Thursday 19th May was an early start to the weekend, or so we thought, as our group of around 20 entrepreneurial souls met, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Air Serbia flight to the sunny climes of Belgrade, the financial centre of Serbia and home to the country’s central bank. Our group comprised of a number of freemen plus guests and additional members of the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants. As a result, only a few of the faces were known but despite this, the team bonded quickly and well and the trip proved to be an overwhelming success.
For those who believe that a Master’s weekend is a leisurely walk in the park, a shock awaits! Sir Paul, sadly unable to join us, certainly left his mark on the proceedings with considered and busy itinerary which lasted for three full days which were carefully planned to ensure that the team obtained major benefit from each stage.
We arrived late in the day on the Thursday, checking in to a new hotel (being amongst its first guests) in the middle of downtown Belgrade and, after a quick freshen up, arrived back in reception to a warm and friendly welcome from the British-Serbian Chamber of Commerce [BSCC], of which Sir Paul is President. After a short time mixing with our hosts, the first official welcome to our team came from Tahir Hasanovic, Director of the BSCC and owner of the hotel. Tahir was accompanied by a number of BSCC representatives alongside his family and our guide & advisor for the trip, Jadranka Dervisevic, who played a key role in ensuring that the whole experience ran according to plan.
Having thanked Tahir and his colleagues for such a friendly welcome to their city, we headed off by foot towards Klub Knjizevnika, where we mixed with the local BSCC members over wonderful food and wine in warm and somewhat Parisian surroundings. This venue sits beneath the city’s home for authors – both established and budding and the vibrancy was clearly present as the evening passed: the group sat in a partially open restaurant with live music mixing with laughter and multi-lingual conversation.
The evening drew on and whilst some headed back to the hotel, others remained in conversation for some time. The Serbians are most gracious in their hospitality and there is never a sense of urgency – unlike many a City restaurant, particularly at lunchtime!
The following morning, we had a prompt start with a breakfast meeting at the hotel with our honored guests being His Excellency Ambassador Denis Keefe and Zlatan Milosevic, Director of UKTI Serbia. This was a short but busy session during which the Ambassador shared with us his thoughts on Serbia and its plans for future growth. As such a small group, and the sole occupants of the breakfast room, we were able to raise various questions and had time not gone against us, there is a chance that the meeting would have run much longer.
A short taxi trip later and our entourage arrived The Network for Business Development event – a conference focussed on entrepreneurship, investment and leadership, addressing Ideas for Action which is a global initiative jointly created by Wharton Business School and the World Bank. The main objective being to encourage young professionals and students (ages 18-35) to develop new ideas for financing and implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.
Sir Paul was due to be one of the opening speakers at this event and our Middle Warden, Kate Jolly, stepped in to the gap in his absence to ensure that the Guild was able to share our thoughts on entrepreneurship – a matter that is very dear to our own ideals and goals.
It was with great reluctance that we left the conference as it settled in to full swing and we headed off into the Belgrade sunshine towards our next rendezvous with the City Manager, Goran Vesic. This was a short but positive meeting with an incredibly busy man who has over a short period of time occupied various senior roles in the government and as Chief of Staff. He is also known for being the editor of the Serbian edition of book written by the US President Barack Obama The Audacity of Hope in 2008.
Goran gave the group a summary of the changes being pursued by the Serbian Government in terms of growth plans and made particular reference to the new waterfront development that we would be visiting the following day. As we parted company, he also shared with us that Belgrade will later this year be playing host to major Shakespearean actors and directors as the City pays tribute during the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare.
After a further stretch of the legs we met with members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet for an illuminating overview of the economic changes that the new government has overseen and continues to pursue since coming to office. This led to a number of questions and positive interaction between both sides. The Government’s growth plans are ambitious but are balanced by effective management of their IMF debt alongside, key investments between now and 2018 in both road and rail and the application to join the EU. The country succeeded in posting growth close to 30% in 2015 as a result of foreign direct investment due to its location and availability of skilled workforce.
A leading global supplier of organic soft fruits and vegetables along with award-winning wines, the country is placed in a key geographic position, where east meets west and it enjoys free trade with Russia whilst maintaining close proximity to its European neighbours. As the government pushes further towards privatization, the opportunities for entrepreneurs to support the country and maintain their role as its backbone, will also increase.
