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Making a Smart Move - Success secrets of Riga’s top relocation agent

By Jekaterina Strelcova. 29.09.2008

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Executives posted to Riga look to Toni Vanhanen for help in getting moved and settled in to their new homes.A native of Texas, Vanhanen moved to Riga in 2001 when her husband took a job with Reval Hotels, a leading Norwegian-owned hotel chain. Jekaterina Strelcova asked her about what it's like to live and work in Riga, and about what the future holds for SmartMove, the company she established in 2004.

When you moved here did you find it easy to adjust to Latvia? What were the major obstacles you encountered in getting settled?

I was fortunate in that I had already experienced major culture shock while living in Finland amongst the Finns and working with my British colleagues. My culture shock in moving to Finland from Chicago was huge and I made it my business never to let that happen again. So when I moved to Latvia, I felt better prepared to handle the culture and manners of the Latvians. That is not to say that I find them exactly the same as the Finns, but there are similarities.  

 Is it difficult for a foreigner to do business in Latvia?

I find the Latvians to be generally very helpful and friendly people. Sometimes the first reaction I get when I ask a question or ask for help, is “no”, but I have found that persistence pays off and in the end I usually prevail.
Since joining the EU, the Latvians have become more open and welcoming to foreigners doing business in Latvia. That is another similarity between Finns and Latvians, they want to be more accepted by Europeans and other nationalities. There is a tremendous difference in the attitude from 6 years ago. 

 How does not speaking Latvian or Russian affect your work here?

My work is mainly with expats who speak English and real estate agents who manage with English pretty well, so I have to say there is no real effect.
How easy or hard is it for a spouse of a foreigner working in Latvia - and usually it’s the wife we are talking about - to find a job here?

It is not easy, especially if you are an American or another nationality outside the European Union. That is one of the main reasons I established my own company. So I could start working right away without the hassle and expense of trying to get a work permit, without guarantee of actually getting one, I might add.

Speaking of families with kids, is relocation hard on them?

Relocating is always difficult for children, especially as they get older. We came from a large school in Finland with 30 children per classroom. The classes here at that time were 5 to 9 children each. It is hard to choose friends from such small numbers and to be involved in many sports, etc.  Fortunately, children adapt amazingly fast. My own children are now very happy and have a good circle of friends, both Latvian and expat.

 How did you stumble upon the Smart Move idea?

Actually, it was not my idea. I had a friend living next door to me in Riga who had been working for a Dutch relocation company. When she moved to Italy she asked me if I was interested in taking over her job. I did, I liked it and decided to form my own company.

 What are the actual steps you go through to relocate someone?

Contact with the human resource manager to identify the client needs, contact with the client to access personal expectations, usually an orientation tour of Riga to show them what a great place this is, appointments with schools, visiting medical facilities, locating the right home for the family, negotiating their lease, getting them moved in and happily settled and then assisting them with further needs if they so require.

 How do you choose your outsourcing partners for Smart Move?

I have been very actively networking since the first day I arrived so am quite good at finding what I need now. If I need legal work done, I have a good list of law firms to contact, if my clients need insurance I turn to the top 3 insurance firms, brokers in the city.  When clients ask for moving companies, I make the recommendations of established, reputable firms I work with and if I need trainers for language or cross cultures, I fall back to my colleagues from the UK.

 How do you find your customers?

Referrals, word of mouth, recommendations and networking.

 How far in advance should one plan their move?

One year would be perfect but many people have only a few months. The majority of the time, because this is not a perfect world, they have but one or two months. 

What does the future hold for you?

I have planned to register Smart Move in Lithuania and Estonia. I am in negotiations with some Scandinavian relocation firms in the hopes of establishing a “Nordic” cooperation. I have been approached by a larger relocation company from Eastern Europe who wishes to form a partnership which sounds intriguing. There are definitely plenty of possibilities out there.

 What is your tip for a foreigner moving here?

Latvia is a great place to live and work. Give it a try and I guarantee you will like it, but be prepared, do some homework. Find out about the culture and lifestyle. Find out what is happening with the economy and prices in Latvia. Be prepared to live in a vibrant place which has lots of culture, fine food and great people.


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