From a market with six employees which opened in Podgorica in 1995, Voli Trade has gone a long way, becoming one of the most successful companies in Montenegro and a recognizable brand throughout the region. In over two decades of operations, the company has been constantly changing and growing. From the trade sector, Voli also entered the sectors of hospitality and agriculture, and as Dragan Bokan, the chairman of the Board of Directors and Founder of Voli, revealed for eKapija, the company also plans to become the biggest producer of food in Montenegro. Their successes continued even during the big financial and health crisis. In 2020, five new markets opened.
– Today, Voli has 75 markets, unifies a distribution and a logistics-purchase center, a HoReCa center, an agricultural property in Sas and four restaurants, one of which is designed as fine dining restaurant. Furthermore, we are representatives of BMW for Montenegro, and we also have substantial experience in sports, being active in the organization of the Buducnost Voli Basketball Club. The Voli team has 2,200 workers, which makes us the company with the most employees in Montenegro – Dragan Bokan said at the beginning of his interview for our portal.
eKapija: Last year, you celebrated your 25th anniversary. How has the market changed in these 25 years? How much have you had to change and adapt to those changes?
– It’s almost impossible to draw parallels, because the business and the social environment is different, and our company has grown and changed rapidly. Voli is now the most successful Montenegrin company, as confirmed by numerous official acknowledgments. For three years in a row, we have received the awards as the biggest growing company, the company with the most employees and the company with the biggest retail income by the “Hundred Biggest in Montenegro” project.
Still, as someone who runs a big company and such a serious business, I need to look far past the current moment and, as I did at the end of the previous millennium, to set good foundations for the years ahead, by putting the right people in the right positions. The foundations of the future success rest on people, as is well known to everyone.
What I would like to highlight among the changes is the cooperation with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). We had the first contacts with the EBRD in 2009, and in late 2016, through a recapitalization, the EBRD entered the ownership structure of Voli. It is hard to earn their trust. Voli had been controlled, checked and rigorously analyzed before they decided to enter the ownership structure with 15.7%. That is our biggest reference, not just in the country, but also abroad – work, discipline, European standard and clean biographies are the conditions of this partnership.
eKapija: What is your formula for a successful business and perseverance in the business scene of Montenegro?
– The consumers have recognized our efforts to give them the best offer and service, at the most affordable prices. Our imperative is to show respect to the buyer through caring for the quality of the product we offer and through the constantly improving service. Our customers feel safe here. We take great care of the hygiene, and, in addition to external procedures and standards of hygiene maintenance and taking care of the products quality, we also have a range of internal ones. Now, in this especially challenging moment in time, we have raised the criteria to the highest level. All the credit support is directed at development from the start. I’m not saying anything new here, successful business people know this well. On the way to success, investing in development, staff and logistics is imperative. We have approached crediting very responsibly and analytically and we have managed to find the right balance.
eKapija: You won the award of the Chamber of Commerce for the improvement of management for 2019. What is it that makes for a successful manager and how much do these acknowledgments mean to you?
– All the awards and acknowledgments mean a lot to me as a confirmation that I’m doing the right thing. Regarding this award, I consider it special precisely because it recognizes my efforts and my objective to have a positive impact and direct my company’s management. I have always emphasized that we can’t achieve success alone, just like any other important life goal. The Chamber of Commerce, an institution I hold in very high regard, previously pronounced Voli the most successful company in 2008, so I see the award that I will receive as someone who has contributed to the improvement of management as something special, as an acknowledgment of my lifestyle and my way of doing business.
eKapija: From the trade sector, Voli has also stepped into agriculture and you have developed the Nasa Basta brand. How did you decide to take this step of commencing investments in primary production? Can you tell us something more about the project itself?
– We invested more than EUR 3 million in our agricultural property in Sas, though our obligation under the contract was 1.4 million. We expected to have less investments in preparation of land for the planting, but the land had been neglected for 60 years, overgrown with weeds, practically a big forest we had to make our way through in order to prepare all the 70 hectares for the sowing. I congratulate Jaroslav Stupavski, who ventured into this area of 70 hectares from day one and who is to this day running this project very successfully. I thank all the employees for the Sas agricultural property, because this is a truly successful project in which a lot of work has been put. All the 70 hectares are covered by an irrigation system. On nine hectares, we have 76 plastic greenhouses, which were put into operation last year.
I am also grateful to the people at the Ministry of Agriculture, with whom we managed to finalize this project, getting support of EUR 300,000 through applying at the IPARD fund, which was important in raising the plastic greenhouses. I am also grateful to the residents of Sas, with whom we foster good neighborly relations, complementing each other, each year buying more and more the products that our outside our internal agricultural property and I am sure that we will function even better in the upcoming period. We have revived this area and I am proud of it.
It is very important that, last year, we planted all the 70 hectares. This year, the production of over 2,000 tons is planned. We realized the lease of this land with the Ministry of Agriculture and we are sure that we will cooperate in the upcoming 15+15 years. The optimism is realistic, because we’ve made a big facility of 2,000 square meters, chambers, a collection center, storage facilities, six connected wells, offices, planted around eight hectares of tangerines… I hope that in the next few years we will determine which direction to go in and what to plant. Our goal is to harmonize with the demands of the market and for our agricultural property in Sas not to jeopardize other producers in Montenegro. As the biggest agricultural producer, we don’t want to create the kind of competition that would affect prices in Montenegro, thereby making the production of certain cultures practically meaningless.
In addition to selling products through our own retail chain, we have continued exporting iceberg lettuce to Serbia. We started the production looking to offer to consumers vegetables and fruit minimally treated with pesticides, with the kind of flavor and aroma that brings us back to the good old times when the appearance of the product was not the main criterion in farming.
