by Oliver Dowson, CEO of International Corporate Creations Ltd
The first thought of companies looking for business opportunities in South America is unlikely to be Uruguay – yet for many, that could be the ideal location to set up.
The country is best known for agriculture, especially beef farming – in fact, cattle outnumber humans by nearly 4 to 1 (12 million cattle, just 3.5 million people) and over 80% of the land mass is dedicated to meat production. So very few businesses are likely to consider it as an export market.
So, to attract international investment, the country has re-invented itself as a hub for business across the whole of South and Latin America. Taking advantage of its central location and time zone, Uruguay has set up Free Trade Zones which provide advantageous facilities for distribution, manufacturing and services to be delivered to all those huge markets around it – Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and others.
Visiting, as I did recently, one cannot help but be impressed. Although there are of course still enclaves of “real South America” in Montevideo, generally the city is uber-modern and buzzes with life. It has benefited enormously from years of political stability, and great strides have been taken to rid business of bureaucracy. As a result, it’s now the easiest country in South America to set up in and do business from. The fact that basing in a Free Trade Zone means zero taxes just feels like icing on the cake.
Although I admit to loving all South America, I have always avoiding favouring any one country. However, I do feel very positive about Uruguay. I’ve always found it very difficult to convince the businesses I talk to in Europe and North America of the potential of South America – but perhaps this is the place that can “tick all the boxes” and convince doubters of the value.
With my own experience of running service sector businesses in the region, one thing that particularly impressed me was the language capabilities. Obviously Spanish is the national language, but being bordered by its much bigger neighbour Brazil, many people also speak Portuguese. English is taught in schools from an early age, resulting in wide fluency. When I set up businesses myself in the past, I went to Brazil, as it was impossible to find enough staff in Colombia, Argentina or Chile who could speak Portuguese – and so I’ve now been kicking myself for never thinking of checking out Uruguay.
I visited three excellent examples of FTZ-based businesses, each demonstrating a different aspect of the value of choosing to base in Uruguay.
The first manufactures generic drugs for export throughout Latin America. The Science Park FTZ offered them literally a greenfield site to build a state-of-the-art facility, staffed by highly qualified local personnel but also exploiting robotics wherever feasible. The tax-free status was clearly a key factor, but the major points were the ease of export to all regional countries (and taking advantage of Uruguay being a member of the Mercosur tariff-free group of countries) and minimal bureaucracy.
The second was a vast distribution centre, importing a wide variety of products in bulk, and repacking them to meet specific retail orders to deliver to duty-free shops in airports throughout the continent. The value of being in one of the only free trade zones in South America, with a major port and airport within a short distance, no import or export duties and minimal paperwork, really came home here.
But it was the third example that registered with me as the best opportunity of all for the companies that I regularly talk to in the services sector. The company I visited is a sort of Latin version of Amazon. It has based its entire customer service operation in Montevideo and is now expanding its management team – it’s grown in just a few years from a dozen people to several hundred. Apart from the tax-free status of the FTZ, the real business benefits are the central location, multi-lingual staff and convenient time zone – which works not just for Latin America, but for the USA and Canada as well, of course. This is a model that can be replicated on quite a small scale, and SMEs looking to expand services across the Americas – and those that may have thought this to be an “impossible continent” – should definitely consider basing their operations in Uruguay.
It’s also a very civilised place to live, so, whilst you probably don’t need expats to run your business, any that you bring over should be very happy. Montevideo is a modern city, bordered by what seems to be unending beaches. And if it’s too quiet for you, Buenos Aires (Argentina) is just an hour by hydrofoil over the River Plate.
There’s a lot of support and advice available from the investment authority, Uruguay XXI, and specific to the services sector, Uruguay Smart Services – and, of course, my own business, International Corporate Creations, is always ready to advise and provide practical assistance for international expansion to any country in the world.