Zoran Stanković is one of the top corporate finance managers in South-East Europe, and meeting him leads you to learn why that is. His expertise is beyond a doubt, but there's an extroversion and openness about him, a deep understanding of the industry and a wide interest beyond it, that adds value to a company, especially one like Atlantic Grupa, where he serves as Group Vicepresident Finance. He's been with the company for a decade now, they've been through many journeys together, and he seems like they've only just began. That's how it works, apparently, when one finds one's match.

Before Atlantic Grupa, Stanković spent years at Pliva, the former Yugoslav pharma giant, as the Director of Controlling. Before that he worked at Arthur Andersen and Ernst and Young as a Senior Audit Manager, in charge of key clients. He is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Yet, he's just in his mid 40s and eager to go places, taking Atlantic Grupa along with him. Atlantic is one of the leading food companies in the SEE with renowned regional brands, and the leading FMCG distributor in that area. Atlantic Grupa's products are highly represented in the CIS countries and the Western Europe, and with its product range under the Multipower brand umbrella, they are the leading European player in sports food. It’s a company of about 5500 people and an annual sales revenue of nearly 700 million Euros. Atlantic Grupa has been listed at the Zagreb Stock Exchange since 2007, it is headquartered in Zagreb, with companies and representative offices in 12 countries.

From your personal perspective, what is the main difference between a job in a consultancy or an auditor, and a job in the „real“ sector, namely a corporation?

Essentially, managing finance in a company, as an in-house job, bears more direct responsibility. As a manager you are involved in the business, and in the Management Board, at least in Atlantic Grupa, no one member is secondary. I am as concerned, interested and involved in defining our business model, in our results, strategy and plans as any senior manager from the business. Our organizational structure recognizes business operations and business support functions, but we are all here for the sake of the business – nobody is regarded as less important. This is also why we are in a position to attract highly qualified and motivated employees not only in sales and marketing, but also the best of lawyers, HR or finance experts. They have an opportunity to work in a very dynamic surrounding, it’s live, competitive, creative and very rewarding, professionally and personally. We very much cherish a relaxed atmosphere we have, it comes from the top and resonates very well across the organization. I enjoyed my previous jobs, no question about it, there are tremendous experts working in and industry that is developing rapidly and has a huge influence on the world at large. It’s just that this setting better suits my character, I think.

Atlantic Grupa is a relatively small multinational with respectable ambitions, how do you look at your future?

We are a big company in our region, but a very small company on a worldwide scale. We cannot fight global giants on an “economy of scale” field, but we do believe we have strengths for various niche battles. We have know-how in distribution that enables us to develop insightful relationships with our partners on new markets, and we have designated portfolio stars with international potential we intend to realize. We have Argeta pates made of only the finest pieces of meat or fish and spices, Donat Mg mineral water which is the naturally richest water in Magnesium in the world, Multipower sports food with longest tradition in Europe, and Cedevita vitamin instant drink, for people to consume fresh vitamins. They are extremely unstable in water you see, and if you can preserve vitamins in a dry form until the very consummation like Cedevita does, that is the only way you can benefit from them. Last, but not least, our crown jewel is the Granny’s Secret assortment of vegetable and fruit spreads and juices, 100 % natural, made in the best tradition of our grandmothers from the best of authentic regional agricultural goods. To wrap up the subject, we want to be a sort of a small giant, one that makes a difference, develops its own business model for the world now. We will evolve gradually, smaller steps and larger combined, organic growth as well as acquisitions. Our M&A track records are excellent precisely for the reason of sound strategy and planning, as well as flexibility in execution. As we stand now, we are not about to enter completely new industries, but we are constantly watching and searching for targets in resembling businesses.

It makes sense now to see that Atlantic Grupa’s slogan says it is an ocean of opportunities.

That is how we feel, and talking about it, trying to define our essence as a corporate entity, it came up – that our core business is to recognize areas that hold opportunities for us as a business, but we also offer numerous opportunities, an ocean of them, for our partners, employees, investors… And really, looking at the company’s beginnings you can see that it seized all available opportunities – for growth and its financing (from corporate bond, mezzanine financing, capital increases to IPO), for expansion beyond well known horizons (developing from a distributor into a serious production company with the acquisition of Cedevita in 2001, being the first private Croatian company to make an acquisition in Germany with Multipower as far as 2005, acquiring Droga Kolinska, a company of equal size, in 2010 for nearly Euros 400 million, and successfully integrating businesses…), we had EBRD, German DEG, Sweedish East Capital as our investors developing long term partnerships. Our employees can explore different job opportunities in different markets where we do business through our exchange programs, we develop targeted educations for specific posts, healthcare programs, we engage in the wider society trying to contribute to its sustainability, because we can only have sustainable business in a sustainable society, we give back part of our profits to the community where we make it… We are indeed an ocean of opportunities to seize and opportunities to give.

