September 29, 2020 – Looking for a part of Croatia which is booming in this economic crisis? Look no further than Sveta Nedelja near Zagreb, where Rimac Automobili is just a small part of the story.
One of the most inspiring events in Croatia each year is the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Zagreb, a gala dinner which brings the brightest and most successful Croatian entrepreneurial talent together to celebrate its success. I have been fortunate to have attended the event as a journalist twice, witnessing two very worthy winners, Mate Rimac and Croatia’s first unicorn, Infobip.
Rimac, the one-man Croatian car industry who has brought inward investment from the likes of Porsche and Hyundai, as well as being reportedly on the verge of acquiring Bugatti for his Rimac Automobili company, is headquartered in Croatia’s newest town, Sveta Nedelja, just a few minutes drive from the capital, Zagreb. Quite by chance, one of my dining partners at the Entrepreneur of the Year dinner, was also headquartered in Sveta Nedelja, and he too, had been a previous EY finalist, back in 2015. And what a story he had – a Syrian who employed more than 600 Croatians, running a business empire with an annual turnover of more than 200 million euro.
Mohamed Radwan Joukhadar’s story is as fascinating as the man himself, one which we have partially retold previously on TCN. As I watched the two business powerhouses from Sveta Nedelja at the gala dinner, I wondered if it was just a coincidence that they had based themselves in the same town, and I made a mental note to look into it a little more closely when I had a moment.
That moment finally arrived last weekend.
In addition to the business success of Sveta Nedelja, the town made it onto TCN news for another, very un-Croatian, reason – transparency in its local administration. A local authority which transparently published every invoice on its website, and one which introduced innovative initiatives such as paying its employees based on citizen evaluation Now I was intrigued.
A Facebook chat with then deputy mayor Davor Nađi at the beginning of this year led to an invitation to visit the town, to learn more about Sveta Nedelja beyond Rimac. Nađi wanted to show me the thriving business scene, the transparency of the public administration, and – and I had not even considered this – the tourism potential of Sveta Nedelja.
(Photo credit Grad Sveta Nedelja)
It was quite a visit. And one which we will be covering in quite some detail, in partnership with the town of Sveta Nedelja. We begin with an overview of just some of the businesses which are thriving in the town, all of which we will be featuring in greater detail on TCN in the coming weeks. Writing for TCN over the years, I am used to being taken around a tourism destination to visit all the sites with a guide. And while that also happened on the Saturday in Sveta Nedelja, the tour of just a fraction of the excellent businesses located in the town showed just how successful this small town has been in attracting outstanding businesses from numerous sectors, which are quietly performing brilliantly on the national, regional, and even global stage.
And the numbers speak for themselves. In an age of huge emigration from Croatia, the population of Sveta Nedelja has increased more than 10% since the last census in 2011, when there were 18,059 people resident in the town. Today that number is over 20,000.
The employment situation is even better, as jobs are being lost elsewhere. A 20% increase in jobs since 2017, from 7,200 to 9,000, the year that the current administration, led by independent mayor Dario Zurovec, took charge. Unemployment is down to just 3.9%, considerably less than the 9% national average. Aggressive local tax cuts to stimulate business and transparent administration have played their part in filling the local government coffers, with the budget increasing from 107 million kuna annually in 2017 to 169 million during the period of this administration. And with the town located just ten minutes from the Slovenian border, one minute from the motorway network and a bus ride to Zagreb (a free bus ride to the ZET network in Zagreb is planned in the coming months), the town also has many geo-location advantages.
But while there might be a lot of businesses operating there, I was struck by how many of them were forward-thinking businesses, less polluting industrial production. Clean technologies and clean nature.
And if there is a town with a higher ratio of kindergartens per capita in Croatia, I would like to see it. Kindergartens are EVERYWHERE. In addition to the booming economy, Sveta Nedelja is just 15 minutes from Zagreb, but a natural paradise of lakes, hills and spectacular views. My expectations prior to my arrival were of an industrial town. The expectations of my kids were even lower – another boring weekend with Dad – but on the Sunday drive home, it was they asking when we could go back.
So how much fun can you have touring businesses in Sveta Nedelja on a Friday in late September?
Where better to start the day than at the town’s most famous business, and a global superstar. I will write more about the visit to Rimac Automobili shortly, but perhaps these two photos will suffice as a taster of the incredible Rimac journey, from a beat-up BMW with blown engine in 2008 to the C_2 electric hypercar, price tag US$2.75 million, just over a decade later.
Never mind the investment from the likes of Porsche and Hyundai, or that rumoured Bugatti acquisition.
With more than 800 employees and all the international headlines, one might expect that Rimac would be the biggest show in town, but a bigger contributor to the town budget was my new Syrian friend from the Entrepreneur of the Year dinner. Now with 829 employees in his portfolio of businesses, his flagship Medical Intertrade company, which specialises in medical devices, medical products and medical equipment, turned over a quarter of a billion euro last year, up an impressive 25% since 2015.
