The 2012/03/28 at 16:08
Valérie Demon in Madrid
With a sluggish national market, a rising number of budgetary cuts, and obvious economic uncertainties, Spanish companies need, more than ever, to look for salvation internationally. Industrial streams whose policies are managed by regions, are very often grouped into clusters in Spain, and in this context, offer precious aid to SMEs. Two regions, Catalonia and the Basque Country, were pioneers in Europe, as well as on a global level, at the start of the 1990s.
Initially grouped into natural micro-clusters, with cutting-edge streams settling in different cities in the region, Catalonia then turned its interest towards possible transversal activities before defining, in 2006, a new strategy. “We are beginning to encourage the institutionalisation of clusters with a manager for each of them, whereas in the past, the region would help and encourage projects,” explains Alberto Pozzi, Competitive Strategy Manager for Company Development at Acc10, the Catalan government’s development and competitiveness body. Today, the autonomous community works with around thirty clusters. And these various streams have managed to bring practical solutions for the development of joint projects and to improve the globalisation of a majority of its partners, mainly SMEs. “Six or seven companies in the textiles sector have for example set up a central purchasing department in Hong Kong.
There are now about twelve of them that benefit from this bonus for globalisation,” declares Alberto Pezzi. Meanwhile, around thirty companies the “Kid’s Cluster” – a grouping of toy manufacturing companies, publishing houses, furniture and so on, centred on the end client, the child – have joined forces to carry out a survey on the future of the children’s market. “The companies jointly financed the project and the region brought the rest of the aid,” continues this fine connoisseur of the world of clusters. To conquer markets outside the European Union, certain clusters are even sharing their means with other European counterparts. For a pilot project approved by the European Commission, the Catalan sports stream (Indescat) is defining a joint strategy with the French competitiveness cluster Sporaltec from the Rhône-Alpes region, as well as Innosport from the Netherlands.
In the streams grouping together rival companies, synergies or cost pooling in export approaches may not come naturally. In the Basque Country where clusters remain primarily sectorial, “going on sales missions overseas or obtaining quality certificates remain relatively easy for a cluster, but sharing innovation for joint projects remains more delicate,” comments James Wilson, Researcher at Orkestra, the Basque competitiveness institute.
Lointek, an SME with 250 employees specialised in the manufacturing of systems for solar energy, petrochemicals or engineering, has belonged to the Basque cluster Énergie since 2008. “The cluster has been especially useful to us for making contacts in large companies,” states Victor Zaldumbide, Sales Manager. Working groups on thermosolar energy organised by the cluster have enabled it to finalise contacts. “This also allows members to keep abreast with the latest technologies. Export is less certain, but we are in the process of experimenting with large companies involved in international projects,” continues the Sales Manager. The region of La Rioja, far smaller than Catalonia or the Basque Country, has nevertheless managed to get organised and to help its companies to advance in innovation and globalisation. Benefiting from a more significant industrial and agricultural sector than the national average, the companies are grouped according to sector or else transversally, and have technological centres where R&D remains important.
The wine sector, one of the region’s specialities, is grouped around an inter-professional association. Associated SMEs make financial contributions to help subsidise overseas promotion initiatives. “Added to which is an overseas network in 29 countries, managed by the region, that helps with company prospecting, product evaluations, and supports them for six months,” explains the Regional Minister for Industry, Innovation and Employment, Javier Erro. The formula seems to work well, given the 15 % progress in the region’s total exports in 2011. The crisis is also urging SMEs to test new methods. Several companies in the La Rioja shoe stream, specialised in technical shoes, have thus won a joint contract to obtain a Civil Guard market. “This type of grouping, which is multiplying, was unthinkable just a few years ago,” recalls Javier Oñate, Manager of the Industrial Association of Shoes and the sector’s Technological Centre.
On a national level, the former Socialist government under José Luis Zapatero sought to encourage structures of excellence by launching the Associations of Innovative Enterprises (AIE) in 2006 for SMEs. “This formula has helped us to elaborate diagnostics, strengthen the structures of our company associations, and to develop strategic plans. These AIEs demonstrate a trend,” assures Javier Erro. Once selected by the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism, these associations can benefit from funds to improve their competitiveness. “I remain critical about their effects. Some SMEs have joined in an artificial manner. I think that these AIEs have above all helped already existing streams and clusters,” considers Alberto Pezzi of Acc10.
Yet innovation and export will not progress solely thanks to transversal clusters or streams. Other factors must be in place. The new government is actively backing a model to favour the export of Spanish SMEs. The Council of Enterprises for Competitiveness, founded in 2011 by the former government and composed of the presidents of the country’s largest companies, is preparing a document on globalisation to be ready by June this year. “The fundamental objective is to increase the export capacity of SMES. For this to happen, large companies will play the role of locomotives, serving as models and creating opportunities for SMEs,” explains the State Secretariat for Trade.
In certain streams, this lead-on effect has naturally worked. For example in automobiles, where auxiliary Spanish industries have developed and often followed their foreign clients set up in Spain, onto international markets. The aeronautics stream has also developed considerably in the form of clusters, with companies taking part in large global aeronautical programmes.
“On paper, the idea of globalising via large companies is good, but SMEs need to make an effort to concentrate,” assures Alicia Revenga, Head of Export at the Construction Sector Observatory (Seopan). “Most have under 50 employees. Solutions transit through consortiums or temporary unions, but they need to be nudged as they tend to wish to remain individualistic,” confirms Balbino Prieto, President of the Club of Exporters.