After a very enjoyable Italian meal, we headed to meet the Direct investment Department, which shared a building with the Chamber of Commerce. Both meetings were extremely helpful in different ways. The first enabled an open group discussion for a number of our group on the practicalities of doing business in Serbia and advice on various specific industry sectors. This is a relatively new group but the teams have been taken predominantly from existing departments and therefore the knowledge is already present. Like many countries, there are various grants available and we now have contacts for any of our freemen interested in learning more. The second meeting with the Chamber was focussed on how best to work with the Chamber and how this could support businesses entering into the local market.
Having completed the above, we were then introduced to a group of young entrepreneurs who each came along to share their business stories with us. Those present came from a range of sectors including IT, consultancy and beauty and lively discussions ensued!
That evening we were as a team left to our own devices, accompanied by a few very welcome guests and enjoyed the marvelous hospitality of Madera restaurant: one of the oldest restaurants in Belgrade. Tired but happy!
Saturday arrived and the sun was shining with the day forecast for mid-20s centigrade. We headed off early morning on a tour of the City which took in sights including the Belgrade Fortress with stunning views of the Danube and the Sava rivers. The site of the fortress was first founded in 3BC and the area was invaded over 100 times, including by the lowly Celts!
A boat trip down the Danube followed and then the party relaxed in a restaurant overlooking the river to enjoy a leisurely lunch. After lunch, we attempted to walk off some of the impacts of the very generous servings popular with our hosts by walking along the river to view the plans for the new Belgrade waterfront development being planned by Eagle Hills working in partnership with the City. The plans are ambitious and will be impressive when completed, with the introduction of a complete socio-economic system including businesses, residential, educational and recreational facilities across both sides of the river.
The remainder of the day was free until the evening visit to the Royal Palace where we were honored to be introduced to Their Royal Highnesses, Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine. The Royal couple warmly welcomed our group and HRH Crown Princess Katherine shared with us the background to her endeavours to improve healthcare in the country and the efforts required to obtain the charitable funding to provide medical equipment and transportation for cancer patients as well as ongoing education and support for those less able to support themselves. A true not-for-profit social responsibility entrepreneur!
Having said their goodbyes, we were then fortunate to be able to spend our final evening as a group alone dining in the Palace. This was a memorable evening and one of our freemen, Simon Lawson had arranged at short notice for Zoran Purkovic director at HAFELE Serbia to join us to speak about the first operating hospice in Serbia which Simon supports. Zoran gave an inspiring talk about the work of the hospice and the challenges it faces and left a clear impression on all of those present.
Sunday was to be our last full day in Serbia and we set off in the glorious sunshine for a 90-minute bus trip to the village of Oplenac to visit the St. George’s Church and Crypt – the site of the Karadjordjevic Dynasty mausoleum. This began in 1903 by HRH King Peter I but created in the Orthodox tradition, maintaining a Serbian-Byzantine style throughout although construction began in 1910. The work on the Church was delayed due to the Balkan and First World Wars and the 1915 occupation. Sadly, the King died in 1921 before the Church was completed and HRH King Alexander I took over the responsibility. The Church was reconsecrated in 1930 and the Karadjordjevic remains reinterred in the Crypt. The site is protected by the Republic of Serbia as a Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance
We left the Church quite taken aback by the detail and exquisite mosaics contained therein and stepped back into the bright sunshine before heading to the first of the wineries to learn more about Serbian wine and its production!
Several hours later and after late elevenses, lunch and nibbles, we had visited impressive establishments with clear evidence that the Serbians know how to make good quality wine and that we should be making noises to see it in our shops rather than it being sent en masse to Russia! A number of our Management Consultant colleagues belong to their Livery wine society and I would expect that we may soon hear of a second visit to Serbia…!
The day ended in Jagodina – translated as strawberry fields – in the heart of the Serbian countryside where we shared our final meal of the visit with fellow business owners, the mayors of the local towns and the head of the Chamber of Commerce whilst we listened to young entrepreneurs presenting their new enterprises. We were also fortunate to be joined by a group of accomplished violinists from Serbia’s top music school who were superb and it was hard to let them stop!
Finally, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Belgrade for an early departure back to Heathrow the following morning.
The above summary does not do the trip justice but it was inspirational and many of our freemen have returned with fresh ideas and new contacts. Our sincere thanks to Sir Paul for organising such a marvellous adventure and we are only sorry that he was not able to be with us..