In the sweltering heat of Summer 2001, as Macedonian Army helicopters were flying overhead to bomb the NLA in nearby Aracinovo, Zoran Rosomanov was laying the foundation for his new factory. At the height of the war, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty about Macedonia's political and economic future, Rosomanov was betting everything he had on the future success of his new enterprise. He had personally signed off on the bank loans, putting his assets and professional credibility on the line. He freely admits now that "many people thought I was crazy." Yet he persevered nonetheless, with a conviction that never wavered, and an optimism that was never stifled. Now this charismatic visionary is one of the leading young businessmen in Macedonia. His upstart printing house has taken the Balkans by storm, and thrown the competition into a panic.
Almost always, the news from Macedonia seems to be bad. It is a refreshing change, therefore, to come across a story of success. And though this story chronicles one man and his entrepeneurial efforts, the tale has wider applications. For in it are intertwined many potent themes: war and its alternatives, the true patriotism and the false, free markets and the role of the state. These are issues that reverberate all around the world, not merely in one beleaguered Balkan country.
Putting Macedonia on par with the West
Rosomanov's company, Bato and Divajn, is exceptional for its technological sophistication. Specializing in printing and design, this operation uses cutting-edge printing machines from Germany's Heidelberg a world leader in the field. With these state-of-the-art machines, Rosomanov can print up to 15,000 sheets per hour. He has convinced Heidelberg to give him upgrades every few years on credit, as well as to maintain a repair team in his factory. Now he is working on becoming the company's sole Balkan representative.
Together with his business partner, expert printer Dusan Onchevski, Rosomanov manages an extremely complex operation that produces all of those essential things that most people take for granted: bus tickets, beer labels, cigarette boxes and poster advertisements, to name but a few. The factory itself is very sensitive, requiring constant regulation of the moisture content and room temperature. The trained staff of forty works with highly complicated and highly valuable machinery the intricately ridged design templates alone sell for $18,000 each.
Until Rosomanov's $2.7 million investment, Macedonia's printing world had never seen anything to compare with this technology. Hardly anyone had any experience in an industry that was almost entirely non-existent. Not only were the machines expensive, they had to be trucked from far-off places like Germany a cumbersome process that Rosomanov once expedited, by attaching blue lights to the top of his car. His "police escort" enabled the truck to motor freely south to Skopje.
Such imaginative pragmatism has characterized Zoran Rosomanov's business style from the start. Where others saw only barriers, he saw opportunities. Where many felt helpless to stop the war, he saw a way to establish the preliminary conditions for peace. Indeed, when there was no printing industry in agriculture-minded Macedonia, he created one. Rosomanov would stand out anywhere for his enthusiasm and initiative; in Macedonia, he is almost an anomaly.
From the beginning, an entrepeneurial spirit
Throughout his career, Rosomanov's special talent has been tactical observation. Even at a very young age, he kept his eyes open for opportunities. Rosomanov's strategy, often called simply "market research," is both clever and highly effective. His trademark has always been to observe his surroundings, perceive a need, and then use everything at his disposal from persuasion to promises to cold hard cash to fill that need better than any of his competitors. This is how he has been able to claim the Balkans as his "turf," and to alarm the Slovenian and Austrian competition which is gradually, inexorably, being undermined by the Macedonian juggernaut that is Bato and Divajn.
Rosomanov's career began in music production with Macedonian National Television (MTV). He continued in the same field further north in Europe, becoming a sales manager in Belgrade by the age of 21. Gradually he developed interests in marketing and graphic design. In 1992, at the age of 26, Rosomanov opened a marketing firm in Skopje called Divajn. At the same time, he was making important contacts in the fields of printing and design, and talking up his business with potential investors from Milan to Amsterdam. Rosomanov then conceived of the idea for something never before seen in Macedonia a printing house that could compete with the European heavyweights.
From the start, it was Rosomanov's almost insane optimism that made the difference. Having no money, self-confidence was all that he could count on. His first big victory was in convincing an envelope printer from Holland to sell the fledgling enterprise a used four-color printing machine. The machine cost over $200,000; Rosomanov had nothing. The daring solution? "Give it to me on credit," he boldly declared. "You know what?" Rosomanov recalls with a grin, "he gave it to me and to do this, he had to turn down higher offers from three other countries."
Rosomanov's second big victory owed once again to his ability to win the trust of other businessmen. The budding entrepeneur observed that Macedonia's largest brewery, Skopsko, was getting its beer labels printed in far-off Slovenia. The inefficiency of this set-up got Rosomanov's mind working on how he, a complete unknown, could take Skopsko from the Slovenians. He told his designer to buy two beers, remove the labels, and reproduce them "pixel by pixel." After the "new" labels were ready, Rosomanov presented them to the astonished brewers. They were ready to consider that this young upstart might have something to offer. And then, as luck would have it, the delivery truck from Slovenia happened to be running late. Rosomanov recounts:
"so they asked me if I could have one million labels ready by 9 A.M. the next morning. I told them I could do it. When I went back, I called all my workers, and said: 'bring your pillows, we have work to do tonight!' But by 9 A.M. we had finished all of them all one million labels. And that is how I got started."
Consolidation and expansion
Today, Rosomanov's customers still rave about his punctuality. Time and time again, he has delivered on his word thereby gaining a reputation for reliability. From the humble beginnings of a used four-color printer, he has gone on to build a new Macedonian empire. His clients include Coca Cola, Canon, the Macedonian Lottery, Macedonia's BOSS cigarettes, and Skopje's public bus system. He prints books, newspaper inserts, and promotional material for telecommunications firms and medical supply companies. After viewing Rosomanov's massive operation, one is left with the feeling that there is nothing his company can't do.
