Our continuous growth and investments send a clear positive signal to potential investors that this country offers plenty of business opportunities, says Didier Elena, Vice President and General Manager at Japan Tobacco International for the Western Balkans. In the ten years of its presence in Serbia, the company has established a successful track record in every aspect of its operations, starting from revenue growth to its involvement in development of the local community. JTI welcomes the reforms carried out so far and urges the government to continue its efforts to improve the business climate and combat illicit trade. “In the past years we have witnessed some major developments in the economy and business regulations”, says Didier, who particularly values the simplification of procedures, infrastructure development and the quality of the dialogue with governmental bodies with regard to key industry issues.
This year saw you celebrate a decade of operations in Serbia. What do you consider as the company’s biggest successes during this period?
– We came to Serbia with a long-term strategy to sustainably and responsibly develop our business, both locally and regionally, and I am proud to say that a lot has been achieved since 2006. We have invested more than $170 million in Serbia, modernised the factory, launched the production of cigarettes and begun exporting cigarettes to other Western Balkan markets, as well as exporting tobacco to the EU. Tobacco Industry Senta had 84 employees when we acquired it, but today we employ almost 300 people in Senta and Belgrade. In addition, we have established a unique partnership with farmers, providing a living for 1,000 people in Vojvodina. We have tripled our market share in ten years, increasing it from seven to 21 per cent, positioning JTI among Serbia’s key taxpayers, with contributions of $1.3 billion to the state budget.
To what extent has the investment environment changed in Serbia and would you recommend Serbia as an investment destination to other Japanese investors?
– I believe that our continuous growth and investments send a clear positive signal to potential investors – not only Japanese ones – that this country offers plenty of business opportunities. The prospects of operating in a predictable and supportive business environment are of paramount importance. In previous years we have witnessed some major developments in the economy and business regulations. Processes have been simplified, while infrastructure has been developed. The quality of the dialogue with governmental bodies, aimed at tackling key industry issues, is an invaluable asset and it definitely contributes to establishing the Republic of Serbia as an attractive place for doing business. In this regard, as a longstanding partner of the Government of Serbia, we very much appreciated the opportunity to host Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and members of the Government at our factory in October for the celebration marking 10 successful years of JTI’s factory in Serbia and 60 years of Tobacco Industry Senta.
Japan Tobacco International was ranked as the fourth company in Serbia in terms of budget contributions in 2015. Do you think the Serbian government and local governments respond to tax payers by providing a level playing field and a stimulating business environment?
– We welcome the efforts of PM Vučić to create a stable and predictable business climate, especially regarding tax policy and the fight against illicit trade. State bodies have achieved tangible results in the joint fight against the illegal trade of tobacco products, with a positive impact on excise revenues in the state budget. These efforts should continue and remain a permanent practice. Illegal trade is a joint challenge that requires joint efforts – JTI is participating in the government’s working groups and donating equipment to Serbian law enforcement agencies.
The Serbian workforce has a very good reputation within JTI – to date, more than 50 employees from Serbia have started international careers around the world
To what extent have you been able to embed the Japanese business culture into your operations in Serbia, and to transfer that culture to your employees and business partners?
– Our factory in Senta is the first in Serbia to fully implement the Japanese Kaizen business philosophy, thanks to which productivity has increased by 50 per cent, while the amount of waste generated has been reduced by 70 per cent.
Continuous improvements are at the heart of the Kaizen philosophy and can be achieved with minimum financial investments and optimal use of available resources. JTI strongly encourages employee initiatives and we regularly implement the best proposals for further enhancing both efficiency and the working environment.
We often organise best practice sharing sessions with business partners, as we believe that the broader use of Kaizen may contribute to speeding up the development of the Serbian economy.
Considering that you pay close attention to staff training, can you tell us what your experience has been like with the workforce in Serbia?
– People here are dedicated, hardworking and eager to learn. Our employees are definitely a fundamental element of our success and JTI is very fortunate to do business here.
As an employer, we aim to attract the most talented individuals by closely collaborating with professional associations, student organisations and universities. We participate in events such as job fairs and business lectures, and regularly organise internship programmes. We strive to offer a fulfilling working environment with a specific focus on people development and career paths. This approach has been recognised through prestigious Top Employer and Investors in People certificates. I would also like to underline that the Serbian workforce has a very good reputation within JTI – to date, more than 50 employees from Serbia have started international careers around the world.
How important is nurturing good relationships in the community when it comes to a company’s overall reputation?
– JTI is committed to supporting the society in which it operates. With the long-term goal of contributing to the improvement of the quality of life of community members, with a specific focus on socially vulnerable groups, we have launched and participated in numerous community investment activities worth $1 million all around Serbia. In addition, JTI Foundation donated $400,000 for relief from natural disasters. For our donations in financial assistance, equipment and the voluntary work of our employees, JTI received the prestigious VIRTUS award in 2015.