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15 abril 2024

Antonio Santa Isabel: “The growth of exports from the province has been enormous”

The president of the Chamber of Commerce of Teruel grants an interview to Go Aragón in which he reviews the state of the economy in the province, the challenges and opportunities he faces and how he will approach his second term at the head of the chamber of commerce.

Born in Madrid in 1971 and raised between the Spanish capital and Chile, Antonio Santa Isabel repeats his mandate in Cámara de Teruel. This year he was re-elected in June as president of a body to which he arrived after working for other entities such as the CEOE, where he was provincial vice-president.

This businessman has been linked in his professional life to Telepizza, a company of which he is a franchisee. With it he arrived in the capital of Teruel, after starting his career as a deliveryman while studying Business Studies in Madrid. “I didn’t finish because I learned to play mus very well,” he jokes. With a dazzling path, in a few years he reached the position of supervisor and, from there, he decided to take the leap to franchise in Teruel. Since then, he has been involved in the social life of the city and defends the province “above all else”, as he says in this interview for Go Aragón.

You have been elected for the second year president of the Chamber of Teruel, are you satisfied?

The truth is yes, because at the beginning, when I started, the idea was to be alone for one term and, between the pandemic and other circumstances, it has not been enough. We have changed quite a lot the vision and positioning of the Chamber in the province of Teruel and we wanted to continue with the project that a group of people, almost none of whom belonged to the organization, had started. We were very new; I, in fact, did not even know the Chamber of Commerce, it is curious.

In addition to consolidating what you have started, do you also face new challenges?

Yes, there are many new challenges. Above all, we have to finish projects we have started. The Chamber of Teruel was the first, because later those of Zaragoza and Huesca continued, in putting the rural multiservices in operation in the province. It has been a project recognized in the European Union that is now being copied in other countries. The idea was to continue with these multiservices. I come from the business world, from franchising, and I wanted these rural multiservices to be like a master franchise, to maintain the image. That was one of the projects we had on the table. We wanted to continue working on internationalization, because that is what has made the province take such an important leap forward. We were also looking for support in fairs; in the end, people go to the typical fairs, those of Madrid, Valencia… because of their proximity. And this year we have managed to go to a fair in Galicia or another one in Paris. We have done totally different things abroad, for example, two days ago we did an online tasting of Teruel products for 16 countries and with 600 boxes of products that have been sent to carry it out. It was a great success.

What we were looking for was to innovate a lot and put the Chamber on everyone’s lips. Four years ago, the first thing we did was to hire a person exclusively for social networks and communication. What we were looking for was to open up and make people see what the Chamber of Commerce really does.

How important are rural multiservices in a province like Teruel?

All of it. In the end, when the last bakery or the last bar closes in a town, the town is dead. So, what do we achieve with rural services? To make a store, a bar, a hotel, a parcel collection point… everything, in one single store. Logically, it must have institutional support, from the town council, the county council, the region and the Government of Aragon, to the person who comes to put his money on the line, who is the one who is going to manage it. It is an invention of the Chamber of Teruel 20 years ago and it has worked in the middle of the pandemic, when people could not go to the supermarket, because you could not move. They became points of product distribution and communication with the outside in many cases, because we also have connection problems. In the end, it was given the real value it had and, since then, there has been much more institutional support than in any year. In fact, in 2022, funds have come from the European Union that, with what the DPT has put in, have reached 700,000 euros. They have been invested in 70 multiservices and we have completely turned them around. And we have presented another project to complete the multiservices, so that all of them have digital lockers, central purchasing technology and loyalty cards for customers. We have launched vouchers in rural areas so that it would be more positive to buy in the village than in a large supermarket, with bonuses of 30% of the purchase.

I think that is where we have made a turnaround and the multiservices, for me, are one of the great ideas and, in fact, are being copied by many EU countries. For the last 5 years, we have been in the European Sarure program, we were the leaders ourselves and, thanks to that, this idea has won a lot of awards and is being implemented in many countries.

Antonio Santa Isabel
Antonio Santa Isabel FOTO: Marcos Díaz

Could it be said that these multiservices have also served to vertebrate the territory?

Absolutely. We are talking about the fact that, in the end, they are a meeting point. I start from the premise that saving a territory is very difficult, very complicated; saving 200 or so towns in the province is impossible. But what we cannot do is, because it is impossible, to throw in the towel. We have to look for the points that can be saved; maybe, the county seats, maybe, not only them, but the next town in the same county… First of all, we have to provide these towns with minimum services and, then, we have to let the economy itself decide whether it is profitable or not. I believe that this is what we are working on and I think that we are working well.

Very recently, the Pyme Teruel awards were presented by the Chamber of Commerce and Banco Santander…

They are a recognition to small companies in the province. I always say that, when I joined the Chamber, we knew of two or three very powerful companies in the province, but when you start to visit the companies, when you go to their headquarters and see what they have, the volume they handle, their positioning in the world, not in Spain or Europe, you say ‘watch out’. What happens is that the businessman of the province of Teruel has always been, let’s call him shy. He has not liked to talk about his goodness, he has been very discreet, he has gone very unnoticed and he has not liked to get involved. That has worked in their favor, because they have grown up without anyone bothering them, but also against them, because they have been great strangers. So, when we have really started to get to know the companies we have in the province, we have been surprised. Lower Aragon has some beastly companies, people would be amazed if they went to visit them. We are talking about some of them that are perhaps the second best in their field in the world and nobody knows it. The Chamber is bringing them to light because it is important.

