I have to admit, upon walking into Miroljub Aleksic’s office, I was immediately impressed. Now mind you, I’m not one to be that easily wowed by trappings of power. But not only was the size of the oval office (and yes, that’s not a coincidence) overwhelming, but the art that was hanging on the wall proved even more spectacular. An avid art collector, Aleksic - who’s president of Belgrade, Serbia-based Pionir as well as the 2010 European Candy Kettle Club Award recipient - has quietly amassed an impressive collection, many of which hang in several of the company’s production facilities and offices. I believe his personal collection is worth about half a million dollars.
But, as I trust you will find out in reading our cover story on Aleksic and Pionir, I’m even more impressed with his turnaround effort of what was once a bankrupt candy company. Ask any turnaround artist in the business world, and they will tell you that it’s not easy changing a mindset and culture, particularly in an enterprise where both morale and money are lacking.
Take that scenario and intensify it by operating a business in a country that’s slowly disintegrating (the former Yugoslavia) and one better understands the challenges. Follow that up with a civil war, and then a NATO attack, and it’s not easy being sweet, even for a candy man.
Although I didn’t spend an enormous amount of time with Aleksic, I did have a chance to talk to people that work for him. This self-made millionaire has, to paraphrase that old Smith Barney commercial, “…made money the old-fashioned way, he’s earned it.”Moreover, Aleksic has done so honorably. Keep in mind that during the breakup of Yugoslavia, it wasn’t difficult to look the other way at somewhat shady business dealings. Naturally, the situation has improved in modern-day Serbia. Still, it’s not perfect and temptations still exist.
For Aleksic, self-interest does not replace integrity. And that’s what I came away after interviewing him during my visit to Bulgaria.
He wants to do things right, be it investing in technology, building a hotel, collecting art, choosing an automobile or running a company.
There’s no doubt that Aleksic appreciates the finer things in life as evidenced by his choice of paintings and automobiles. Nevertheless, the man puts on his cleats every Sunday like everyone else to play a bit of soccer with the company’s two club teams. In talking with a fellow company soccer player, there’s no presidential deference on the “pitch.” It’s rough and tumble, aggressive play on the field, followed by a few beers and lunch afterwards. Aleksic gets bumped and pushed like anyone else if he’s going for the ball.
Having written several profiles on successful entrepreneurs in the confectionery world, I can attest that there are many routes to success.
In all cases, leadership plays a pivotal role in enlisting employees to contribute to that success.Aleksic, while appreciating the flamboyant, personally shies away from such demonstrations. From what I can tell, he’s someone that prefers to do business on a personal level, sizing up an individual to determine where the trust level should be. He, in fact, approves every hire at Pionir, delegating the initial selection process to human resources and department managers, but retaining the right to interview final-rung candidates.
Some may call that micromanaging, others attention to detail. When asked about this atypical involvement, Aleksic points out that it’s critical to have the right people in place to share the vision. Moreover, it’s worked well for him.
I have always enjoyed executives telling me that their company was a “people” company first, that they revered their employees. Chances are, however, they didn’t know who their employees were or went to the effort that Aleksic does.
There’s also another saying that I’m fond of throwing around occasionally, “You can’t expect what you don’t inspect.
”In Aleksic’s case, he expects the best, done so in the right manner. There’s no doubt in my mind that his philosophy has been infused into Pionir. Besides, he’s definitely “inspecting” to ensure it’s ongoing.