The road to better exports

  • 1998-12-10
  • Paul Beckman
Keeping Lithuania on the road to economic prosperity is no easy feat, but the director of the Lithuanian Development Agency is proving he is tough enough for the job, as Paul Beckman reports.At first glance, Vytas Gruodis seems an unlikely poster boy for Lithuania's business future. He may be director of the Lithuanian Development Agency, but his snowy-white hair and spectacles seem to beckon retirement rather than a new economic era.

But as the old clichŽ goes, first impressions can be deceiving. Gruodis left Lithuania in 1944 and did not return to his homeland until almost half a century later. The extensive business experience he brought along from Canada could provide Lithuania's business development picture with a much needed spark. In a Dec. 4 press conference, Gruodis shared his ideas for reducing Lithuania's trade deficit.

LDA's general aims are to attract foreign investment to Lithuania and promote the country's products abroad. The growth in both these fields can hardly be refuted. With a privatization program in full swing, cumulative direct foreign investment increased from $1.7 billion in July 1997 to $2.2 billion a year later. Lithuanian export volume in the first half of 1998 also grew by 8.7 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.

Gruodis, however, said he was dissatisfied with Lithuania's trade deficit, which was more than $1 billion for the first half of 1998. He stressed that preparing products which would fit into the Western market, improving business people's qualifications and increasing "activity" were keys to relieving the situation.

"In regard to exports, we should look to the future with a trustful eye," said Gruodis. "Lithuania can be proud that deals have already been made to show that our products can be competitive with those in the West. But we need to consolidate our strengths. We are already working on a number of special projects with the Lithuanian Industrialists' Confederation, the Economic Ministry and other agencies to increase our exports."

One such project, the Baltic Tiger, aims to improve the laughable trade deficit with nearby Sweden. After a November trade fair between Swedish and Lithuanian entrepreneurs, which LDA helped organize, Gruodis reported $1.5 million in contracts had been nailed down.

"Lithuanian exports to Sweden amounted to $60 million. Swedish exports to Lithuania came to $150 million," said Gruodis. "A comparable ratio can also be seen in the travel activity between the two countries. Therefore, economic projects should assist our business people in becoming more active."

The LDA director was quick to mention that future projects were being planned, but was sluggish in providing details. However, his references to the Baltic Tiger project and repeated hints that Lithuanian business people should get out of the country more, do provide some insight. Projects that would send Lithuanian entrepreneurs abroad would certainly increase contacts and assist in developing business knowledge.

And why not? After all, that's how Gruodis got started.