The BPCC’s Chris Barton – 25 years instigating change and renewal

 In Chambers of Commerce, News, Personality

Text and Photos: Chris Graeme

The CEO of the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce Chris Barton has been the custodian of one of Portugal’s oldest bilateral trading organisations for 25 years this year. Essential Business takes a look back at his career, revealing a man with quite the spirit for adventure.

I chat to Chris Barton overlooking the lovely, relaxed gardens at Parque das Poetas in Oeiras. Knowing him for 23 years, he has always come across as a brash, straightforward and no-nonsense personality. Over the next hour, everything I assumed I knew about the CEO of the Portuguese-British Chamber of Commerce (BPCC) would be turned on its head.

In many ways, the chequered chop-and-change career path he took before he took the helm at the BPCC a quarter of a century ago now makes sense in the light of how this English northerner has navigated the lightning pace of technological change during that period, and how he has successfully reinvented the institution over the years to remain relevant to its 400 or so members.

Chris Barton says that the BPCC, now in its 113th year, needs to keep rejuvenating itself. “It’s a fact that we, like any chamber or business association, are going to lose some companies and members; people die, companies fold, or membership doesn’t work for them anymore, so we have to keep replenishing those,” he reflects.

With this in mind, the BPCC CEO says that it has been eyeing the entrepreneurial generation that has spring up over the past decade with interest, especially since the BPCC’s involvement with the EU-funded Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, which aims to arrange mentoring experiences via business matches between aspiring entrepreneurs from one European country with experienced business owners in another European country. Through this support programme, the chamber has helped to kick-start almost 120 new start-ups within Portugal and the partnering countries.

“Our interest is not just getting them to be members, but realising what our members can do for them. These overseas entrepreneurs all need accountants, accommodation, lawyers, telephone services, and even if that is not their core business, they do need to be rubbing shoulders with people who can help them with all these services, to help them with finances and raising capital,” he points out.

Events with high-calibre speakers

Over the years, the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce has organised or co-hosted scores of lunches and breakfasts with engaging leaders from the world of both national and international business and politics.

And from among the guest speakers that the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce has hosted over the years, and which have included names that strode big on the Portuguese political and business scene, such as ex-president Mário Soares, controversial banker Ricardo Salgado, airline mogul David Neeleman, and eccentric and outspoken economist Henrique Medina Carreira, he says the Greek-Cypriot airline tycoon, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou stands out as one of the most entertaining and memorable.

An atomic start

Chris Barton had a remarkably varied, if industrial, career path before he arrived in Portugal in 1995.

He worked for British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) in Risley near Warrington for four years – the biggest employer in the town at that time. “I was in the sales department and when people asked me what I did, I used to joke that I sold nuclear fuel.”

From there, Chris worked for a company trading specialty steels and exotic high-performance alloys.

Thereafter a job offer took him to London, where he worked for the Philadelphia-based pipe supply company, Tioga.

Although not an engineer by formal training – Chris took the Higher National Diploma in Business Studies while at BNFL –, he says he had worked alongside and been exposed to a lot of engineers, lawyers, and architects at BNFL. “It enabled me to speak their language and put me in good stead later on”, working with businesspeople from all backgrounds and walks of life.

Chris’s experience in metal-related products gave him the background knowledge to secure his next job in commodities trading in London as a ‘position keeper’, maintaining the positions on silver, cadmium, cobalt, aluminium, magnesium and manganese.

The multinational company called Erlanger (part of the Beresford Group) had offices in New York, Johannesburg and Tokyo, among other cities. At the time it was one of the top five largest companies in the UK by turnover, trading millions of US dollars worth of commodities each day.

“Only a tiny percentage of such commodities deals are ever delivered as tangible product and what they were basically doing was trading in futures. It was my job to keep track of all these transactions, bearing in mind that this was in the days prior to the invention of the internet and desktop computers,” he explains.

A big break came when the company sent Chris to its New York office in 1980. He describes the experience as “the best three months of my life”.

A man with metal

Upon returning to London, he went to EuroTube, where he once again traded steel commodities for the petrochemical sector. What was supposed to be a brief secondment to Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia eventually lasted for 16 months until a permanent manager was found and appointed.

“Meanwhile I enjoyed a typical Middle-East expat employment package entitling me to a two-week vacation every three months and gave me the opportunity to visit exotic locations like Thailand, Bali, Singapore and Berlin (before the wall came down!). This first taste of backpacking was to serve me well in my future adventures,” says Chris.

