Opening an office in Latin America as a Dutch consultancy and engineering firm: what are the reasons for doing so and what is the best approach to make it work? Witteveen+Bos, a member of the Netherlands Water Partnership, opened its front office in Panama this spring, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Paul Ravenstijn, Managing Director of the front office in Panama, explains that the company intends to leverage its strong client base in Latin America to further expand its activities in the field of delta technology, water technology, sanitation and resilient cities. The start, however, did not quite go according to plan.
“We have worked in Latin America for many years because we believe that we can really offer added value there. I am most proud of the feasibility study that we carried out – technically, socially, environmentally and economically – for the shipping bypass of the Itaipu Dam in the Paraná River on the border between Paraguay and Brazil, the final obstacle to the navigability of this important river. The bypass may offer great potential for economic development and sustainable logistics in five Latin American countries.
We want to further strengthen our regional network of reliable clients and partners. All our work is related to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We see a demand for sustainable solutions and our sustainable design principles help us, and our clients, identify solutions. Our work is about bringing together the right expertise to help solve challenges sustainably.
Customers in the Latin American region approach us for the technical quality of our work in the field of delta technology, water technology, sanitation and resilient cities, but also for our philosophy. We put integrity and quality first. In doing so, it is essential for us to carefully choose customers, projects, partners and subcontractors. And to do this you need to be present locally.
As sales have steadily increased and we foresee a positive market perspective for our business, we thought about opening an office in Latin America itself. To determine the office location, we looked at: where we are already operating; where we see opportunities; the competition; the business climate; and where you can live and work safely. We also gratefully drew on the experiences of colleagues in our other international offices. That helps to a certain point, but each country has its own legislation, financial system, and set of norms and values. Looking at all these factors, we chose Panama, which profiles itself as a hub for Latin America, and has good connections and facilities. Our daily experiences tell us that it was a good choice.
However, it started quite differently for me. My family and I had planned to move to Panama in March 2020 and our household effects had already been shipped in a container. But right after that Covid-19 put the Netherlands into lockdown and we were unable to follow. So I had to manage the new office from the attic in my home in Utrecht for over a year. It was not the easiest period to go through for my family and myself, but we managed.
Technically it worked well, as digital communication was rapidly accepted during the pandemic. It’s now become quite normal to work remotely. All this time I have been in close contact with Netherlands Water Partnership’s (NWP) Latin America Team. One good example was in the autumn of 2020 when I joined one of the webinars in the ‘Tackling water challenges in Latin America together’ series that NWP and a consortium of seven Dutch embassies in Latin America jointly hosted. In Covid-19 times, NWP succeeded in uniting a large group of water professionals from both sides of the ocean to analyse and discuss the most important water-related themes on the Latin American continent.
But just like everyone else, I wanted to be amongst people again. More importantly, it is key here in Latin America if you want to build good relationships with customers and travel the region relatively quickly. Being physically present also sends a signal: by having an office here we show that we take the continent seriously. Working from Europe always means an emotional distance.
From September 2020, the business started to run more smoothly. We are currently working on a master plan for urban drainage in Trinidad and Tobago and on a port terminal in Uruguay. At our office in Panama I work with a local office manager and we are in the process of recruiting a third and perhaps a fourth colleague.
Every day brings something unexpected. Easy things are sometimes difficult and vice versa. On the one hand, piles of paperwork, signatures and stamps are needed for every trifle, but on the other hand, a decision on a major project can be made in an instant. You may find some things trying, but I think it is best to embrace the differences and make the most of them.
But best of all, the people here are fantastic. The warmth and attention, unprecedented for the average Western European, also means that everything here revolves around personal relationships. Building these takes time, quick wins are not an option.
Paul Ravenstijn, based on his experience, shares his top five tips to be successful in Latin America.
I come from a family of travellers. My parents, uncles, cousins all travelled the world. Latin America has always drawn me for its people, culture, and way of life. I feel completely at home here. It would be great if we could contribute to the water-related challenges on this continent. Just as importantly, we want to build a solid foundation here, with local people. My dream is to use my profession to improve water-related issues and bring people together around them. That is what counts for me, and that is what I can accomplish here."