You are a multinational with a network of 12 companies across Europe. Do you feel size slowing you down?

Growing into a large business system, we tried hard to maintain the flexibility that catapulted us back at the time of our enterpreneurial beginnings. Today, more than ever, speed is crucial, look at the pace development of digital is taking, the Internet of things, people expect convenience, and they want things to happen immediately… We see ourselves as enterpreneurs, not bureaucrats, even though size brings a necessity to systemize things to a level that enables every day functioning of dozens of locations, thousands of people etc. Ideally, we would like the system to give us stability, which frees capacities for creation, and we strive to keep a flexibility to react to opportunities as quickly as we want. And that is very quick.

How do you see the future of business, how is it different from the time you started out?

Basically, it gets faster by the day. When I was a teenager my friends called me home to a landline, or we simply gathered at a usual time, usual place. Sometimes I get irritated watching kids sitting together, communicating to one another through apps. But technology influences our behaviors irreversibly, and we have to take that as a fact. The largest retailer in the world is no longer Wallmart, but Amazon, the leading provider of accommodation is Airbnb, not any global hotel chain, and none of them own the hardware, so to speak. The technology of things also affects our consumers, their habits and expectations, and these change rapidly, so we have to be able to adapt adequately, foresee developments. We have several projects in the company that address the need to be more consumer centric on all the levels possible and develop the different possible ways how to achieve that.

Polls conducted with managers often show a lack of balance between work and private life, how do you manage?

I suppose it’s true that there is no problem there if you do what you love doing. It does sound a little idealized, and I know many people don’t necessarily have that privilege, but I honestly don’t feel overstressed. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel responsibility, of course, I’m simply realistic. I do work for a substantial amount of time daily, but I have excellent coworkers whom I trust to do their job well, we coordinate, and a day has only so many hours. And there are other things to do as well, and it’s normal to do them. Also, I don’t feel that my time at work is somehow captured time, as opposed to your private time at home and such. It is all our life, and we are integral people. We should try and live it all to the fullest, and if lucky we get to do something we enjoy for a living. I feel very lucky that way.

I gather from the photographs I’ve seen that you are quite enthused about sports as well, right?

I am, I try to keep ut the training, and basketball is my sport of choice. As a representative from the main sponsor, I am also a member of the Management Board of the basketball club Cedevita. It’s a beautifull story evolving with and around the club for the last 10 years. It’s grown profesionally, from a neighbourhood club to the most vibrant and best organized basketball club in Croatia. BC Cedevita is three times a national champion, four times the winner of the Croatian National cup Krešimir Ćosić, we brought home two silvers from the ABA regional League, and did very well in European championships. But besides our sports successes, I am most proud of the work the company and the club do with almost a thousand kids, through our school of basketball. I am aware of the exact effect, watching my son train over the years – they learn not only how to play ball, they learn about team work, friendship, they develop social awareness…

Looking back at your plans, beginning of your professional career, is this what you would've expected or wished for?

Truth be told, I didn’t calculate very much. Obviously, finance is my primary interest, and I followed it with my education, at the Faculty of Economy in Zagreb first, and later with my professional posts an further education in accountancy and corporate finances. I enjoyed the jobs I had, they gave me opportunities to develop and contribute. It was when I came to Atlantic, starting with the company’s IPO in 2007, that I felt we can continue evolving together at a similar pace. It was a huge step for me and the company alike, a sort of a graduation, and I felt home ever since. It’s far from a comfort zone, though. Atlantic and myself keep challenging ourselves continuously on many levels, growth, M&As, refinancing, risk management… It is a ride indeed, I enjoy it tremendously and I only see how time passes when I watch my two children grow. The fact that I take joy in my work makes it easier to spend quality time with them, which makes me appreciate the whole thing all the more. I think I am privileged that way, and I cherish that very much.