Interview:

...… We started off with four employees and a “Zastava 128“

17 October 2018

When asked what it takes to stay in business for so long and remain successful at the same time, Milovan Popović, a Regional CEO and a Managing Partner at the auditing and consultancy company BDO Serbia, replies citing the great Chinese philosopher Confucius: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.“ Perseverance is the key!

His father, Dragan Popović, who founded the company in 1992 as “BC Excel”, adds that in 1997, while the country was under economic sanctions and there was only one international business consultancy and auditing firm on the market, the company joined the Arthur Andersen global network – the biggest auditing firm at the time.

“My business partner and I went to Budapest to visit the biggest business consultancy and auditing companies. We knew we wanted to and we could collaborate with the best ones. We set foot in many companies, but at Arthur Andersen we were admitted by an American partner of Hungarian descent. He told us that the CEO was busy, but that he would like us to share the purpose of our visit with him. We introduced ourselves, put forward some ideas of how to develop our company, explained why we needed to collaborate with Arthur Andersen and why we thought we perfectly fitted into their company’s profile. After a few days we received a call from Budapest and were told that the CEO was willing to see us at our convenience. We prepared well and set off to Budapest. During the meeting I told my business partner that if the CEO would invite us for lunch afterwards, we did well. And so he did”, Dragan adds.

When asked why he opened a firm in Serbia in 1992, at the time of the most unfavourable business circumstances, Dragan says: “I would lie if I say it was easy because it wasn’t. I worked at Deloitte and the Institute of Economics at the time. Thus, when I decided to start my own business I was told I was mad. Madly brave. The time has shown that I was just brave.


Currently, we have 170 employees in the region and offices in Belgrade, Banja Luka, Podgorica and Skopje. If a company as big as this one does not have highly institutionalised organisational solutions or systematised procedures, it cannot prosper without good organisation in spite of having a remarkable leader.


He continues: “I worked as a consultant at the Institute of Economics for fourteen years and before that I had spent ten and a half years at company Trayal from Krusevac. Trayal was the first client in my new firm, which boosted my confidence. Some people tend to take pity on or even belittle someone who leaves a big company - as Trayal and the Institute of Economics used to be. BC Excel was constituted of four of us and a Zastava 128 car at the time. We used to say that we would become the best company in the region. We are not the biggest, but we certainly are among the best. When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.“ Dragan adds that he was lucky enough at the beginning of his career in Krusevac to work with a great director, Voja Savic, who used to be Trayal’s CEO for 19 years.   

 “He was a distinguished and highly decorated WWII veteran and an exceptionally clever man. I learnt a lot from him. First of all, to treat my co-workers with respect as the company cannot exist without them. I have always tried to employ better people than I am and that is why I am now very proud that my co-workers are better than me at many things. By hiring better people than yourself you prove that you are better than them at least at one thing, i.e. creating a future through visions. I’ve always been better at managing and all of us, as a team, have been able to realise our vision to be the best domestic company on the market. Secondly, I have learnt that it is important that we gain clients’ confidence and make them believe in our knowledge and integrity while we cooperate.”

Milovan has been with the company since 1993 and as its most dramatic moment he sees the downfall of Arthur An­dersen in 2002 after the big scandal

“Simply, it was unbelievable. The period between 1997 and 2002, in which we were in a partnership with Arthur An­dersen, was the ’land of milk and honey’. Andersen was the biggest member of the Big Five, but it collapsed in 2002 due to the scandal with Enron. Everything literally crumbled overnight before our eyes and there was nothing we could do to prevent it. We faced a situation where we had to start all over from scratch” Milovan claims.  

“We were at a crossroads and had to decide whether we would continue on our own or as a member of an international network. Therefore, we started negotiating with other international companies that operated on our market since a membership in international networks ensures development. We even tried working together with some of them, but it did not last as our corporate cultures were completely different, which is an important factor when two companies join forces or someone chooses where to work. Our corporate cultures and mode of operation were entirely incompatible.”

In 2004 BC Excel became a member firm of BDO International, one of the leading global auditing and consultancy companies. Mr Dragan Popović explains why such a company decided on a foreign partner.

“While at Trayal I worked in the marketing department and my scope of work included market research and development, sales planning and pricing policy. At one point, the director told me that we had to change our way of doing business and start cooperating with foreigners. Firstly, we negotiated with Michelin, but it was not willing to give us the licence. Afterwards, we turn to Kleber, a company in which Michelin had a 35% equity stake. I met with them on several occasions and realised why we had to do business with foreigners. They invested money and reached such a level of development that would take us years and enormous resources to achieve it. I carried over such a way of thinking to the Institute of Economics as I was the initiator of the cooperation with Deloitte. As a result, we obtained its methodology. We applied the same method when we joined a big system such as Arthur Andersen. Another step forward. First of all, a high level of institutionalisation. Why? Because we currently have 170 employees in the region and offices in Belgrade, Banja Luka, Podgorica and Skopje. If there are no order or systematised procedures in a company as big as this one, it cannot prosper without good organisation in spite of having a remarkable leader”, Dragan claims.

“In order to operate not only within BDO but any international group, you have to be accredited and do business in accordance with a prescribed set of standards, policies and procedures”, Milovan adds. “The essence is the standardisation of the service quality, which has to be the same here, in London and all over the world. The quality of our services, as well as those of each member firm in all 160 countries, is controlled every year by BDO International.”

They both claim that some of the most important things in order to achieve success are mutual trust and respect.

“There are seven partners at our company and we all believe that we share the same goals and values. And that is the only way to do great work. There are ’one man show’ auditing companies, where the boss wants and decides on everything. We are more of a family corporation. Our partners have great freedom to make decisions and achieve goals and they also have huge support of their families for the jobs they do, which is a combination of a family relationship and a corporate organisation. Corporate culture and a common value system are the foundation of everything”, says Milovan Popović.

“An acquaintance once told me that companies like ours are graced with knowledge and integrity. Knowledge is a moving target and each day brings new challenges. Those who are unable to adapt and compromise are finished, beaten and forgotten. We are in a knowledge-based industry, which implies that we have always had to learn. However, the acquaintance mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph told me that integrity was not a moving target. You either have it or you don’t. In our case, integrity means that we cannot be corrupted and that is what we rest on. I am particularly proud of our corporate system of values and, above all, mutual respect“, Dragan emphasises and adds that the survival of a family firm greatly depends on “the existence of procedures and the culture of mutual respect, which we should stick to as much as we could.”

“I have always thought corporate. You can rarely hear me say ’I did this’. It wasn’t me, it was us who did it. At our company we see ourselves as winners. Each of our partners has a statuette of the Victor (a famous Belgrade landmark) on their desks, which is both a reminder and a duty”, says Dragan Popović in conclusion, the founder of BC Excel and the chairman of the BDO Serbia regional network.


HOW TO SUCCED IN BUSINESS?

„In order to be successful in any line of work it is important to have a clear vision. You have to be completely dedicated to your work – on the verge of being obsessed with it. Having a good team is as important as having a vision. If you share the same vision with the worthy people in your team, you are on the right path to achieve success. Visionaries who do not have a grasp of detail cannot succeed. My vision of being the best in the business is accepted by everybody in the company. Every day you have to improve something, even the smallest of things – the result is always a step forward”, concludes Dragan Popović.


Published in magazine BizLife, Issue 63, Oktober, 2018