As we have written about extensively on TCN, Croatia has a thriving medical tourism industry, with the potential to become one of the market leaders in Europe,. The industry is not well-coordinated, however, and I am continually finding pockets of medical tourism excellence all over the country. And in Sveta Nedelja, on the first day of our visit, we were introduced to not one, but two. One of the messages that came across very clearly that first day was the concept of niche markets to establish a position on regional and global market. Rimac is of course a great example of that, but there were several others. A visit to Sveta Nedelja Clinic and Ottobock Adria was an eye-opener. Global specialists in prosthetics and rehabilitation for amputees, this dual business under one roof attracts more than 1,200 patients for rehabilitation from all over the world each year. Sveta Nedelja’s lockdown earlier this year apparently included 20 amputees from Libya.
A short drive away, at Radio Chirurgia Zagreb, one can find one of the most advanced clinics for diagnotics and treatment of various forms of cancer. With the most advanced technology in its field in the wider region, as well as advanced and painless diagnostic methods such as virtual colonoscopies, the diagnostics, treatment and technology offered by Radio Chirurgia Zagreb places it as one of the leading clinics in the region for this niche.
The niche business which surprised us the most is one you would not normally think about – engineering process control systems for large production facilities. This has been a speciality for Sveta Nedelja-based Montelekro since 1990, and they have carved out an impressive business model with a focus on the brewing industry.
With Heineken a key client, Montelekro’s systems are in over 250 breweries all over the globe, and they are also very active in the cement, steel, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries.
And, as it the case with many other businesses in the town, growth in revenue and jobs has been steady over the years.
There was no doubt which business was the most fun to visit, and one which we would happily return to for the day – 3D Grupa. One of the newest businesses in the town, having relocated from Zagreb back in February, 3D Grupa is a fascinating introduction to the world of 3D printing. The facility is actually three different companies, which all interconnect – 3D scanning, 3D printing and 3D virtual modelling. One of their biggest objects to scan this year was a 40-metre yacht moored off Sibenik.
From leading 3D printing solutions, to more traditional printing methods embracing the latest technology, 3D Grupa might be a new arrival in Sveta Nedelja, but Printera Grupa has been successfully operating and growing in the town since 1990. Specialists in brochures, magazines, monographs, picture books, direct mailing, offset print and digital print, Printera’s strong domestic client base is complemented with established export markets in Austria, Germany, Slovenia, France, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Liechtenstein, and the United States.
Sveta Nedelja’s cosmetic excellence can be found at Magdis doo, whose Biobaza and Neva brands are growing in popularity both domestically and internationally. With more than 150 products and a key partnership with partners such as drug chain DM, Magdis has an excellent national and regional distribution network for its products. Parent company Magdis was founded in 1993 by Srećko Gross, a former Pliva Expert, whose years of experience in pharmaceutical production helped to build the company. Known as a provider of premium services of dietary and cosmetic products, Magdis also has a strong product research and development arm. The Biobaza range has been adapted to sensitive skin, as there are no preservatives, irritants, artificial fragrances or colours in its products, and a high proportion of its products are of natural origin.
Mayor Zurovec joined us on electric scooters for the last business visit of the trip, to one of the town’s oldest businesses, which was recently acquired and is exporting all over the globe. Genera‘s roots can be traced back to the Royal Croatian-Slavonian Bacteriological Institute in 1901. Part of the Pliva empire for over 60 years, it was acquired in 2015 by Dechra Pharmaceuticals PLC from the UK and is now listed on the London Stock Exchange. Its core activities include animal health products, food supplements in the form of vitamins and minerals and plant protection products, and its exports are global.
“But this is just a tiny fraction of the successful businesses you will find here,” said the mayor with a smile. “We can only show you so much in one day.”
And he was right. As we toured the town later that weekend, successful business after successful business was pointed out as we passed. Croatia really can work well with the right conditions and mindset.
Sveta Nedelja is consistently named as the best town for entrepreneurship in Croatia, and after this brief introduction, it is not hard to understand. We will look at the administration’s transparency and business incentives in a later article, but check out the video above (with English subtitles of course…) to learn more about the business success story. And there was one other surprise when I went to visit the official town website – I don’t think I have ever come across a local authority website in three languages before – even an English version is comparatively rare. Check out the section for entrepreneurs in English, for example. Or German.
Throughout the day, as we drove from business to business, there were moments of extreme beauty, and I was promised a tourist experience that I had not expected. My perceptions of Sveta Nedelja as an industrial zone had certainly been shattered – some parts of it, especially its lakes, were exquisitely beautiful. And just a bus ride from the centre of Zagreb.
(Sevdah Facebook page)
A day full of surprises, and we reflected on our perceptions of a town we had known little about some 24 hours earlier, apart from the famous Rimac association. But the surprises were not quite finished yet – a delightful authentic Bosnian restaurant called Sevdah was an additional unexpected highlight on this rather fabulous and very stimulating day.
And if, as the mayor suggested, we had only seen the tip of the iceberg of successful businesses in Sveta Nedelja, how much more was there to discover?
And what of the promised tourism surprises that would leave my kids asking to return some 48 hours later.
Sveta Nedelja beyond Rimac – to be continued…