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Oliver Lepori, JBAS Executive Director

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We expect to reinforce the existing cooperation between the government and our business sectors in order to create the conditions for a strong and durable recovery, which has to be more resilient, more sustainable and responsive to immediate and critical needs. We are also here to contribute in this regard

Japanese companies active in Serbia entered 2023 aware that it would be a challenging year, yet they’re committed to long term operations and value creation in Serbia. They are thus ready to continue improvements to their businesses and will remain the planned business track, says Japanese Business Alliance in Serbia (JBAS) Executive Director Oliver Lepori. These words are indeed comforting during times when global economic uncertainty remains elevated, weighing on growth.

We recently had the opportunity to read about the grand opening of the new Toyo Tires factory and new investment in JTI. How important are they for your association, but also for future Japanese investments in Serbia?

JBAS is honoured to be running a community of investors that contributes to the local economy from many different aspects. At the first level, such investments contribute directly to the improved economic performance of Serbia in terms of FDI, tax income, GDP, exports and employment. Further to this, there is a transfer of knowledge and technology that impacts positively on Serbian development in general. Additionally, such investments serve as positive indicators and encouragement to other companies – not just from Japan, which are considering extending their businesses in this area. Last, but by no means least, Japanese investments always imply care for the environment, sustainability, and good governance, and therefore contribute to overall efforts aimed at achieving the ESG goals in the investment recipient country. We believe that all the various layers are important both for Serbia and our association. These investments, and many others, serve as shining examples of long-term and mutually beneficial ventures across the entire Balkan region.

Perusing your website shows that many of your other members also had good news in 2022. How does 2022 look from this perspective?

The beginning of last year was economically challenging, due to global post-COVID disruption, while the subsequent outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine imposed an additional burden. It was a year of risks and challenges – geopolitical confrontations, trade wars, inflation, rising interest rates, energy market turmoil and social unrest.

And yet, JBAS member companies managed to maintain a steady pace in improving their businesses, investing in their resources and developing their businesses here in Serbia, which makes us especially proud as a community. Moreover, in 2022 we celebrated the 140th anniversary of bilateral relations between Serbia and Japan and five years since the founding of JBAS. This joyous occasion inspired all our members to participate in the promotion of not only business relations, but all aspects of friendly connections between Serbia and Japan. On the national holiday of Japan, the Emperor’s Birthday, JBAS was presented with a special award for extraordinary achievements in strengthening ties between Japan and Serbia, which represents a special acknowledgement of the work and activities of all our member companies. Therefore, despite the unfavourable circumstances, we all managed to make 2022 a positive, memorable year.

Which JBAS activities would you single out as being the most important in supporting new investments and connecting member companies with new partners?

Apart from building a strong community of Japanese investors and their local partners for the purposes of growth, JBAS is also committed to supporting new investments and establishing new partnerships.

In this regard, one of the most important advances was the elevating of our cooperation with institutions of the Serbian Government, with the aim of providing support in all important areas of the country’s growth. Our companies have contributed to the development of Serbia’s energy system, digitalisation, personal data protection, environmental protection, green transition, the healthcare system and in many other areas.

Our companies have contributed to the development of the energy system, digitalisation, personal data protection, environmental protection, green transition, the healthcare system and in many other areas

We also partnered with other international organisations in 2022 and managed to support our members in acquiring additional funds for decarbonisation projects. It was wonderful to see the highest Serbian officials and our members attending the launch of a project implemented jointly by UNDP, the Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Embassy of Japan and JBAS and, following the tradition of the Japanese Tanabata festival, symbolically writing down their wishes for a greener, healthier and economically stronger Serbia, which they left in the bamboo trees of Belgrade’s Botanical garden.

When it comes to investments, JBAS has always acted as a strong pillar of support to the Embassy of Japan in Serbia, but also to JETRO and JICA.

On the other hand, we are connecting our members with other important local stakeholders, including municipalities, technology parks and scientific institutions, thus creating an ever-stronger local network for sharing experiences and building partnerships for the future.

Given the current global economic situation, what are your members’ expectations for 2023?

We are aware that 2023 is yet another year filled with business challenges, due to myriad unfortunate international political, economic and social circumstances. However, our members are committed to long term operations and value creation here. They will all continue making improvements to their businesses and will remain on the planned business track. As a community, we expect to reinforce cooperation between the government and our business sectors in order to create the conditions for a strong and durable recovery. All our companies are aware that economic development needs to be more resilient, more sustainable and responsive to immediate and critical needs. We are also here to contribute in this regard.

We always talk about JBAS primarily as a business association, but you are also very active in promoting Japanese business culture and Japanese culture in general. How close is Japanese business culture to the Serbian public today?

The Serbian people, especially the business community, are rather well-acquainted with Japanese business culture. On the one hand, Japan is advanced in terms of technology and infrastructure, while on the other, it is wedded to traditional cultural approaches to all things corporate. Japanese companies are simultaneously innovative and strongly aligned with traditional hierarchical structures, risk aversion and attention to detail. Generally speaking, Japanese business culture is highly regarded around the whole world – due in particular to the kaizen concept, which implies a business philosophy of continuous improvements of working practices and personal efficiency. There is a lot to learn. This is also the reason we organise kaizen courses each year…

It is thanks to such a business culture that, in general, our members believe that business is not just about profits, but rather about creating value, including in culture and art, as the most sophisticated forms of human expression. It is for this reason that we’ve supported many cultural events in Serbia and assisted in paving the way for Japanese artistic performances in Serbia.

In the following period, we will continue building on the friendship between Japan and Serbia – one that’s grounded in business terms, but adorned with social values, with a view to creating a better world for all of us.