This sentiment is doubly confirmed by a visit to Rosomanov's second venture, Divajn Project Management. This outgrowth of his first company offers promotion, marketing and design services. Between his two companies, Rosomanov has mastered a sort of vertical integration. For example, take a typical job for Coca Cola. First, the printing plant churns out the Coca Cola labels, posters and flyers. Then, his graphic design team crafts sexy clothes for those svelte young models also provided by Rosomanov who will work Coke's beachside summer promotions. No one else in Macedonia can offer such a range of complementary services.
As if that weren't enough, Rosomanov has recently been getting into interior design. Employing a decidedly modern aesthetic, his architects create unique and colorful homes which seem much more in the style of Los Angeles or London than little old Skopje. To top it off, Rosomanov is also an accomplished photographer.
Free enterprise: a new definition of patriotism
Zoran Rosomanov's success story would seem improbable enough, happening as it has in a small, poor country. It becomes even more incongruous when we consider that Rosomanov started up just as full-scale battles were going on, and the future of Macedonia remained in doubt. Yet he was undeterred by the threat of war, or the fear that had paralyzed so many of his countrymen. I mentioned my surprise at his stoic attitude; Rosomanov just shrugged it off. "What can we do?" he quipped. "We have to live."
I wondered if Rosomanov had any concerns about security especially considering that several other factories had been attacked or destroyed during the war. He pointed with a grin to a fierce-looking mutt chained up in front of his factory. When we approached, however, the dog just wagged its tail and rolled over happily. Not auspicious. Of course, Bato and Divajn does employ a few security guards, and carries an extensive insurance policy. Still, the boss is not too worried.
Rosomanov's thoughts on patriotism are also refreshingly unique. During the war, the Western media was flooded with images of "angry Slavs." Paramilitary groups and jeering crowds, it seemed, were the sole representatives of an entirely anti-Western nation. Feeling powerless against both the NLA and the Western media, the Macedonians voiced their frustration through shows of nationalism. But Rosomanov neither enlisted nor sat around waving a flag. Instead, he took his love for Macedonia and turned it into something positive, by starting a business that has made his country a regional leader in the printing industry. By keeping his Macedonian clients from having to shop abroad, he brought a vast amount of money back into the domestic economy. And, of course, he gave people jobs. Rosomanov declares:
"I'm a big fighter for my country. Why? Many people give up. They say, 'the West is better.' But they shouldn't say that. We have a beautiful country, with everything we need here... my fight is, why do we need to look outside?"
Rosomanov's patriotism is quietly expressed in his work. While others complain about Macedonia's many capitulations and call for a stronger military, Rosomanov believes that change will only come through other means chiefly, by developing a climate where free enterprise is allowed to thrive, independently of state coercion and corruption. Macedonia also suffers, he contends, when its businesses import commodities that could be produced at home. In this regard, Macedonia still has a long way to go. To achieve economic freedom and internal stability, the country must first free itself of the burden of its history.
Problems with history, problems with the state
In the long years of Yugoslav rule, "Macedonia had no voice" in shaping policy, Rosomanov says. In this period, Macedonians held few managerial or other decision-making positions. All of the orders came from Belgrade, and the country was used primarily as a supplier of agricultural products for the rest of Yugoslavia. The reliance on foreign imports for most industrial and technological commodities has characterized Macedonia's first ten years of independence. These are the prime limiting factors that have slowed the transition to a successful economy.
Unsurprisingly, an entrepeneur like Rosomanov would like to speed the process along. In his view, "A country should be run like a business and so it's very important to have a prime minister who is also a businessman." Yet this is not the only essential change, Rosomanov suggests; institutional reforms are also necessary. The bureaucracy is labyrinthine and maddeningly slow. The wheels of government are neither well-oiled nor geared towards helping independent businessmen. Dealing with banks can be a nightmare. On top of all this, there is the legal institution. Rosomanov avers:
"the biggest problem is with the law. First, we must change the court system. People must learn how to protect themselves (i.e., their private property). If we have good courts and a good constitution, many people will invest here."
Foreign investment in Macedonian businesses is a laudable goal. Thus far, however, foreign investors in Macedonia have seemed more like vultures, feeding off the carcasses of bloated state-owned enterprises. As in other Balkan countries, privatization has been a painful experience here. Ingrained pessimism at the reality of state corruption has also contributed to the lack of entrepeneurial initiative in Macedonia. Confronted with insurmountable bureaucracy, unfriendly lenders, an outdated court system and governmental expectation of bribes and kickbacks, it is no wonder why would-be entrepeneurs have found it tough going in Macedonia.
Predictions and possibilities
Only time will tell whether Zoran Rosomanov exemplifies a new breed of Macedonian businessmen or whether he is just an aberration. On the one hand, the positive response that has greeted his enterprise would seem to indicate that Macedonia is ready for change. Yet since his breadth of vision and personal drive make him an exception rather than the rule, Rosomanov's prediction that "Macedonia will be better than Switzerland" in ten years is perhaps premature.
Indeed, considering that so much of Bato and Divajn's success owes to the unique qualities of one man, we must be careful not to draw too many conclusions from it about the future of Macedonian business. Yet the fact that there are such people as Zoran Rosomanov individuals who refuse to be victims of the state, and who seek independence through building free markets is an encouraging sign. Wedded with Western capitalism, Balkan logic might just prove effective. In such thinking, the human dimension is everything. As Rosomanov says, "I'm rich with the people, not with the money. If you have too much money, but don't have friends, you have nothing." This sentiment is the bedrock on which his business rests. If Macedonia does indeed succeed in pulling itself up to Western standards, it will be through the utilization of just such a homegrown quality one exemplified in the minor miracle of Zoran Rosomanov's unlikely Macedonian empire.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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