Dragoljub Damljanović, CCFIS: On the good path

The dynamics, generated by the presidential visit, is a trump card we will use to expedite the development of our business community

The French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce (CCFIS) has over 130 members in Serbia; practically, all French companies and many Serbian and international companies. We talked to Dragoljub Damljanović, Chairman of the Managing Board of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, about the Chamber’s plans for 2020 and the importance that President Macron’s visit had for the business sector. French companies are among the most important investors in Serbia.

How often do French businesspeople approach you for advice regarding entering the Serbian market?

– Fifteen small and medium-sized enterprises from France have entered the Serbian market since the beginning of 2018, with Vinci Airports’ concession for Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade and Suez’s concession for Vinča Waste Treatment Centre being the major investment projects of French companies in our country. Large companies have easier access to the Serbian market because they have the necessary infrastructure to launch business wherever they go, while French SMEs are more distrustful and cautious, and are waiting for favourable and stable conditions to start a business. It is these companies that are the ones who contact us the most. The Chamber is usually their first point of contact and the first link towards entering the market. The number of inquiries we received in 2019 exceeded one hundred. We have been a partner of the French company internationalization agency Business France for the Balkan markets for eight years, and since October 2019, we have been the only referential partner for Serbia.

What attracts French business people to Serbia?

– Serbia has long been very active in improving its business environment, implementing very important reforms in all sectors and the results are becoming increasingly visible, which plays a big role in developing Serbia’s investment appeal. France has also been able to recognize these efforts and value Serbia’s work on European integration. We can confidently say that the bilateral relations and external trade between the two countries have never been better. Some of the indicators that testify that the economic situation in Serbia is improving are accelerated economic growth, 10.7 per cent more FDIs than in the same period last year, stable dinar and successfully managed public debt. After being granted EU candidate status, new French investors have recognized business opportunities Serbia has, created primarily to the country’s excellent geographical position, skilled workforce, and the cultural closeness of our two peoples.

How important was President Macron’s visit in July 2019 for the economy?

– The long-awaited visit of the President of the Republic of France to Belgrade confirmed his desire for an increased French presence in all segments in Serbia. The visit was described as historic, not only because it was highly anticipated, but also because of its symbolic, political, economic and regional influence and importance. It is up to us to use this official visit to continue the rapprochement between our two countries. Economic issues and signed agreements covering several different sectors (renewable energy, energy efficiency, water management, urban transport) are decisive steps that will enable French companies to conclude contracts in Serbia faster and for our market to become more appealing to them. Also, this visit was talked about a lot in France, and it is also significant for Serbia’s image in France. French business people, and even the general public, often did not have enough information about Serbia and did not consider it when thinking about expanding their business. This is no longer the case so much today.

To what extent has the French-Serbian economic cooperation been growing? Is the number of French companies operating in Serbia going up?

– France occupies the 7th place on the list of biggest foreign investors in Serbia. France has close to 120 companies in Serbia which employ around 12,000 people in different sectors – financial, automotive, food, digital, public service concessions, etc. French companies, which already operate in Serbia and those that are yet to come, are contributing to the strengthening of the economic relations between France and Serbia, with total external trade between the two countries amounting to around one billion euro in the previous year. French companies are also among the leading companies in their sectors, such as Somboled and Mlekoprodukt in the food industry, Suez and Veolia in infrastructure, Tiger Tyres, Le Belier and Hutchinson in the automotive industry, and Atos and Schneider Electric in new technologies. Vinci Airports’ concession for Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade is one of the most important recent investments, and the recent arrival of the famous French sports equipment distribution chain Decathlon testifies to the interest that French companies have in a wide variety of sectors. The increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises from France in the Serbian market also supports this claim.

What are the most interesting sectors in Serbia for potential French investors?

– In addition to infrastructure, energy and agribusinesses, that regularly pique the interest of French companies, certain innovative, government-supported sectors offer very attractive perspective, such as digital and IT sector, especially in terms of public sector digitization. With the arrival of the French Tech community, the IT sector has reaffirmed France’s interest in further developing entrepreneurship in Serbia. The Chamber also has a programme of fast support for local startups called the Startup Accelerator, which is currently in its third edition. We should not forget the automotive sector, which has huge potential in Serbia and for which we have been receiving a significant increase in the number of inquiries, especially in the field of manufacturing components for the automotive industry.

You’ve been holding executive positions at Schneider Electric for 12 years now. What is characteristic of the French approach to management?

– Good relations and healthy business culture in the company are prerequisites for good business results and this is what we, at Schneider Electric, practice, and as far as I know, many other French companies in Serbia practice this too. I have always maintained that the company is made up exclusively of people. Everyone who knows me knows that working with people is my passion. In the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to lead teams in the Serbian and Montenegrin markets, as well as in other countries, who were inspired to educate themselves, always do better and advance on a personal and professional level. Business results always come as a result of a well-motivated team and individuals. It gives me the greatest pleasure when I see a spark in my colleagues’ eyes after we achieve something together that previously seemed impossible.

What are your expectations for 2020?

– Our association was admitted to the Union of French Chambers of Commerce around the world in 2009 and since then we have acquired the third level of classification of the French chambers of commerce, which means that we are authorized to provide all services that the French chambers provide, not only for members but also to provide complete support for French companies. In 2020, as well as in the first decade of our existence, we will do our best to continue to be the contact point and provide effective support for French companies interested in the Serbian market and to continue to organize as many networking events as possible for the expanding network of our members with the view of bolstering the cooperation between member companies and creating new business opportunities. The dynamics, generated by the presidential visit, is a trump card we will use to expedite the development of our business community. In 2019, we got 30 new members, French, Serbian, but also German, Italian, American companies and that is why we are waiting for 2020 with great optimism.

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