How quality of life helps Spain woo top international talent

Country’s globally recognized lifestyle is key factor in attracting executives from overseas

Kazakh entrepreneurs Tair and Olessya Assimov moved to Barcelona in 2013.
Kazakh entrepreneurs Tair and Olessya Assimov moved to Barcelona in 2013.JUAN BARBOSA

Kazakh Tair Assimov decided to sell his house in Finland and move to Barcelona, without ever having set foot there. He wanted to escape all those Scandinavian winters, and everything he read about the Spanish city online suggested it would fit the bill perfectly.

“The climate, the culture, the way of life,” says Assimov, listing his reasons for choosing the Catalan capital. He convinced his wife Olessya, enrolled his daughter in an international school and made the leap in 2013.

Many international executives come to Spain on assignment and then don’t want to go home Manuel Clavel, Talengo

“We have never regretted our decision – only that we didn’t make it earlier,” says the 34-year-old IT engineer and founder of two startups, who was born in Almaty and educated in Helsinki. As an entrepreneur he was free to choose where he lived, and he chose Barcelona.

The case of the Assimov family might appear unusual but it isn’t. Some 56% of foreigners living in Spain decided to move to the country in search of a better quality of life and 74% believe they have achieved this, according to the latest HSBC Expat Explorer Survey.

HSBC spoke to nearly 27,000 expats in 190 countries and found that Spain has the second-best rating for quality of life, behind only Switzerland.

Quality of life has become a driver of economic development, according to Mateu Hernández, director of the independent, not-for-profit association Barcelona Global (BG). Hernández believes cities around the world are now engaged in a fight to attract the best global talent and factors such as weather and cultural life are key.

The aim of BG is to attract the attention of executives, investors, entrepreneurs and artists. “We want them to be thinking about Barcelona when it comes to choosing where to live,” Hernández says.

Cities around the world are fighting to attract the best talent and factors like weather and cultural life are key Mateu Hernández, Barcelona Global

This was the certainly the case for Switzerland’s Regula Stammbach, a qualified organizational psychologist. After 10 years in Frankfurt, she and her husband asked themselves: “Do we want to spend the rest of our lives here?” The answer was a resounding no. The couple put together a list that included Nice, Rome, Genoa and the Catalan capital. They individually put together a list of pros and cons for each city and Barcelona came out top.

“It’s the perfect city: the culture, the climate, the sea, the food, and the lifestyle, which is both modern and classic,” says Stammbach.

Like the Assimov family, Stammbach and her husband had plenty of freedom in terms of where they chose to live. Back in 2014, the Swiss woman was running a leadership consultancy for businesses while her husband headed up a marketing firm. That year they moved to Castelldefels, near Barcelona’s El Prat airport and they have lived there ever since.

“I travel every week to see my clients in Switzerland and around the rest of Europe,” Stammbach explains.

Appealing to investors

Spain’s reputation for its high quality of life also affects investment decisions. “Talent attracts capital much more than capital attracts talent,” says Hernández. The CEO of BG argues that whereas investment used to follow natural resources and energy supplies it now goes where good professionals are to be found. For him, Nestlé’s Digital Services Unit, a global digital hub in Barcelona, is an example of that.

“Barcelona was chosen because it’s considered a highly attractive city in terms of attracting digital talent,” says Jelena Trajkovic Karamata, director of the Nestlé center. The Swiss company wasn’t just thinking of people already based in the city, but also Barcelona’s ability to attract people from all over the world. Half of the 55 people who work at the digital hub come from overseas and 17 different countries are represented.

In a similar way, when Amazon decided to set up its technical hub for Europe in Madrid, it wasn’t just thinking about local staff. “Madrid has two clear advantages: high-quality staff and conditions that attract international talent,” says the company’s PR director for Spain, Adam Sedó. The executive explains that the firm held recruitment events outside of Spain to put together its Madrid team. Those events were held in locations with “good technical universities,” with the last two taking place in Singapore and Buenos Aires.

Seventy percent of Amazon’s technical team in Madrid is made up of Spanish engineers while the remainder come from overseas, according to Sedó.

Earning less, living better

But foreign professionals aren’t just thinking about sun and sand when they choose where to live, says Manuel Clavel from international headhunter Talengo, which specializes in finding top executives for the Spanish job market. Other key factors in the decision include a city’s economic development, the professional opportunities on offer, the quality of education and the existence of business schools, and international links.

Spain is highly rated among foreign executives, Clavel says. “There are lots of international executives who have come to Spain on assignment and then don’t want to go back to their countries,” says the headhunter.

One of these people is Emmanuel Duriez, a 48-year-old Frenchman who specializes in helping companies in crisis. Duriez came to Spain in 2009 as the director of the Spanish office of French industry supply firm Metalco. He was tasked with restructuring the company and six years later he had made the business profitable again. When head office offered him a job back at home, he turned it down. “I already feel more Spanish than French. I like the way people in Spain look at life,” he says.

Duriez wants to stay in Barcelona and says that he would look for a position at a Spanish firm if Metalco ordered him to go back to France, although he knows he would earn less. “I have a lot of French friends who had done this,” he says.

For the Frenchman, one of the chief attractions of Barcelona is the “way of life,” but he admits that his love affair with the city lies in the small details. “Sometimes we don’t give it enough credit but having blue skies nearly every day helps you be happy.”

English skills and tax system remain hurdles

Spain is an attractive destination for foreigners but there are still obstacles for the country when it comes to attracting international talent. English language skills and the tax system are the chief concerns according to the latest poll by Barcelona Global (BG), which saw the participation of 678 foreign residents in Barcelona.

Both of these issues are prevalent across the country according to BG CEO Mateu Hernández, who says English skills are poorer here than in other countries and describes the tax system for individuals as "not very clear."

This puts Spanish cities at a disadvantage when lined up against global destinations such as London, Berlin or New York.

English version by George Mills.

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