Mate Rimac & Dario Zurovec, a Case Study of Politician Entrepreneur Harmony

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It is two years since the introduction of a new conference to the busy Zagreb congress calendar. Poduzetnicki Mindset – Entrepreneurial Mindset – brought together some of the top entrepreneurial names in Croatia to share their stories, visions, and failures. In the front row of the audience where not the usual politicians who left after the opening speeches, but students and high-school kids with entrepreneurial aspirations, looking to learn from the very best in Croatia. 

It was one of those rare days in Croatia day to day life (Croatia, the tourist destination is another animal) which dripped in positivity and hope. Attendees left feeling inspired, with so many success stories despite the realities of operating within the bureaucratic confines of the Croatian business reality.

The most high-profile speaker back in 2019 was Mate Rimac, whose entertaining presentation focused in part on how Slovakia built up an entire automotive industry, which today exports more than Croatia’s total exports. You can read a report of his presentation in Lessons from Slovakia: Mate Rimac on Croatian Car Industry Potential.  

A lot has happened in the Rimac story since then, including plenty of good news for the Croatian automotive industry, as high-profile investments from the likes of Porsche and Hyundai culminated with the acquisition of Bugatti. 

Rimac was back at Entrepreneurial Mindset 2021 yesterday, one of a number of star speakers, who also included Silvio Kutic, co-founder of Croatia’s very own first unicorn – Infobip. A full recap of an illuminating day can be found here. You can also watch the entire conference on the YouTube video below.

Rimac shared the stage this year with Mayor of Sveta Nedelja, Dario Zurovec, who has been trailblazing in pioneering ways of his own since entering the political scene as Mayor of Sveta Nedelja in 2016. Having won just 22% of the first-round vote in 2016 before going on to win in the second round, Dario Zurovec win a landslide victory in 2021 with a stunning 64.5% of the vote. 

And no wonder. His business-friendly approach was paying early dividends, even without the Rimac factor. In an age of emigration, unemployment and depopulation, the population of the small town outside Zagreb has grown 10% since 2011, there are 20% more jobs since 2017, full transparency in local administration, free bus travel for all was introduced last year, and local taxes slashes to encourage more businesses to move to the town. It is little surprise that Sveta Nedelja has been voted the best medium-sized town for the economy three years in a row, or one of the top 5 places to live in Croatia

Mate Rimac and Dario Zurovec took part in a discussion moderated by Hrvoje Balen called The Leadership Ecosystem – Building Blocks of a Sustainable Future. It was, for me at least, the highlight of a very stimulating day. 

The presence of Zurovec at the conference at all was telling of his political mindset. Apart from one MEP, he was the only politician who was present. His declaration that politicians should be there to serve the people sounded a little strange in the Croatian context, and the disconnect between entrepreneurs and the state has been one of the ongoing themes of the conference presentations over the last three years, although several speakers declared that things were slowly getting better. 

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Rimac and Zurovec are clearly glad to have found each other. Friends for some time, Rimac revealed that he has been talking about building his campus even before he became mayor. The campus was one thing, the expanding business another, both of which provide challenges for the local administration to provide the necessary infrastructure and services to meet this increased demand. 

Rimac explained that there are now no less than 45 different nationalities working with him in Sveta Nedelja. With the population growth and with more families making the move, there is a growing demand for more schools and kindergartens which now take up a significant part of the Sveta Nedelja budget.  Rimac currently employs 1,500 people, the vast majority in Sveta Nedelja, but the campus will bring an additional 2,500 people. 

“This campus is a great asset, the largest private investment that has taken place in this part of Croatia, if not beyond,” said Zurovec. “And I see only pluses here. The best protection against unemployment is to have a place to work. Some 20 years ago, opposite that campus, there was a company where my father worked, unfortunately, during privatisation, the company went bankrupt, and my goal was always to return to that part of entrepreneurial activity. I am glad that I had the good fortune to come across Mato Rimac and that positive energy that he wanted to invest something. That is courage.”

Accommodation, schools, facilities will need to be found for this new influx of people, which brings with it both challenges and opportunities to develop parts of the town to meet that new demand. With a dynamic private sector and a progressive local administration, the development of the building blocks of an ecosytem for a sustainable future are very much in place in Sveta Nedelja. Visionary leadership from the public and private sector working in harmony for the people and the development of the economy does not sound too revolutionary a concept. But it is sadly a rarity in Croatia today. The Sveta Nedelja bubble will be an exciting one to watch.  

It would be easy to dismiss the story as being 100% due to the Rimac Factor, but a closer look at what is happening in Sveta Nedelja shows that there are plenty of other businesses contributing to the success story and evolving ecosystem. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Rimac was not even the biggest show in town – at least for now – with another Sveta Nedelja business turning over more than 250,000 million euro a year (Read more in Meet Sveta Nedelja’s Biggest Company, a Success Story Born in Syria).

Zurovec pointed out that in Sveta Nedelja they approach each investment individually and thus remove obstacles in the process. He said that more than 920 businesses are now operating in the town.

The Croatian entrepreneurial class has much to contribute to the Croatian economy, and the removal of barriers and bureaucracy will only increase that contribution. Few towns will have a superstar like Mate Rimac, or a true public servant such as Dario Zurovec, let alone both, but the more entrepreeneurs and politicians can find each other on this path, the quicker the ecosystem of a sustainable future can take hold. 

An inspiring day.   

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