From face-powder to window frames: Women entrepreneurs in Serbia

By Mike McDonough

The EBRD'S TurnAround Management programme is helping women entrepreneurs in a variety of different sectors in Serbia.

Mila Litvinjenko and Olgica Kuzmanovic work in two very different sectors – cosmetics and construction – but as businesswomen they share a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to run a successful enterprise in Serbia.

As in any country, sound product management, strong marketing and a firm grip on finance are key elements. Now they also know how important it is to have good advice. Both entrepreneurs are recent beneficiaries of the EBRD's TurnAround Management programme and more specifically the programme’s Women in Business initiative, which is funded in Serbia by the European Agency for Reconstruction.

Transforming companies

In Ms Litvinjenko’s case, TAM involvement helped her transform Aura, the cosmetics business she owns. While already successful before TAM came on the scene, the company based near Nis in southern Serbia has now firmly established itself as the leading domestic brand and competes in the Serbian market against international names such as Maybelline and Rimmel.

“My first impression of Aura was that it had a strong leader with a creative vision and that it had good production equipment and versatile staff,” says Deborah McLellan, the TAM Senior Adviser who helped Ms Litvinjenko boost her business.

Ms McLellan's extensive experience of marketing and sales in Canada and eastern Europe (including a stint at Pepsi) helped her see that, while Aura boasted many strengths, it also presented opportunities for improvement.

“The company needed better systems to manage its sales and financial data. In addition, in order to stay competitive the brand needed to be revitalised. However, prior to making any decisions about where to take the brand market research was badly needed to find out what customers really thought of their products,” says Ms McLellan. “The research insights provided a great learning experience and based on the research findings Mila has since changed many things at Aura, including distribution, marketing, financial reporting and sales strategy.”

With TAM advice, Aura launched a new collection of cosmetics early this year through its main retailer and saw sales increase 17 per cent in February 2009 compared with the same time last year. “Mila uses good quality German and Italian ingredients for her cosmetics, but the brand is designed in Serbia and matches the latest fashions at a price that Serbians can afford,” says Ms McLellan. “Now she is competing in a different league.”

Improving operations spurs growth

When fellow TAM Senior Adviser Jukka Vahtila first visited Serbian door and window manufacturer Domis, he had a similar experience to Ms McLellan’s at Aura: he saw lots of strong points but also plenty of room for growth.

Domis is located near Cacak in central Serbia and run by Olgica Kuzmanovic, whose father is the company owner. It makes windows, doors and facades to specific orders, usually originating from architects and civil engineering contractors.

“The situation in Serbia has been very difficult in the past 15 years so not much development work had been done when I arrived,” says Mr Vahtila, who has 23 years’ experience in the woodwork industry and works as a consultant and project manager in his native Finland and elsewhere.

“The products were really excellent and Domis’s customers were satisfied, but the production management system was out of date and profitability was lower than it should have been,” he adds. “Ms Kuzmanovic, who had recently taken over the running of the business from her father, knew she needed to improve things, but she didn’t know exactly how to do it.”

The TAM adviser was able to suggest ways of overhauling Domis’s production to simplify the process for workers while giving managers more information about the production pipeline. He also gave advice on how Domis could strengthen its financial and marketing strategies.

“Now the production management system is working very nicely and I don’t see any need for major improvements, at least for a couple of years,” says Mr Vahtila. “The company’s marketing is much more active and as a result Domis is getting three times more enquiries than before, while profitability has risen by 40 per cent.”
TAM/BAS Director, Charlotte Salford, points out that these two projects illustrate the scope and versatility of TAM, which provides companies with valuable professional business advice while simultaneously addressing cross-cutting issues, in these cases, strengthening the role of women in business.

The shadow of the future

Both Ms Litvinjenko and Ms Kuzmanovic face many more challenges in their respective sectors, especially in the current economic climate. But whether it’s lipstick or window frames they are selling, these two businesswomen will continue secure in the knowledge that, thanks to the EBRD's TAM programme, they have benefited from some of the best advice around.