This article is brought to you by Coldwell Banker Prestige Barcelona & Begur.
Whether you’re relocating to Catalunya with a multinational or taking the plunge to set up your own company here, the more you understand about local business culture, the more successful and professionally fulfilling your experience will be. Every place has its own distinct business culture and Catalunya is no exception. These are the unwritten, unspoken rules that propel every negotiation and partnership forward. Understanding and observing these rules can be the difference between creating thriving business relationships and feeling like you are banging your head against a wall.
Catalunya is an exciting place to do business. It is one of the top areas in Europe for attracting investment and, in terms of volume of foreign investment, Barcelona was ranked second in Europe in 2015. The city is one of the world’s most important international conference centres and has, in recent years, become a powerhouse for startups in Europe. Add to that a growing reputation in biotechnology and life sciences research, and you have a thriving, dynamic community that is making its mark in the global economy.
Alongside this relatively new business panorama live the more traditional local companies that have historically followed a low-risk, hierarchical model. Changing times and the growing need to internationalise are altering this environment too, and many companies are increasingly open to new ideas and methodology.
The environment you work in will, to a certain extent, determine the business culture that surrounds you. However, there are a number of key aspects of doing business in Catalunya that you are likely to encounter across the board, whether you are in the world of startups or in a long-established industry.
Here are our top DOs and DON’Ts for doing business in Catalunya.
DO invest in your business relationships
The forming of strong personal bonds lies at the heart of Spanish business culture, and it is essential that you invest time in building rapport with acquaintances. Conversation about family and interests (football is always popular) will be an integral part of your dealings with other people. To an outsider the unhurried approach may seem overly relaxed, but in fact this is the laying down of strong foundations upon which partnerships and deals can be made. Most people here prefer to do business with people they know and trust, and personal recommendations are highly valued. So, if you come from a culture where small talk is minimal and people cut right to the chase, you’ll need to slow down and embrace this facet of local business culture. Only once a rapport, based on trust and honesty, has been established, can business be discussed.
The Spanish are great networkers and spend a lot of time nurturing and growing their networks. Traditionally this has taken place informally, but perhaps due to the influx of foreigners, formal networking events are becoming more common in Barcelona.
DO pay attention to how you greet people
A handshake is the usual way to greet someone in a business environment. Kissing on each cheek is normally reserved for more familiar relationships and settings. When in doubt, let your Spanish counterpart lead the way. Whilst in northern countries it may be acceptable to take in a whole room of people with one ‘Good morning’, in Spain that is considered rude. You should greet each person with an individual handshake.
DO be open and friendly
With so much emphasis on the personal, it follows that the attitude you project is important. Friendliness, openness and modesty are appreciated in Catalunya whilst over-assertiveness and talking a lot about personal achievements or financial success are considered to be bad taste. Be prepared to share information about your family and life, and always remember that your character and integrity are as important as your professional experience. People place a lot of value on personal pride and you should be careful not to say anything that could be construed as criticism or a questioning of someone’s values.
DON’T be late
Spanish people are likely to be more relaxed than you about timing, but contrary to stereotype, punctuality and seriousness are expected. If you are going to be late, advise the person you are meeting as soon as you can. Appointments should be made well in advance and preferably confirmed by email a day or two before. The most common time to set appointments is between 9am and 1pm, or 4pm and 7pm. Breakfast meetings are not common in Catalunya.
DO know the local culture
Catalans generally identify more strongly with their region than with Spain. Their culture and traditions are important to them, and your interest and understanding of this unique culture will be much appreciated. Similarly, be careful not to apply stereotypes or generalisations about Spanish culture as these will appear thoughtless and you risk alienating people. Flamenco and bulls should certainly be crossed off your list! Always avoid contentious issues that could cause tension, such as Catalan independence, or comparing Catalunya or Spain unfavourably to other countries. However, don’t be surprised if you are asked your political opinions regarding your own country.
DON’T assume that a business lunch will be all about business
Business lunches are a time to relax, enjoy the food and let the conversation flow. They are an opportunity to connect and strengthen relationships. Deals are usually closed in the office, with perhaps a celebratory lunch to follow. So, if your intention is to talk business over lunch you should make that clear beforehand. At the end of the meal, the bill is paid by the party that extended the invitation. In fact, the word ‘invitar’ in Spanish means both ‘to invite’ and ‘to pay for’.
DON’T be impatient
Negotiations can be long and painstaking with decision-makers often taking their time to ponder their options. The preserving of the relationship throughout negotiations is of utmost importance, so trying to rush someone into taking a decision is likely to be counterproductive. Be patient and ready with any additional information needed. Spain is not a big meeting culture and such events are usually used to communicate decisions rather than to discuss issues and reach a consensus. Meetings may not follow a strict agenda. Interruptions are commonplace and are not considered rude.
DO be aware of hierarchies
Although things are changing, in many traditional, local companies a strict hierarchy is still observed. Authority is respected and decision-making follows clearly defined lines. If you will be working in such an environment, you should be aware of how the company is structured as this will impact what is expected of you and how you should interact with the different tiers of your company.
DO take care of your appearance
The Spanish and Catalans take great pride in their personal appearance and they are more conscious about their clothes and grooming than many other European cultures. Business attire is conventional and classic, and attention is given to well-cut suits, neat hair, clean shoes and quality accessories.
DON’T expect to go home early
Spain’s unique working hours are the subject of much ongoing debate. The day typically begins at 9am and can end as late as 8pm, with a two-hour lunch break between 2pm and 4pm. The long day can make it hard to combine work and family life, as well as being out of sync with the rest of Europe. There are signs that this is changing, with many companies adopting more flexible hours.
Culture is a key component in business no matter where you are in the world. It influences the hiring process, management, decisions and all business functions from accounting to production. In their work on the subject, Deal and Kennedy colloquially defined business culture as “the way we do things around here”. Doing business in Catalunya specifically, you’ll have to learn a lot of the region’s idiosyncrasies, but working here can help you gain more than just a pay cheque from your job.