“Upon completion of my Saudi contract I returned to the UK, but rather than return directly to traditional employment, I opted to go globetrotting by answering a newspaper advertisement to join a sailboat crew embarking on a round-world trip, so with diving equipment and a case-full of camera gear in hand, I set off with my backpack to meet the boat in the British Virgin Islands.

“Although I didn’t stay with the original boat for too long, I was able to spend quality time in the harbours of many of the most idyllic Caribbean islands, then flew from Barbados to Manaus in Brazil to work my way down the Amazon to Belém and then on to Rio de Janeiro, before flying back to London,” he reminisces. “In those days you didn’t have mobile phones and Internet, so if you were half-way up the Amazon, nobody knew you were there, and even if you wrote a letter home, it would take weeks to arrive,” he says.

A date with fate

Chris Barton then joined the Rank organisation, and despite starting at the bottom was able to work his way up to production manager at a VHS duplication factory, transferring films onto cassettes for the big studios like RCA, Warners and the BBC.

Sadly, the video industry was a relatively short-lived one, and similar roles at an audio cassette and CD duplicating facility also suffered as streaming made these sectors redundant. However, on the bright side, it was here that he met his wife-to-be, Apolónia. Last November, they celebrated 32 years of marriage and they now have two grown-up children; Chloe, who graduated in International Relations at Lisbon’s Cátolica university and now lives in Manchester where she works for a fast-fashion brand, and Nicole, who is about to graduate after studying social services at Lisbon’s ISCSP.

Three redundancies in quick succession prompted an urge to leave the UK and start life afresh in his wife’s country of Portugal. Those early years were challenging, having arrived without a job or home, but with a small baby in arms and a mortgage back in the UK to maintain.

“Never being shy to work, at one point I ran an Angolan restaurant, I taught English at a language school, and even had an import-export business sending Sagres beer to Angola. Meanwhile, Polly got a job at the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce as the CEO’s secretary. Upon the CEO’s retirement I was called for interview… and the rest is history, as they say,” he says.

He looks back and says it was ironic that throughout the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, he was forced to change jobs frequently, either because companies went bankrupt or the job ceased to exist, yet since he has been in Portugal he has been in the same job for 25 years.

Constant evolution

I ask Chris Barton what his biggest achievement was, looking back at his 25 years at the helm of the BPCC. He answers that it has been the daily challenge of ensuring its continued relevance through perpetual re-invention, openness to change and hunger for improvement.

“When I arrived it was typewriters, fax machines and hand-written ledgers – sending out an invitation to one of our events implied going to the post-office to mail 400 envelopes. Although technology has always developed, it seems to have happened at an increasingly faster rate over the past 25 years since I have headed the BPCC. For example, e-mail addresses and mobile phone ownership used to be just for the privileged few, but now they are essential tools for everybody,” he recalls.

Unlike most other bi-lateral Chambers in Portugal, Chris encouraged the British Chamber to engage as a partner in several EU funded projects including Is-IT Green, BRIC-ITT and for the past 12 years, the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme. Not only have they been invaluable for expanding the Chamber’s network throughout Europe but have also provided a welcome source of extra revenue.

Running a non-profit organisation is always going to be a delicate balancing act of financial resources and, although I took over the Chamber when it was slightly overdrawn, we have managed to maintain stability throughout the ups and downs during financial crises and other challenges to the business world. Our major sources of income comes from membership subscription fees, events, exhibitions, sponsorships and business services such as market research and commercial introductions. Our participation in COMPETE 2020 has meant that we have been able to support Portuguese business to enter the UK market, particularly in the IT, food & drink and textile sectors. These initiatives have been driven by my colleague, Helena Fernandes, who is also coming up to celebrating 25 years’ serve at the BPCC. Our other colleague, Charlie Oliveira, (in his twentieth year with us) looks after the membership database, website, newsletters and ‘all things IT’. The BPCC also has two regional representatives covering the Algarve and Northern regions.”

In answer to the question about what he appreciates most about living in Portugal, Chris Barton says that he values the safety and security, although he senses that perhaps the Portuguese didn’t always appreciate it as much as us foreigners until more recently. Barely a week goes by without some story of a mass killing (and certainly this is one of the reasons often cited by the many Americans arriving here recently).

Now approaching the twilight years of his career, Chris looks back fondly at the country that has enabled him to bring up a family and enjoy employment stability, yet still be in the same time zone to allow him to follow his beloved Liverpool Football Club.