Interreg AT-CZ programmes?
Interreg projects are very successful, without a doubt: there has long been a very close cooperation between Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Vienna and the neighbouring Czech regions, i.e. South Bohemia, South Moravia and Vysočina, which has further intensified also thanks to Interreg.
One concrete example of such neighbourly cooperation is certainly cross-border healthcare, where patients are also treated in the respective neighbour country, or the cross-border health centre in Gmünd for patients from the Czech Republic and Austria. In environment, for example, the Connecting Nature AT-CZ project connects and protects biotopes between the Kalkalpen, Šumava, Bohemian-Moravian Highlands and the Carpathians. Another project focuses on supporting intercultural competences from kindergarten onwards, and has so far introduced the neighbouring country’s language to some three thousand children.
Interreg shows that cross-border cooperation has become commonplace at all levels.
And these are just a few examples of the many cross-border projects implemented by a lot of committed people and organizations from both countries. Cross-border cooperation at all levels, in politics, administration, business and culture, has become commonplace, while interpersonal contacts and family ties are also increasingly diverse.
Cultural proximity, including sense of humour
You must also work closely with the Austrian Cultural Forum in Prague. What are the most interesting cultural events or educational initiatives - ongoing or those in the pipeline - that you would recommend to our readers?
As for the Austrian Cultural Forum, the main point on its programme this and next year are the anniversaries of Franz Kafka. Filmfest ‒ a festival of German-language films is also a traditional part of the Austrian Cultural Forum’s autumn schedule. In addition, the multimedia exhibition series Touch Nature can be seen at eleven Austrian cultural forums in Europe and the US. The exhibition is looking for answers art can provide in the face of the current ecological crisis. Last but not least, the 28th annual Prague Theatre Festival of German Language also takes place this year.
What are your favourite places in the Czech Republic?
Your country is beautiful as a whole and the Czech culture and cultural scene is very rich. However, if I had to name a place – besides Prague of course – it would be Telč, which I find incredibly beautiful. And I was also very impressed by Zlín, for example.
I see many common traits in Czechs and Austrians, but that’s what you’d expect with neighbours.
What is your impression of Czech people? In your opinion, how are they similar to Austrians, and how do they differ? We used to be part of the same country for a long time, so do we still have a lot in common today?
I feel very comfortable here, also thanks to the people. People in Czechia and Austria are similar in many ways, not least in their sense of humour, but of course there are also differences. I appreciate the pragmatism that I often see in Czechs, and I also admire your determination and persistence with which you pursue your goals. This was also evident during the Czech presidency of the EU last year, and it was something all of Europe benefited from. Overall, I see a lot of common traits, particularly with the east of Austria, but that’s what you’d expect with neighbours.
Bettina Kirnbauer was interviewed by Daniel Libertin
Photo credits: BMEIA