Why we’re bullish on Europe

October 4, 2012, 7:11 PM UTC

Michelle Gass, President, EMEA, Starbucks

FORTUNE — Despite the brewing crises in Europe, this is not the time to retrench. That was the bottom line from panelists on a roundtable called Thriving in Europe at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. According to Susan Gilchrist, CEO, Brunswick Group, “There are 500 million high spending wealthy consumers in the region. That’s a real opportunity for business.” Besides, she added, debt burdens are lower in Europe than the U.S., and Europe’s legal and regulatory environment are more stable for doing business.

Indeed, European countries dominated the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-13. Northern and Western Europe remain competitive hot spots for business, with Eastern Europe growing very fast. (Poland has grown nearly 16% since the downturn in 2008). To take advantage of that growth, U.S. companies like Starbucks (SBUX) have retooled their international business models. Michelle Gass, President of Starbucks EMEA, who shifted her base to London from the U.S. last year, explained: “Breaking up the business in different regions of the world is a much faster path to growth. It helps faster decision-making on the ground.” Under her watch, the company’s growth has accelerated in the region, especially in Turkey and Scandinavia, and she is now working with Swiss rail to add espresso cars to their trains.

Cecilia Reyes, Chief Investment Officer of Zurich Insurance Group, is bullish on Europe as well. She said the key to surviving this downturn is by managing costs — companies that manage their balance sheets well will emerge from the crisis more competitive and profitable. Reyes believes Europe will emerge from recession in 2013 and hopes the euro zone will remain in tact.

Gilchrist expects to see more consolidation. “CEOs in Europe are holding their breath,” she said. “(But) all the conditions are right for M&A in Europe, with low interest rates, assets that are not overvalued, and corporations that are sitting on about two trillion euros of cash on their balance sheets.” The bold move by Alliance boots to merge with Walgreens this year is testament to a market ripe for M&A. Promising sectors include technology, business services, renewable energy and healthcare. This is the time to re-tool, invest and drive market share in Europe, the panelists agreed, and corporations need to be there now so that they are well positioned for the rebound.

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