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Stefan Lazarević, AmCham Serbia President

We Will Continue to be Serbia’s Best Possible Ambassadors

The American companies already doing business in Serbia are very satisfied with their investments. All our member companies have long-term strategies for investment in Serbia and, according to our findings, will continue in that direction in the future

AmCham President Stefan Lazarević considers cooperation between the business sector and the government as being crucial to the creation of an attractive business environment. The American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia gains clear insights into what’s important to the business sector for it to be able to operate successfully through research that AmCham regularly conducts, but also through its daily contact with member companies. This interview touches on many of these topics, such as the green agenda, availability of labor, and the strengthening of regional integration. We also discussed the importance of Serbia continuing the European integration process and further strengthening its commercial cooperation with the U.S.

How satisfied are your members with Serbia’s business environment today and how do they rate their own operations in 2024?

— The latest Lap Time Survey, which AmCham traditionally conducts annually – and on the very topic of satisfaction with the business climate and the business sector’s expectations for the period ahead – showed that companies were more optimistic at the end of last year than during the previous crisis years of the Covid-19 epidemic and the war in Ukraine.

This rising optimism points to the economy’s partial recovery and a strengthening of investor confidence. However, it is very important that we work long-term, together with the new Government of Serbia, to continue comprehensive reforms, firstly structural and institutional reforms.

Business forecasts for this year show that around two-thirds of AmCham members expect business growth and new investments, while half believe their number of employees will also increase. Something that’s very important, and that we emphasize as a business association, is that all our member companies have long-term strategies for investment in Serbia and, according to our findings, will continue in that direction in the future.

What do the results of the Lap Time Survey, and the views of your committees presented in the ‘Reforms for Economic Growth and Business Resilience’ document, suggest to Serbia’s new government?

— On the basis of the Lap Time Surveys, and our daily contacts with businesses regarding various topics of interest to business success, as well as the work of our 10 professional committees, AmCham has clear insights into what’s important for the business sector to be able to do business successfully.

It was precisely with all this in mind that the AmCham Board of Directors defined the priority areas that we believe must top the agenda of the newly formed government. They are, first and foremost: continuing the digital transformation of public administration; consistently implementing the Green Agenda, for a clean and energy-diversified Serbia; improving the healthcare system; ensuring a predictable and stable fiscal environment, alongside international economic links with a focus on advancing integration into the regional market and the European single market.

We firmly believe that reforms are the only way we can together ensure new investments in Serbia, higher employment, and an improved standard of living for us all

A large part of this AmCham document is dedicated to recommendations enabling a green transition or the diversification of energy sources. How, at a practical level, do your members meet the standards in this field?

— AmCham members believe the consistent implementation of the Green Agenda is increasingly important to the improvement of the business environment – in our annual survey conducted five years ago, the Green Agenda ranked 11th in terms of priorities, while it last year ranked 2nd, which is the biggest leap we’ve recorded since we started these surveys.

Given that Serbia generates 70% of its electricity from non-renewable resources, it is vital to increase the availability of energy from green sources. Since more than half of our member companies already address sustainability in a systemic way, and many of them have already pledged to achieve zero emissions at the global level, the number one priority is to reduce the carbon footprint of products. This is also achieved through systemic measures at the level of the state, and by incentivizing companies to invest their own funds in the greening of their own sources of energy. At the state level, investing in power system capacity building is essential, with the aim of diversifying sources of electricity and increasing the share of renewables, but also developing capacities for storing and delivering the energy produced to consumers, which will enable improved energy system stability, as well as increasing the availability of energy and energy products.

We firmly believe that reforms are the only way we can together ensure new investments in Serbia, higher employment, and an improved standard of living for us all

Considering that these are all long-term projects, in the short term, it is equally important to remove all regulatory and administrative barriers preventing companies from independently reducing the carbon footprint of their products – through the unrestricted installing of solar panels on roofs, enabling producers of renewables to supply consumers directly, waste-to-energy projects, and the like. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to improve infrastructure – from strengthening the power distribution network to developing waste separation infrastructure.

Our member companies have been addressing their own circularity and reducing the waste they generate for many years already, but it is impossible to achieve better results at the national level without a systemic approach. AmCham has for many years advocated the responsible introduction of a deposit system for the efficient management of packaging and packaging waste, which would contribute to that circularity.

Finally, although AmCham members and companies that export to the EU are largely familiar with the extensive regulatory requirements of the Green Agenda imposed by EU legislation, that is not the case among most SMEs in Serbia. In our survey conducted last year, only 6% of them reported that they address sustainability. AmCham members, through their value chains and connections with others, are also willing to invest their knowledge in engaging SMEs, but I believe the state should intensify its efforts in the advancement of this field and that we need to work on it.

