Eva Karlberg steps down as general manager of SwedCham after 22 years and entrepreneur Christian Bergenstråhle takes over.
“In our office we’ve always seen challenges as opportunities.”
TEXT: Jan Hökerberg
Without knowing that the trip would change her life for good, Eva Karlberg arrived from Sweden in 1993 together with her husband Johan, a medical doctor who had been appointed a research job at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and their two children. Eva was a licensed physiotherapist who was on track to undertake a Master of Medical Sciences degree.
“Initially, we’d planned to stay in Hong Kong for two years. I thought I could live with that. But then it became two more years and I skipped my academic plans and started working as a research coordinator at the HKU’s medical faculty instead for another number of years,” says Eva.
However, in March 1998, shortly after the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China, someone tapped her on her shoulder and recommended her to apply for a position as general manager at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“I thought about it overnight and quickly decided that this was something I’d definitely like to do,” says Eva. “I knew quite a number of people that were involved with the chamber at that time and I also have a genuine interest in people and learning new things about companies, innovation and so on.”
She was selected and stayed at the post for 22 years. Over the past couple of years, she has had a couple of thoughts of retiring but stayed on – which has benefitted the chamber. But now, she has finally made up her mind.
Her successor Christian Bergenstråhle has also had a long relationship with Hong Kong and the Swedish chamber. He is an entrepreneur who has run his own businesses for 17 years, mainly within marketing and communications, such as sponsorships, events and social media, but also the arts.
“I came here almost 20 years ago when I worked at a Swedish company that wanted to establish itself in Hong Kong,” he says. “I was hosting an event and there I met Eva and some other members from that time. Then, I was back a few times for seminars, organised by the chamber, about social media and digitalisation.
“In 2014, I was invited to be part of Business of Design Week [in which Sweden was a partner country that year] since I owned a company working with arts and they were looking for entrepreneurs who presented Swedish culture in a new way. One thing led to another and I started commuting to Hong Kong and eventually moved here three years ago,” he adds.
Eva notes that there is quite a big difference between how the chamber worked in 1998 compared to today.
“If I could describe it in one word, then it’s the engagement. In the late 1990s, the chamber had much more of an official role, whereas now we have member engagement and various committees [in which a large number of people are engaged],” she says.
“Furthermore, during the current situation [with Covid-19 this year and the social unrest last year], we’ve initiated a number of different kinds of experience-sharing groups. They are all member-driven, which means member engagement,” Eva says.
“Nowadays, we also communicate in a different way with the members – through social media. Two decades ago, we had to use the landline and the fax. So, I would say that engagement and communication are the two main differences,” Eva concludes.
Over the years, she has accumulated a large number of fond memories from her time with the chamber. She has come across so many people from hundreds of member companies and a long row of Swedish delegations visiting the city.
“I’ve learnt so much from all these years. For example, we’ve brought many artists to Hong Kong. Before I came here, I didn’t know much about this business. Perhaps my fondest memory is of bringing a Swedish Michelin star-awarded chef here for a Royal Dinner. It was not just about bringing him here – we needed to learn how to get all his ingredients for the food here on time as well,” Eva remembers.
In 2019, the chamber had to adjust to a new situation due to the social unrest and this year it has been the widespread pandemic.
“We acted quickly, since in our office we’ve always seen challenges as opportunities,” says Eva. “We realised that we had to be creative and this was an opportunity for the chamber to create a platform for communication. We started with informal lunches at which members could share experiences behind closed doors. We were also quickly adapting to virtual meetings and webinars using Zoom or Microsoft Teams. We’ve continued arranging such events for the members, by the members, the whole time.”
One opportunity that has come out of this is an increased collaboration between other Swedish chambers in the region, where there are 13 different chambers – from Japan in the northeast, down to Australia in the south and India in the west.
From 1 October, Christian will take over from Eva as general manager and he is prepared for new challenges.
“As Eva says, challenges are opportunities, and we live in a world where so much is changing. This means that we have to change as well. First, we need to identify what the new needs are. We have an advantage here since the chamber has already tried new formats. Many of our members travel a lot and by offering more digital solutions we can increase the membership value. No matter whether they are on a business trip, they can still be part of what we create if we have more digital offerings,” he says.
“You can become a member of SwedCham Hong Kong even if you’re not based here. This is an opportunity to reach out to more overseas members who can be connected to the ecosystem that we as chamber have created. We have a lot of opportunities and the new situation has perhaps forced us to do things a bit quicker,” he adds.
Eva will not immediately move back to her family’s house in Österlen in southern Sweden, but when it eventually happens she says she will miss “the ambiance, the mindset and the fast pace” in Hong Kong besides all the people that she has got to know over the years.
“I will also miss living in a big city but still having easy access to the nature,” she says. “Another thing is the city’s geographic location, from which we can reach a third of the world’s population within a five-hour radius.”
Christian says that he is looking forward to meeting more of the chamber’s members to understand their needs, as well as other people who are important for the chamber’s ecosystem in Hong Kong.
So, a big thank you to Eva for all the years she has contributed and welcome to Christian to be part of an exciting future.
Eva Karlberg in brief
Career: From a Master of Medical Sciences (physiotherapy) to general manager of SwedCham Hong Kong.
Family: Husband Johan, son working/living in Hong Kong and daughter working/living in San Francisco.
Lives: Southern Lantau.
Occupation: GM SwedCham HK until 30 September 2020.
Number of years in Hong Kong: 27.
Best thing about HK: The nature, and the easy access to it.
Worst thing about HK: The pollution, with the excessive use of Styrofoam and single-use plastics.
Personal motto: Look on the bright side of life!
Christian Bergenstråhle in brief
Born: Karlshamn, Sweden (raised in Båstad, Sweden).
Lives: Discovery Bay.
Occupation: New GM at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce.
Number of years in Hong Kong: Three and another three years of commuting.
Best thing about HK: There are a lot of things – the international vibe, the food, nature, the possibilities.
Worst thing about HK: Property prices.
Personal motto: A positive mindset makes all the difference.