And then, the scenario has changed a lot. In the past, the businessman as such, in Spain, was a man who locked himself up and did not want anyone to know what he was doing. His strategy was his strategy. That has changed in the world, now we share strategies. It is true that there are points that cannot be commented, logically, but, in the end, what companies have is a lot of communication between them. And that is what we have sought from Club Cámara, where we share this information. This communication between companies has helped us to speed up the processes.

One of these awards is focused on internationalization, how is the province in that sense?

Teruel, in the last 8-9 years, has not stopped growing, not even in crisis or pandemic. That is to say, the growth of exports from the province has been bestial. We are talking about growth of 10-12% and, in terms of number of operations, 30%, which is what works for me. When we see a very high number of operations, that means something very important, and that is that many small companies are starting to export. And that is very positive. I think the pandemic has helped us to digitize much faster, each according to their needs. I am one of those who defend that digitalization is not the way we are selling it; you have to digitalize according to what each one needs. What companies have achieved in the last two years is to digitize and go abroad, and that has helped us a lot, especially in the agri-food sector, which is quite powerful in the province and has soared in the last 6-8 years. And then, in industry we have had a fairly significant growth.

Antonio Santa Isabel FOTO: Marcos Díaz

What actions are carried out by the Chamber to help companies to internationalize?

This is the gene of the Chambers. Their main task is to internationalize. There is an internationalization department to which the company comes, we tell it what it has to do, we elaborate an analysis and we start putting it in contact with other businessmen. Our main function is internationalization and that is why we have this chamber network all over the world that works so well. If you want to take your product abroad, it is very easy for you.

Speaking of agri-food, what is the importance of seals such as the Teruel Ham Denomination of Origin?

All of it. We must bear in mind that the Denomination of Origin Jamón de Teruel was the first one in this country, so it already has an important weight for being so. But we have three designations in total, with peach and oil. I believe that Teruel ham, being the first, has been a pioneer and has paved the way for the rest of the designations and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) that are being added now. We must not forget that, in agri-food, we have products such as the last one that has just been incorporated, which is the truffle, of which we are the largest producers in the world. We must seek to value what we have and it is true that Teruel, in many aspects, has been a bit self-conscious. And we should not have any complex. I always say that I am a defender of Teruel to death and I am not from Teruel. I have no ties with Aragon. But I have become from Teruel and now I defend it above all.

And infrastructures such as the airport and spaces like Motorland, what do they mean for the province?

You have named two of the three most important assets of the province. Dinópolis is missing. Dinópolis is a tourist attraction that has changed the life of the capital and many surrounding towns. Then we have the economic part, which I think is the airport, a giant that has shown that different things can be done. It is an airport that is on everyone’s lips. Economically it is proving that it is viable and that every day it has a growth that multiplies the companies that are inside the airport. And Motorland is the ugly duckling of Aragon and I think it has not worked as it should. People have thought that it is a circuit for a race and it has been abandoned by the political side quite a lot. I think we need to do some work, especially in marketing, because it is still a product that is not measured. When the Grand Prix arrives and we see Motorland Aragón in all the media, it is seen by 136 countries, millions of people, and the repercussion is in Aragón, it is not Motorland Alcañiz or Teruel. I would like to know, if it were in the province of Zaragoza, if we would have finished the highway or if we would have already built eight hotels around it. Sometimes you have to bet, and you have to do it seriously. And, in the Motorland issue, there has been a bit of a handbrake.

What is your diagnosis of the province’s economy?

I think it is in good health, it is working quite well, for the one we are facing; the problem with energy, with raw materials, with transport… I think we are much more concerned about the labor force, it is a real problem we have. There is a 3% unemployment rate, which is not unemployment, we are at a time when we are really short of people. We have to learn to talk about the territory, to say what its virtues are. We have quality of life. When I came to live in Teruel, my children were very young and now they are 23 and 24 years old and I can say that I would not change these years for anything, because I have had time for my children, for my work, for my friends, to go to Madrid and have a great time, to travel… and all this, with the communications we have, which are not the ones we would like. We have to change our mentality, to know what we really want, if we want to live stressed or with tranquility and enjoy life. And whoever comes to live in the province of Teruel enjoys it.

What synergies are there with the chambers of Huesca and Teruel?

We have an excellent relationship. When I joined, I didn’t know what the chambers were and I found myself in front of two presidents who had been there for 10-12 years. They were veterans. The reception was very good and now the relationship is excellent. There has been a change of presidency in Zaragoza and our relationship with the new president is excellent, we get along very well, we have weekly conversations. With the president of Huesca, logically, I have a better relationship because I have been in office for four years. But not only in the Community, but also abroad. We have a relationship with the Catalan, Valencian, Soria, Cuenca chambers… with those we have around us, almost direct conversations; and that is very positive.

There are four years of presidency ahead, what legacy would you like to leave in the Chamber of Teruel?

I would like to leave a Chamber that, at least, everyone knows it, that knows that it is an economic reference. And, best of all, I would like the institutions to rely more on the chambers, because I think it is very important. When you want to do something powerful, you have to turn to the chambers because they have offices all over the world. The administrations have to rely much more on the chambers, and also the companies.

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