Ivar, from Hosnavåg outside of Ålesund, pioneered the establishment of a Norwegian industrial park in Latvia’s small city of Saldus. The park’s companies supply a range of products for the international oil, maritime and fish-farming industries, and originate from the area of Sunnmøre on Norway’s western coast of. In 1994, fresh from completing his engineering studies, Ivar left a blossoming entrepreneurial career at home to try his luck in the new market of Latvia, only recently out of its Soviet era.
The first years were extremely challenging. Saldus only had three phone lines going out, travelling back home took a full day and was very expensive, and he found himself alone in a freezing apartment wondering what the hell he had done. But he had already hired five young Latvians and trained them in Norway. He cared about them and their lives, and felt he could not leave everything behind. So he kept going. It took him ten years to gain the complete trust of the local community. He points out that while Norwegians score very highly on good faith and naivety, Latvia’s long history of occupation has shaped a culture of scepticism towards outsiders. Latvians always suspect there is a hidden agenda. Struggling to comprehend their logics of working, hierarchy and leadership, he gradually implemented Norwegian working conditions and a more informal leadership style. More companies came, and together they built up what is now the Baltic’s biggest industrial community, and the largest investor and tax contributor in Saldus.
The workers he came across in the 1990s had an excessive respect for authority and reacted in surprising ways to things that Ivar took for granted, but their work ethic impressed him. From the original five, of whom three have remained, they have expanded to 250 employees. As a result of offering above-average wages and working conditions, they are able to attract English-speaking Latvian migrants who have returned from abroad with education and work experience. This makes collaboration easier, the workers stay longer and potential new employees, frequently over-qualified for the job, regularly come to the door.
Ivar ascribes the success of the industrial park to an invincible mix of two cultures and ways of thinking: Norwegian west-coast stubbornness and creativity, shaped by harsh weather, fishery and ever-changing conditions, together with Latvian persistence, hard work and patience for repetition, the result of agricultural abundance and the predictability of resources.
Ivar has now moved back to be with his family in Norway and direct flights make it easy to just spend a few days at board meetings in Saldus each month. And while the owners remain Norwegian, management has now been taken over by Latvians.
Being a boss in Latvia is quite different than in Norway, Ivar explains while directing us to his expensive car. You are supposed to display your power in material objects, or people might not take you seriously. It has been challenging to understand the Latvian codes of power relations. In the early days they were offered bizarre ‘VIP rooms’ in small Saldus bars, and even special VIP toilets. One time, they were directed to a small room with a couple of chairs, some beers and a TV showing soft porn – so there we were alone, three men drinking beer and watching soft porn… But he has never bribed anyone with anything larger than a bottle of cognac, which is a common, and legal, way to show gratitude to State officials. Once, however, on his way back from Norway, he bribed a policeman at a traffic-control point with Norwegian mackerel in tomato sauce and fish balls. When he returned a month later, and again opened the trunk of his car, the policemen said yes to the mackerel, but please, no more of those fish balls!
Ivar likes Latvian people and their temperament. He has from the start. They strive to beautify their work place, carry out little work rituals to break up the day, take care of things and are service-minded. Their attention is sometimes a little embarrassing for a humble west-coast Norwegian. Older Latvians and people familiar with history relate that Norwegians have always been well-liked here. Even the Vikings sailing up Riga’s Daugava River to reach Constantinople.
Speaking from first-hand experience, Ivar believes that employers in Norway have much to gain from providing their foreign workers with decent wages and the opportunity to settle down with their families. To travel back and forth for seasonal work and see one’s family at home only occasionally is not much of a life. We cannot have A and B teams in Norway, he concludes. A company is never better than its employees, and they need real incentives to invest their time and efforts there.