Dragoljub Damljanović, President of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: A YEAR OF GOOD NEWS

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Although there may not be as many French companies as we would have liked in the Serbian market, this year was undoubtedly the year of good news – from the return of AirFrance to the Serbian market to seven small and medium-sized French companies making a decision to venture into Serbia and invest here. We are talking to Dragoljub Damljanović, the President of the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, about the potential of the cooperation between the two economies and the Chamber’s role in that.

Could you describe in short the position that French companies occupy in Serbia?

— France occupies the 7th place on the list of the biggest foreign investors in Serbia, having close to 120 companies here with over 11,000 employees working in various sectors – financial, automotive, food, digital, and public service concessions. French companies, those which are already here and those that are about to come, contribute to strengthening of the economic relations between France and Serbia, with the value of the external trade between the two countries standing at around EUR 1 billion in 2018. French companies are also among the leading companies in their respective sectors such as Somboled and Mlekoprodukt in the food industry, Suez and Veolia in infrastructure, Tigar Tyres, Le Belier and Hutchinson in the automotive industry, and Atos and Schneider Electric in the field of new technologies. Their high standards also raise the standards in the local market and boost the competitiveness of the domestic economy. French companies also stand out as responsible businesses that always go beyond mandatory standards, and are known for being excellently integrated into the local community.

How would you assess the current business environment in Serbia?

— For quite some time now, Serbia has been working hard on improving the business environment, and implementing very important reforms in different sectors, with the results becoming increasingly visible. France has also been able to recognize and evaluate the work that Serbia has done in the EU accession process, and we can confidently say that the bilateral relations and external trade between the two countries have never been better. The indicators of Serbia’s economic recovery and accelerated economic growth are seen n the fact that 10.7% more direct
foreign investments have been made relative to the same period last year, that the country’s currency – the dinar – is stable and that public debt is managed successfully. After Serbia being granted the status of an European Union candidate, new French investors saw business opportunities that Serbia offered, primarily as a result of its excellent geographical position, fiscal easing and qualified workforce. In addition to infrastructure, energy and agribusiness that are of interest to French companies, certain innovative sectors such as digital and IT, which are supported by the state, offer very attractive perspective. In addition to large companies that are interested in Serbia, small and medium- sized enterprises from France are now also showing interest in this market.

How many French SMEs are doing business in Serbia and what are your expectations?

— Seven small and medium-sized French enterprises came to the Serbian market since the beginning of this year. This is an encouraging result, bearing in mind that 5 years ago, only three small French companies came to Serbia and launched their business. Large companies have an easier access to the Serbian market, as they have the necessary infrastructure to start their business wherever they might be, while French SMEs are more distrustful and cautious, and are waiting for favourable and stable conditions to be in place to start their business. Today, Serbia has achieved a certain degree of political and economic stability that facilitates the operations of companies, and French SMEs have recognized the opportunities that this market provides. In that sense, we believe that Serbia’s image in France has finally begun to change, and that companies are finally noticing Serbia’s potential. The aforementioned seven SMEs that have chosen Serbia to invest in come from different sectors – four are engaged in metallurgy and plastics industry, two in new technologies and one in the service sector. These sectors have a really great potential, which the French small and medium enterprises have recognized. Together with its members, them Chamber will actively participate in providing support to companies that have expressed interest in doing business here and we hope that their number will continue to grow.

After six years of absence from the Serbian market, Air France is returning to Belgrade airport in the summer of 2019. Do you see this as an indication of a more dynamic economic exchange between the two countries?

— Air France returning to Serbia is very important, since passengers from Serbia and France, including those from the French-Serbian business community, will now have more options to travel thanks to Air France’s flights from Paris. With three flights a day, in a code-share partnership with the national airline, people living Serbia and business community will be able to travel to over 160 destinations in 5 continents via Paris airport by flying from Belgrade airport. Air France, member of our Chamber, is the leading group in international traffic in Europe, and we are very pleased that they are returning to Serbia. We are also looking forward to the arrival of the French low
cost airline, ASL Airlines that will establish a direct flight between Belgrade and Paris airport Charles de Gaulle on June 24th, 2019, with two weekly flights during the summer season. Nikola Tesla Airport, which is managed by the French group Vinci Airports as a result of a concession agreement, is strategically important infrastructure for Serbia because it is the main international entrance to Serbia and the driving force behind economic growth and
development. We hope that other international airlines will follow suit and include Belgrade airport in their flight grid. This is very important because it directly contributes to the development of competitiveness, as well as to the improvement of living and travel conditions for business people and citizens.

Do you think that Serbia is now more interested in foreign companies willing to cooperate with its ICT sector?

— The information and communication technology sector is one of the pillars of the Serbian economy, and it enjoys a considerable state support. This sector contributed with 4.5% to the total GDP in 2017. Today, it consists of about 2,000 companies with 22,000 employees, with close to 250 ICT companies opening every year. Foreigners, including French IT companies, are also strongly interested in the Serbian market and in cooperation with the domestic ICT sector. There has been an increase in the export of digital programmes and applications by around 30% per annum. Considering that the value of the ICT export was over EUR 900 million in 2017, this sector surpassed agriculture in terms of export, which was traditionally the biggest export sector in Serbia. Global IT giants are already present in the Serbian market, amd we have three global ICT leaders from France operating here – Schneider Electric, which has nearly 1,400 engineers working at the DMS branch in Novi Sad on developing software for the energy sector, Atos, which is dedicated digitization with top-notch solutions for all sectors, and Ubisoft, one of the world’s leading game design companies.

The Chamber itself contributes to boosting development of the Serbian start-up community. Could you tells us about the Chamber’s experiences so far?

— This year, just like previous years, the French-Serbian Chamber of Commerce invited all interested candidates who had a business idea or have launched their company less than a year ago to apply for a free one-year mentoring support programme called “Start-up Accelerator”. The four projects were picked – PikcioChain with GDPR ready plug-n-use database for personal data and digital identity; Super Bake, a social entrepreneurship initiative where pensioners or female senior cititizes are engaged in cake baking, Rebel for starUML, a code generator for Java, Spring and Hibernate; and Between, a system for quick and easy financing of invoices of small and medium-sized enterprises. This year, Super Bake and Between won the mentoring support. The winners of the ‘Start-up Accelerator“ programme receive mentoring support in all aspects of their business and the right to become the Chamber members, thus increasing their visibility, chances for acquiring partners and expanding the network of contacts.

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