The 2nd International Conference on Diaspora Tourism took place in Split on May 17, 2019. TCN meets some of the returning diaspora who have made a success of life in Croatia. Next up, Joe Kustra of Axsis Projects in Zagreb.
1. You are from the States, returned to Croatia, something that many diaspora dream of doing. Tell us briefly about your journey.
I came to visit my grandmother as a child in 84-86 and I spent entire summers here. I made friends that I still have today. I had unforgettable summers and always wanted to return. I’m originally form New Rochelle, NY. My father is Croatian and my mother American. After university I started working at a company trading equities in NY city. I’ve been self-employed since 1999 in equity trading. I invested in Croatia in real-estate in Dalmatia in 2001/2003 because I saw undervalued real-estate and great potential. I think this is also one of the best places in the world to vacation. I’ve been coming to Croatian every summer for the past 18 years. I spent years working in offices so I wanted a lifestyle change, less stress, more time on the beach, maybe go fishing and enjoy good food and wine. Croatia offers all of that. I met my lovely wife here and we decided to stay and start a family. My rental business is doing excellent and I do business development for the architecture company my wife founded – Axsis projects. Since most of our clients are foreign and investing in Croatia I can relate and understand specific problems they face since I went through it myself.
2. Looking back, what were your hopes, expectations and fears about moving to Croatia?
Biggest fears were not knowing the language and dealing with south Croatians about business. I had such bad experiences before. And being on my own, not having a network of friends and family to call out for help. Things have vastly improved over the past 10 years. I hoped doing business would be more transparent. But I’ve always been fiercely independent and a self-starter. I never really expected much but I knew to always count on myself to get things done. Dealing with the Balkan mindset was also one of my big worries.
3. How supportive was your Croatian community back home at the time?
My father and his friends did put me in contact with some local people in Croatia. The first Easter and Christmas would have been difficult if I was alone. I was invited to a wonderful family friends house for those holidays. My father was very happy and supportive. He is also very happy that his son married a Croatian girl and decided to live in Croatia.
4. Many diaspora think of returning but few do. In truth, there is little information out there about real-life stories and help/info about the process. What advice do you have for those who are thinking about making the move?
I would say go for it. However, many of the things that we take for granted in the western world we can’t even expect here. You need to be proactive in achieving what you want, don’t look for handouts. It’s a good idea to have some financial security to support yourself for 6-12 months. Try to connect to the diaspora community here to assist you with your move. Be extraordinary careful about investing in real estate here and make sure you only deal with reputable people. What helped me is getting involved in expat community. For example, I’m a member of ACAP- American Croatian Professionals Association which gives me access to amazing people and a supportive community.
5. How were you perceived in Zagreb as diaspora moving back – was the welcome warm?
A lot of people were very shocked that an American would pick up and move to Zagreb. Why would you want to move in while everyone else is moving out? For the most part the welcome vas very warm. I managed to meet some wonderful people. A small minority were hostile towards my move. Old divisions and traumas still influence the way people treat foreigners. Younger generations are very open-minded and western orientated.
6. Through a lot of hard work, you have been very successful, while many foreigners have given up and left Croatia. What are the keys to success in doing business in Croatia in your opinion?
Persistence, hard work and initiative. Everything in Croatia is more difficult to accomplish than in the US, but through hard work and finding the right people, everything Is achievable. For example, I had tremendous difficulties finding contractors to do small jobs around my house. I stopped relying on outside help and started doing many things myself – plumbing, masonry, electric, roofing and similar… I could not find a welder so I bought my own welding machine and started watching – how not to kill yourself while arc welding 101 . In America they say if you want something done right you have to do it yourself. In many cases that is true. It is very important to surround yourself with honest hard working people who share your values. Avoid the smooth-talking con artists at all costs.
7. What is the diaspora community like in Zagreb and how integrated is it with locals?
It is quite segmented but through FB meetups I managed to meet some great people. I think connectivity is improving with quality gatherings. Social networks are a crucial tool or personal networking. Diaspora and expats groups are excellent to help each other integrate and thrive.
8. And finally, a word on this conference. How was it for you, and what were the main take-home points?
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference. I felt that there was an inspirational and positive energy in the room. All of the speakers brought renewed optimism not only to the conference but to the country. Besides ‘don’t trust your cousin’ make sure that you are dealing with qualified honest people to further your business investment in Croatia.
For more on the Croatian diaspora, check out the TCN dedicated section.