AmCham pays great attention to educating young leaders and training in the field of HR. How much of a challenge is it for your member companies to find qualified workers today, and what do you do, as a Chamber, to facilitate their job?

— This is a very important question. Alongside inflation and the efficiency of the state administration, it is precisely the availability of labor that our members recognize as one of the key challenges to doing business. The lack of available labor represents an obstacle for almost two-thirds of AmCham members and has consistently ranked among the top two challenges in surveys conducted over the past six years. And we can agree that this factor is key to overcoming this challenge.

On the other hand, AmCham actively contributes to this important topic through the organizing and conducting of education in various forms. I would single out AmChamps, our annual educational and mentoring program intended for young managers from member companies and students of state universities across Serbia. We launched this program in 2014, with the idea of successfully connecting the academic sector to the labor market and preparing students – leaders who will one day lead Serbia’s business community.

After 10 years, we are proud of the success achieved. Through this program, many young people have had the opportunity to make acquaintances and gain practical knowledge and skills that have enabled them to grow professionally and personally. There are numerous examples of managers advancing extremely rapidly both during and after this program. There is a similar situation with the students who receive internships and numerous employment opportunities at our member companies. I would emphasize the fact that three young managers who completed our program are now heading leading multinational companies in our country. In this way, AmCham Serbia not only supports its members in identifying and developing a high-quality workforce, but also contributes to creating a more favorable environment for the development of leaders who are truly leaders of positive changes in our society and country.

Serbia’s IT sector has made significant advances, while the crisis years have seen it change and turn to creating its own products, as opposed to just outsourcing its services. How significant is this sector to U.S. companies today, considering the big changes to the global market?

— The American companies already doing business in Serbia are very satisfied with their investments. These companies have invested more than four billion dollars in Serbia over the previous two decades, and they today employ more than 30,000 people. The level of the bilateral exchange of services has increased so much that the U.S. is now ranked 4th as our partner when it comes to this type of exchange, primarily in the IT services sector. Over the past 15 or so years, Serbia’s IT sector has recorded dizzying development and growth. There’s no doubt that Serbia and the region hold characteristics that make them attractive for IT development, not just for the local market, but also for the global market.

And that’s not all. Major American companies are even more interested in investing here in Serbia. This primarily pertains to technology companies, followed by those from the infrastructure and energy sectors.

AmCham members, through their value chains, suppliers and customers, strive to raise awareness of the regulatory requirements of the Green Agenda among SMEs, but I believe we still have a lot more work to do on that

In its daily efforts, AmCham will continue endeavoring to be the best possible ambassador for Serbia, as an open, stable and competitive investment destination. In order for the planned investments to be realized, it is very important that we continue regional integration and aligning our regulations with those of the European Union, as well as excellent commercial relations with the U.S. And AmCham will always be a reliable partner in these processes.

AmCham gained dozens of new members in 2023 alone. What do you think makes joining your Chamber a good choice and what will you offer your members in the future?

The American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia ended last year with its highest membership numbers since its establishment. AmCham today brings together more than 260 international and domestic companies employing over 112,000 Serbian citizens. I believe that the AmCham Board of Directors, together with the Executive Office, has brought a new dynamic and approach to supporting the creation of a predictable and stable business environment over the previous two and a half years. We have worked systematically to improve economic relations between the U.S. and Serbia, and tried to encourage the region to work together on projects that focus on further integration into the regional market and the European single market. The most important fact is that the strength of AmCham lies precisely in its members, and everything we’ve achieved in the previous period has been thanks to our members.

We will remain focused on what’s essential for us to do, as a society and state, for Serbia to become a more attractive place for existing and new investors, and on the areas where reforms are essential and how to implement them.

How much has the rising digital solutions trend changed the way AmCham communicates with members, and the way it operates?

— AmCham supports the digital agenda strongly in all areas – from public administration, via the optimizing and digitalizing of regulations, to business and everyday communications, etc. And as a business association, we utilize all the advantages of digital solutions to exchange information, insights, recommendations, best practices and recommendations with our members in real time, which we subsequently share with the Government of Serbia, as a form of support. And we also work together on these issues to create a comprehensive business environment for new investments.

When it comes to digital solutions and their impact on operations generally, I believe the next significant step towards Serbia’s attractiveness as a work environment is the complete digitalization of the law documentation.