Juan Esteban Lopez, in red shirt, right, CEO of Canadian animation company Pipeline Studios Inc., which produces animated shows such as The Backyardigans. At first staff were hesitant about working in Medellin, Colombia, he says. ‘Now we have people lining up to go.”
Juan Esteban Lopez, in red shirt, right, CEO of Canadian animation company Pipeline Studios Inc., which produces animated shows such as The Backyardigans. At first staff were hesitant about working in Medellin, Colombia, he says. ‘Now we have people lining up to go.”

TODAY COLOMBIA NEWS – As part of a series, which looks at emerging global markets that are attracting the business and investment of enterprising Canadian companies, the Globe and Mail says “fear recedes for those doing business in fast-growing Colombia.”

In the report, we learn of the reaction of the staff of Ontario’s Pipeline Studios when invited to work in Medellin, a city often referred to as the “former murder capital of the world”, a stark difference than Hamilton, the steel capital of Canada, some 40 minutes from Toronto.

A few employees were understandably hesitant.

“Yeah, they had questions like, ‘Should I get insurance for kidnapping?’ or robberies, all kinds of dangers,” Juan Esteban Lopez says. “We had to hold everybody’s hands through the process, including clients’.”

But Medellin has changed in the past 20 years, Lopez assured his staff. Sure, student protests occasionally include homemade explosives called “potato bombs,” and one has to watch out for muggings in bad neighbourhoods. “You have to keep your wits about you,” Lopez says, but that’s true in any big city.

Once people visit Colombia, he says, “they see how it is and they feel safe. Now we have people lining up to go.”

Large brands have taken note of the new buoyancy. Two years ago Canada’s Bank of Nova Scotia established a presence in Colombia by taking a controlling stake in a domestic bank, Colpatria, the leading bank in Colombia and owner of the tallear building in the country and second in Latin America; Starbucks arrived in the capital city of Bogota this yeas; and Starwood’s first W Hotel in Colombia will open before Christmas, also in Bogota.

Medellin is hoping to become the Silicon Valley of Latin America, and so far Hewlett-Packard Co. is the largest company to move in.

“Everyone in IT should be looking at Colombia,” says Cesar Picasso, director of Latin America operations for SOTI, a mobile device management company based in Mississauga, Canada.

Picasso thinks Colombia will soon be a powerhouse in Latin America, pointing out that it offers a highly skilled talent pool, it’s in a handy time zone for inter-regional communication, it’s situated for easy trade within Latin America, and it’s becoming easier to get to as more airlines add direct flights to its major cities.

“The other bonus about Colombia – something that’s hard to measure – is the optimism I see reflected in the employees,” he says. “People feel they’re on the right path, and that helps everything go well.”

t the Toronto office of Proexport Colombia, trade commissioner Alvaro Concha explains that his government is expecting that more than 50 per cent of Colombia’s population will be part of the middle class by 2025. One main driver of growth will be a massive US$25-billion commitment to new infrastructure – that’s five times the cost of the Panama Canal expansion project.

There is another possible future for Colombia, of course. Lopez admits that many Colombians fear the good times could end if it turns out the FARC is just “fooling around” in current peace talks in Havana, buying time to regroup. “People are getting anxious again,” he says. “Going to Colombia is still more adventurous than going to other places.”

DOING BUSINESS IN COLOMBIA

Thinking about doing business in Colombia? Here’s some advice:

– Contact Proexport Colombia (www.proexport.com.co) to do preliminary research, make industry contacts, and find out about tax incentives for your industry.

– Check out government programs that subsidize the salaries of recent grads and mothers who are the head of their household.

– Although the required paperwork is not arduous, hire a lawyer and accountant who have worked with foreign firms. They can help you decide what kind of business structure or partnership you want to have locally and to understand local laws, such as labour laws when hiring, as well as regulations.

– Be prepared to deal with infrastructure issues, such as poor highways (compared to Canada, the U.S. and Europe, for example); plan for heavy traffic in Bogota.

– Expect meetings to start late, run long and include personal conversation.

Article first appeared on Today Colombia, reposted with permission