October 10, 2020 – A Croatian success story born in Syria. More than 50 years after arriving in Zagreb to study, Radwan Joukhadar’s medical business goes from strength to strength.
Can the nice guys succeed in business in Croatia?
In many ways, this is the most extraordinary tale of foreign entrepreneurial success in Croatia that I have come across so far, and it could not have happened to a nicer man. And what a heartwarming story of success.
My recent weekend visit to Sveta Nedelja was a mixture of tourism and visiting local businesses, at the invitation of then deputy mayor Davor Nadji. When one thinks of businesses in Sveta Nedelja, only one name really comes to mind – the global superstar that is Rimac Automobili. And while Rimac is without doubt the star name in Croatia’s most progressive and youngest town, where the population has increased more than 10% since 2011, and 20% more jobs have been created since 2017 alone, I was surprised to hear that Rimac was not the biggest show in town.
That honour falls to a company which last year turned over more than 250 million euro, a 20% increase since 2015. A company whose founder was born in Syria, and who swapped life in Aleppo for Vukovar, having arrived in Zagreb to study back in 1969.
Half a century later, Radwan Joukhadar finds himself running three successful companies in Croatia, employing a total of 829 people, and a significant regional player in the pharmacy and medical supplies business. A finalist in the 2015 EY Entrepreneur of the Year (see video above), the journey from humble beginnings and just two employees in Vukovar to his current success has been anything but smooth.
I first met Joukhadar at last year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year dinner when we were seated next to each other for dinner, where he told me a little about his story and his love for Vukovar (his car still has Vukovar plates). Having graduated with a Master’s Degree in Medical Biochemistry in Zagreb, Joukhadar was to put that knowledge to good use in 1990 when the law was changed to allow the wholesale of medicinal products, so he opened the first private wholesale pharmacy in Croatia.
The tragic events of 1991 in Vukovar unfolded, and the business suffered greatly as Vukovar was overrun. More than a quarter of a century later, Joukhadar endured a similar experience in his native Aleppo, just as he was opening up the lucrative Syrian market for his expanding business.
Undeterred by such setbacks, he pushed on, opening his first pharmacy in Zagreb in 1992 and moving operations to Sveta Nedelja in 1998.
But he has never lost his love for Vukovar, or his determination to help the city rebuild.
In 2014, he opened Yasenka in factory in Vukovar which produces cosmetic products and food supplements of exceptional quality, which are sold all over the world (currently in 20 countries, with 4 more soon to be added).
“The market for this factory has to be the entire world,” he said at the opening. “Our aim is to sell these products from Vukovar not just to a few pharmacies in Croatia. We have to go beyond that. There are 25 million people in Syria alone and the recently devastated town of Aleppo in Syria has a population of five million. These regions will recover and we are counting on that market.”
Named after his wife and life-long partner, Jasenka (with a slight spelling change to avoid confusion in pronunciation), Yasenka is the third of Joukhadar’s company, in addition to the 47 pharmacies in the region under the Ljekarnice Joukhadar brand, and his flagship Medical Intertrade. Together, they employ 829 people, mostly in Croatia, but also in wholesale companies in Sarajevo and Ljubljana. In 2018, Medical Intertrade was listed as the 37th on the list of top 1000 Croatian companies in terms of income.
The following year, Joukhadar was awarded the Order of Danica Hrvatska by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic for special merit in the development and improvement of the pharmaceutical profession, and for his humanitarian activities and altruistic help to citizens in Croatia during the Homeland War.
Although we have only met briefly, it is hard not to be both impressed and humbled by this very amiable Syrian, who has touched the lives of so many in his 50 years in Croatia. I was struck by the loyalty of his team when we visited Medical Intertrade in Sveta Nedelja. One was with the company for 20 years, another 22, another 25. There were no job losses during the pandemic. He is also clear that he believes in doing everything absolutely correctly, and that quality is a key ingredient in everything, from service to products themselves. “Quality brings quantity.” he said in a recent interview. And people.
“As a company owner, I had full authority to realize my vision into action. I employed young people, uncut diamonds, and polished them one by one until they became a beautiful necklace around the neck of our beautiful Croatia. When you have capable people and an orderly system, it is not a problem to steer such a ship and safely lead it from port to port.” Read the full interview in Lider.
Medical Intertrade, the company with headquarters in Sveta Nedelja, is the main business whose core business is sales and marketing of medicines, medical devices for human, dental and veterinary use and of medical equipment. And while the spreadsheet numbers look extremely impressive, there is one huge negative factor which is a constant thorn in the side of progress – late payment.
The wholesale business is a tricky one at the best of times in terms of payment schedules. When 31% of the end users are public hospitals, things can get complicated. While the government lacks understanding on late payment of VAT and other taxes, delays in payment for medical supplies to hospitals can take months, if not years (and with the VAT due for payment whether or not the hospital has paid the invoice). With other products, simply halting deliveries until invoices are paid might be a sensible solution, but when the sector if public health, things are different. The threat to the supply chain is real unless the Ministry of Health can find a solution to its debts, and the company is in constant contact with the relevant ministries to resolve the situation.
It is a situation which Radwan Joukhadar takes in his stride, just as he has taken everything else that Croatia has thrown at him since he got off that train in Zagreb train station. And he has met all with a gentle smile and a determination to press on and improve things for people in his adopted country, which he has clearly come to love.
Born in Syria with a heart in Croatia, in so many ways Radwan Joukhadar symbolises the current energy of Croatia 2.0, despite his advancing years: a pioneering spirit, a refusal to take no for an answer, innovative products, and a base in the town known to support entrepreneurs more than any other in Croatia.
To learn more about the services of Medical Intertrade, click here.
For the latest news from Sveta Nedelja, visit the dedicated TCN section.