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Interview With George St Clare

Quest Bulgaria recently had the opportunity to speak with British expat and businessman Mr George St Clare. This is what George had to say;

Can you tell us a little about your life leading up to your decision to relocate to Bulgaria?

First of all, I would like to thank Quest for giving me the opportunity to tell readers about myself.

Originally, after obtaining my Russian BA in the UK, I moved into Data Processing Management in the UK for a few years. Then the wanderlust struck and I went over to the Middle East and continued in the computing field at the University of Qatar. I then felt it would be appropriate to use the Russian I had learnt and moved back to the UK to pursue a career trading in computers with Russia. In fact, though based in the UK, I spent most of my time in Russia.

Eventually, I moved over to Russia, utilising my skills with the language and computers to promote the Psion handheld computer. Later, opportunities arose in real estate and I specialised in that area up to 2002, at the same time managing to further my qualifications at Moscow State University with a BA in Sociology and an MSc in Business. It was a busy period! Fancying a change, I moved to Malta and continued in real estate. This market began to dry up and I saw there were good opportunities to continue in this area in Bulgaria, which was really just opening up in 2004. And that is how I came to move to Bulgaria at the end of 2004, setting up two real estate agencies: Albany properties and Accordia Properties.

How would you describe life here compared to other countries that you have resided in?

Obviously, all countries are very different. When I moved to the Middle East, I was struck by the huge emphasis placed on religion. At the University, there were places for prayer virtually everywhere you looked, with the appropriate direction for Mecca marked. When it was prayer time, everything stopped and all the Muslims went to pray.
Russia was very different. There was again emphasis on religion, but not to the same extent as in Qatar. The bureaucracy was worse than in Qatar, but manageable. It was easier for me because I knew the language. Doing business was easier as it was far less formal than the Middle East.

Malta was pretty much a contrast to Russia and the Middle East. The language was very interesting as it is influenced by English, Italian and languages of many other races. The Maltese are a very emotional and friendly people. They do tend to have very short fuses and it was very common for guns to be drawn over the smallest thing said! Bulgaria is completely different to all the above. I find the bureaucracy here much more intimidating than in any of the countries above and it is not getting any better. As long as you are not dealing with officialdom, the people are very friendly and generous. As I speak Russian, I understand the Bulgarian language more or less 100%, but only speak a little. Right now, I think the EU and Bulgaria are a poor mix, but that should improve in time.

How would you describe the ‘ups and downs' of living in Bulgaria? What things do you find satisfying and what annoys you the most?

The thing I probably enjoy most in Bulgaria is the open roads (though not the potholes!) and not being stopped for speeding every two kilometers as in some countries. On the other hand, driving can be quite dangerous because of the combination of powerful cars and "bought" licences. The countryside is, of course, a great joy and does enable you to "get away from it all". As a smoker, I benefit from the relatively low prices of cigarettes as others may benefit from the inexpensive rakia! Bureaucracy is the thing that I find very irritating. Sometimes you just walk into an office and that's half a tree gone!

I understand you have businesses in Bulgaria, can you tell us about these and any future plans intended for them?

At the moment, I run two real estate agencies: Albany properties and Accordia properties, which were set up in 2004 and both based in Balchik. As most of the British expats have chosen to relocate out of Bulgaria for different reasons, this has created a vacuum in that market. However, the Russians are moving in to create a new market. Overall, the market is in the doldrums and anyone in this business will just have to ride it out. It is bound to get better, but, I feel, not until mid-2012 at the earliest. My plans are just to stick with it and expand the businesses when everything picks up again.

As an adjunct to real estate, I saw there was a market for British food for the British expat community in 2007 and opened the British Lion Food Store in Balchik, specialising in all the British Favourites. Owing to the exodus of many British expats, though, I am now moving into Russian and Ukrainian foodstuffs to cater for the ever-increasing Russian population and tourists. If this goes well in Balchik, I will be opening up new outlets in Varna and Sunny Beach.
In conjunction with the food business, I saw an opportunity for a new style of food vending machine. This is called "Tubz" and imported from the UK, where it is a great success. Essentially, this is a highly attractive vending machine with a selection of "tubz", holding all types of sweets, nuts, dry fruits, which the purchaser selects by twisting the top of the machine. This is meeting with great success in many restaurants, bars and cafes - anywhere there may be a steady stream of people. Since this is taking off so well, I intend initially importing more of the dispensers and offering franchises throughout Bulgaria.

As a Real Estate agent, the current crisis has had a dramatic effect on property sales in Bulgaria, do you see this trend changing in the near future and do you have any advice for new property investors?

The crisis has obviously had a hugely deleterious effect worldwide. In Bulgaria, it has had a tremendously bad effect on the property market - virtually "boom to bust". Property in Bulgaria is now easily the cheapest in the EU. Anyone thinking of buying here and relocating should do it now as I believe the market has finally bottomed out and now the only way is up. I believe the market will now be static for a year or so and will then begin to rise. I think it will be 5 years or more before the market could be considered "normal" again, but it will happen. Unless absolutely necessary, I would advise anyone with property in Bulgaria not to sell now, but hang on because the prices are bound to go up again - it will just take time.

You also mention your other business, ‘British Lion Food store', do you have competition in Bulgaria and what do you feel gives you the advantage over your competitors?

One of the major advantages I have over quite a few of my competitors in the food business is that I am fully registered with the authorities in regard to health certification, VAT and all the other associated elements of running a food business. I know that quite a few of my competitors are not and they are walking a thin line because the penalties can be severe. Some of my competitors have shops like me, but many don't. I think this is a major disadvantage for them as they have to travel around to the table top sales and car boot sales. This can be expensive and time-consuming. Most customers would prefer to shop in the comfort of a store.

Given the fact that you have done a lot of travelling over the years and settled in several different countries, how do you see your future in Bulgaria and do you think that this will be your last stop or would you someday like to pursue another country?

I don't think Bulgaria is going to be my last stop. I have seen a lot in many countries, but would still like to see more and I can't stop the wanderlust! I would have liked to set something up in Japan, but that is now off the itinerary. Queensland (the very much above sea level part around the Gold Coast!) is very appealing. I'm not thinking of moving in the near future, but I think it will be on the cards eventually.

On Behalf of Quest Bulgaria, I would like to thank you for allowing us this interview and we wish you all the best luck in the future.

Visit Accordia Property HERE

Visit British Lion Food Store HERE