Special Interview with the 1st AmCham President Bill Cronenberg
AmCham Estonia Celebrating its 20th Anniversary in Estonia:
Interview with the first President of the chamber Bill Cronenberg by David Bailey, Blu Mint Digital
What brought you to Estonia?
I first came on a student tour in the late 80′s. Our group visited Moscow, Leningrad, Tallinn and Riga. It was just a visit, and a follow-up seemed highly unlikely for a young Army officer, but I took an interest in the Baltic States and made some connections here. I was offered an opportunity to come and work with the defense academy in 1992. I thought I might stay for a year, but ended up staying nearly 25 years!
You were the 1st President of AmCham Estonia, back in 1997. Why did you and others feel a chamber was needed?
A few reasons. The Embassy felt the time was right and lent their encouragement and support. Almost everyone agreed that Estonia needed foreign investment and that a chamber would help facilitate more U.S. investment. I had recently started working with a law firm so there was an obvious incentive to meet and assist potential investors. It was also seen as a great opportunity for networking and sharing information, which was probably more important to people back in those days.
Why should people do business in Estonia?
Estonia has one of the most business friendly environments one could hope for. In addition to having relatively clear and simple regulations, there is a concerted effort on the part of the officialdom to minimize bureaucracy, for example by employing IT solutions whenever possible. The domestic market it small, but there are opportunities to leverage the advantages Estonia offers to play on a wider stage. I think continuing with this pragmatic approach is essential to Estonia’s future success.
What was your background before helping to found the chamber?
In 1997 I was a lawyer at the Sorainen firm as well as a board member of the company Estonian Security Center. Truth be known, the initial director Laura Leventis and the first Vice President Charity Sack were much bigger “engines” in the founding of the chamber than I was. But it was a group effort, and it was fortunate that there were a lot of energetic young Americans moving about in Tallinn back in those days.
What were the main challenges when the chamber was launched?
I would say convincing people that the membership was worth the money. We managed to overcome this by putting on first class events so that new and prospective members quickly saw the value we were delivering, so much so that we had close to 100 members by the end of the first year. Naturally the US was seen as a major potential source of capital, so that was also a big draw even for non-American members.
What was the most difficult part of running the chamber?
I would say managing with limited start up resources and finding our real mission. The support we received from the U.S. Embassy was indispensable. In addition to deciding what sorts of events to stage, we had to decide how we should fit in with other foreign chambers in Tallinn and with other AmChams in the region and indeed the world. The relatively small size of Estonia meant that we had to be a bit more innovative than other start-up chambers, at least in my opinion. An “off the rack” or formulaic approach was not likely to succeed.
What is the best ‘thing’ about AmCham Estonia?
I think that it regularly brings together people from very different sectors of the business world to talk and share their ideas about what is working, what could be better and etc. This can help forge new business relationships, and also fosters a sort of camaraderie that I think is very positive.
What has been AmCham’s biggest success since its inception?
I think our biggest success has been to consistently put on world class events and deliver the full range of services expected from this type of organization within a budget that the (Estonia sized) membership can support. I doubt there is a more efficient chamber in existence anywhere, and a great deal of the credit goes to a succession of very talented and dedicated directors and staff members.
Was there anything you felt the chamber should have done better? Or sooner?
There were times that perhaps the chamber spread itself a bit too thin in terms of variety and frequency of events. During my tenure I felt that the sweet spot was one social and one informational event per month, and less during summer etc. That kept attendance up, and we could focus the limited resources making those events the best possible. Mind you this is old information, it should not be taken as a critique on anything happening now!
What are the biggest changes you have noticed since the chamber’s founding and where do you see it developing?
In 1997 there were certainly more Americans involved. Over the last 20 years there has been a natural and normal progression towards having more locals and international expats on the board and etc. I think this is unavoidable, and not a bad thing. We never know when there might be a new wave of Americans coming into the business community, so that may change.
Why should people and businesses do business through the chamber?
The chamber has an excellent reputation for creating value for the members. This is not only my personal opinion, but has been expressed to me many times by people who have also been members of other international chambers in Estonia and elsewhere. I would say this reputation is well earned.
And finally, what is the one piece of advice for those not active in the chamber and why?
Anyone in the business community who is unfamiliar with the chamber should at least check out an event or two. They are very likely to want to come back for more.
for AmCham Estona