I have said on several occasions how important I think local production is, even before the pandemic. What I must emphasize is something that everyone knows well, which is that there is a constant deficit of local agricultural products relative to retail needs, especially during the summer tourist season. We are forced to fill that gap by importing products. Although we strive to turn less and less to being supplied from abroad, except when it comes to more exotic kinds of fruit and vegetables, we are aware that the import mustn’t be reduced at the expense of the necessary quantity, just like the lowering of the imports mustn’t result in an enormous price increase. The pandemic has made the conditions of the import and transport more difficult and increased the price of numerous products that we can grow in Montenegro.
eKapija: More and more big players from the trade sector are entering the regional market. How attractive is the Montenegrin market for the arrival of large foreign store chains?
– Although our market is modest in size, we expect them in the upcoming period. In any case, we will act as before, doing our best to compete through quality, quick reactions and efficiency in all segments of doing business. They will be an additional motive to adapt to the new way of doing business.
eKapija: The expansion of Voli to the regional market has often been mentioned in the media. Do such plans really exist, when can we expect them and in which countries of the region?
– It is true that we are considering entering the regional market. We are following the situation closely. I believe that this will be realistic in two to three years, because Covid has prolonged many investments, crediting and possibilities of progress. It’s better to wait and follow the situation, so that we wouldn’t invest at the moment when there’s a drop in consumption in the entire region. That wouldn’t be smart. We should come to the market when it is recording an increase in the consumption.
eKapija: How has the coronavirus pandemic influenced your company’s operations? Were there problems with the supply of goods at any moment?
– The year in which we celebrated a quarter of a century from the founding of Voli was unfortunately marked by the pandemic and its health and economic consequences. We believe that, by keeping the continuity of development, our company has shown strength and potential. Not only have we not stopped the planned investments and projects for 2020, but we’ve also done everything to realize them. We opened five markets in 2020 and now two in 2021, one of which is in Porto Montenegro. At Voli, we believe that challenges are an opportunity for gaining insight into the weaknesses and the opening of new possibilities. The crisis has shown the need for the strengthening of local production, primarily of food, and shown how important it is to have the optimal economic independence.
We faced sudden changes. The consumers, as per the habit from some past times, and partly as a global phenomenon, bought enormous quantities of certain products for days. It is noticeable that they are rationalizing going shopping in order to reduce exposure to risk, but a drop in consumption is also noticeable. We have organized the operations of the market in line with all the measures and we are trying to meet the consumers’ needs as efficiently as possible and we have secured a continuity of supply, regardless of all the challenges. On this occasion, I would like to express my gratitude to our respected business partners, Mirko Grbesic, Marko Pipunic, Miodrag Kostic, Bozidar Kostic and Miroslav Miskovic for helping with the supply of vital products. When the import from the markets to which we are traditionally oriented was no longer there, we secured it from alternative markets. In the period of the growth of transport costs, we even enabled a lower price for certain vital products. We also launched new ordering services through the online platform, in line with the practice of developed European markets.
I believe that Voli has successfully passed the test of difficult operations during the Covid pandemic. We are very satisfied with the 2020 balances. Although, for the first time, we have a drop in turnover, it is the lowest drop compared to the retail competition, at 9.9%, thanks to the great efforts of the company’s employees in all structures. The situation is very difficult and complicated and we are looking at a hard fight for the survival of all companies in Montenegro. We are forced to take care of each cent, so our companies cannot be as socially responsible as they used to be, because we first have to consider our employees and their livelihood. We need to adapt to the new circumstances. Covid-19 is increasing the great uncertainty of business even on the daily level, let alone a month or a year away from now. We hope that the vaccination will first help improve the business environment, normalize life, which will enable the industries which stopped during the pandemic to have greater consumption, which directly improves the overall business. By improving the business conditions, as the biggest producers and the largest retail chain and distributor, we want to accelerate the recovery from the coronavirus, which has slowed things down in the past year.
eKapija: The pandemic has caused the process of digitization to accelerate in all segments of doing business. How has Voli responded to this challenge and how has the company adapted to what we call “the new normal”?
– We are very satisfied that we’ve opened another channel – online sale. We are very satisfied with its quality too and I congratulate my team who worked on the online portal, some 20 people that were involved deserve all the compliments, along with companies Amplitudo and ASW from Belgrade. We have been successful with this, although our market doesn’t yet have a considerable percentage of users of this service, who would lead to a big turnover in that segment. I don’t doubt at all that the turnover will grow with each year, as this is a global trend. From the first day of the activation of the online portal, it was clear that Voli has made another step from the aspect of its business image. Consumers expect only the best from the market leaders and we have fully met that expectation.
eKapija: What are Voli’s plans for the upcoming period?
– Our goal is to be the biggest employer in Montenegro in the upcoming period, the biggest local store chain, a leader in the Montenegrin market in the next decade as well. We want to invest in boosting the retail standards, in strengthening our retail network, distribution line and HoReCa channel as much as possible. Our plan is to enter the regional market and I am exclusively announcing that we aim to become the biggest producer of food in Montenegro.
We are considering an analysis of agricultural land that is not being used at the moment, in cooperation with the competent institutions. It is evident that no one is rushing to work in the agricultural sector, and we’re the first there, and we also plan to realize a partnership in a part of the meat industry. We are also considering the remaining privatizations in Montenegro, because we haven’t taken part in them so far. If a tender for a company that could help us become an even bigger Montenegrin producer opened soon, we would gladly apply.
We will follow what’s happening in Montenegro and the region and put our money and use our good rating with financial institutions to the end of having Voli remain the biggest employer in Montenegro and having our employees’ personal income grow year after year.