Serbia, Obenovac, February 2018
I meet Goran Mitrovic in Obenovac, an hour drive from Belgrade. Now 57 his life coincides with the most turbulent periods in Serbia’s history. He studied physics at university during the Tito period and obtained his degree but lack of funds caused him to terminate before he could do scientific work and obtain a Ph.D. He became a teacher of physics at the local secondary school. It was a relatively secure job with a very modest income to support his family. He has one daughter.
A thoughtful man Goran speaks with restrained passion. A whole life past after setting up and running Candy D, still located in the same building: his house. The backside and basement have expanded and now house a modern factory. Goran’s story now spanning some 30 years and coinciding with many changes in Serbia. He experienced so many twists and turns during this period that many would have given up halfway (or even would not have started the adventure) but Goran persevered.
The end of the communist plan market
While he was a teacher war broke out and inflation caused the worth of the dinar to decrease thousandfold per day. Communism collapsed and the whole world changed, breaking up Yugoslavia in to separate countries and all that was normal suddenly disappeared. Local plan economy regulated companies had no guaranteed markets and went bankrupt leaving Serbia without a local confectionery industry.
Goran spotted this gap and decided to leave the predictable life of a teacher to become a local entrepreneur. From family, he borrowed so much money that he realized he would not be able to pay back in even in 30 years with a teacher’s salary. It turned out to be a decision that would lead to a life of falling down and getting up again.
Goran had some knowledge of manufacturing candies (mainly chocolate-coated dragees) and turned to a friend, as is the customary thing in Serbia. A machine adjusted from farmaceutical manufacturing suited his needs and from the rest of the loan, he bought chocolate, sugar and other ingredients to make his specialty. As is also not uncommon in Serbia his friend later sold the design and the machines to others thus setting up his competitors.
Manufacturing is one thing but selling proved to be the hardest part. In a suddenly capitalistic environment the shops were still being supplied by a distribution organization from communist times, now privatized. This monopoly proved a hard nut to crack but Goran managed to turn things to his advantage.
He realized his only chance was to produce quality candies in quality gift wrapping thus making a premium product for the top of the market. Money was scarce but when buying gifts the logic is different than for everyday goods. He put a lot of effort into obtaining good raw materials and to refine his processing. Chocolate ingredients of a constant quality are hard to come by and Goran found out they mainly come from Spain.
Again the world changed in 1999. Goran remembers there were warnings of Nato planning to bomb Obrenovac as there was a power plant as well as an explosives manufacturing facility. Candy D was quite close and Goran sent his workers off the second-day shift home for safety. Then the bombing started, luckily missing his plant but destroying a lot of property in the village. He can still remember the sound of the Tomahawks. Again they managed to continue though the Serbian market collapsed and export was closed off due to sanctions. Serbia still has a negative image for export, unfortunately.
After things calmed down a new challenge emerged when Serbia opened its borders to the western companies, that immediately started to flood the market with standard confectionery products and bought themselves in.
In 2014 the ground under Goran’s feet nearly literally slid away once more. Due to a planning failure of the government the nearby river rose to such an extent that the whole of Obenovac was flooded. Read more about this in Why did you stay.
The first and sometimes second story of the houses were underwater, including Goran’s factory adjacent to his house. All stock and equipment were lost completely and he was left with debts to be repaid without the possibility to supply his customer.
At that time he seriously considered giving it all up or move outside Obrenovac but he did not. He felt obliged to his workers and once again started from scratch. Government help was meager (not 6% of the damage) as was some assistance from the EU that supported the purchase of just one machine.
Entry into local politics
The government had no idea about private enterprise, assuming most were one-man shops like hairdressers, so the local entrepreneurs assembled in a chamber of commerce to unite and make their problems clear through political pressure. Goran was elected to become chairman and came to the point they even founded a political party to participate in the municipal elections. This proved not a good idea as suddenly Goran was seen by the establishment as a threat. A situation that still persists and makes doing business complicated.
Waiting for the EU
Now his sales are significantly lower than before the flood but he is growing again. He has again plans for the future, export to the US and especially the EU. The latter is still very complicated and as the demands of the EU for entry of Serbia include the acceptance of the independence of Kosovo (for any Serbian politician a suicide mission) this will take a long time.
Ecological and biological chocolate in new packaging, new marketing methods all feature in his plans for the future. Sadly his daughter will not take over the business but he enjoys what he is doing and that is the main thing. The alternative would have been the life of a secondary school teacher. More secure but less exciting. Goran has no regrets and intends to continue making quality chocolate and look after his workers and his project for life.