Last year Eugene Brcic Jones packed up from Australia with his wife Michelle and their two small children Eden and Emerson and moved to start a new life in Croatia.
“We are tired of the rat race in the West, the alienation and poor social fabric. I’ve convinced my wife (and showed her on holidays) that life in Croatia is much more substantial in so many ways. Our souls have a predilection for Mediterranean living, simple but highly interactive with friends,” Eugene, who was born and educated in Sydney, told Ina Vukic last year in an interview before the move.
It has been nearly a year since the Brcic Jones’ set off to the land of Eugene’s parents, who are originally from the hinterlands between Sibenik-Zadar, Selo Budak and Velim, near Stankovci, and Ina caught up with them in Zagreb to see how their new life was going.
How would you summarise your year? Is it all that you expected?
Yes and no. No, because some promises of great work opportunities were broken and we ultimately had to resort to our own devices and one or two of our backup plans. Yes, because we know Croatia is still a basket-case country and we expected it to be a rollercoaster of ups and downs before we find our groove.
So, it’s a bad experience?
No, I wouldn’t say that. We that knew that while we were leaving Australia, tens of thousands of Croatians were leaving in the opposite direction – and not out of curiosity or sense of adventure. You need to be realistic. Croatia is a beautiful country, but it is highly dysfunctional and has limited opportunities. On the bright side, our little setback led to me starting my own business and being the master of our own fortunes.
What kind of business?
It’s called Venatus Jones www.venatusjones.com.It’s a consulting and coaching service for small to medium-sized companies to help grow their businesses to the next level.
And there is work for that kind of service in Croatia?
Most definitely, there’s a strong demand brewing. I compare it to Australia when our parents came out in the 1960’s and 70’s and started trades with no real experience running businesses. Luckily, the Australian economy was booming, so their businesses thrived too. So too, Croatians today have little experience in the private sector.
Market economies are cyclical, consisting of periods of stagnation that can be very challenging for companies that don’t get expert help. There is lots of evidence even in the Croatian community in Australia of businesses failing because they did not hire managers or consultants, or educated sons and daughters, to guide them through the typical patterns of peaks and valleys.
There is a big gap for this type of work because most entrepreneurs running SME’s in Croatia don’t have any financial background and desperately need assistance to lift their businesses to the next stage. Obviously, they have great business intuition to build their companies from the ground up, but they lack the education and training to elevate operations, restructure or expand into new markets, etc.
Sometimes they only need a little hand in developing strategy, aligning processes, advertising or automating sales. Some clients are shocked that you could easily call your bank and ask for refinancing.
Demand for Western business knowledge is strong and companies here need to learn how to move away from socialist-type practices, like relying only of VIP’s – veze i poznanstva, rather than introducing new strategies or opening multiple channels.
Is getting clients easy?
Surprisingly, yes. Initially, it was hard breaking down reflexive resistance, the stubborn Croatian know-it-all mentality. They ask “Where were you smart-ass when I built this business from scratch?” People here try to hide their ignorance by dismissing advice, saying “everything is corrupt here and this is not America; those Western theories won’t work here.” But as long as you are fair in pricing, they will give you the chance to demonstrate value and build a professional relationship.
Luckily, a large number of businesses here are at crossroads and delivering some low hanging fruit will allow you to develop trust and demonstrate value early on in the relationship.
One of the most rewarding things about this business is that it allows my clients to grow and employ more workers. I really believe that small to medium-sized businesses will become the backbone of the Croatian economy, just like they are anywhere else in the developed world.
If you allow me to give Venatus Jones a plug, I think that we need to stop chest-thumping and start doing things at coal-face level to help lift Croatia to the next level. It’s something us ‘wogs’ know how to do.
So you are staying in Croatia?
At this stage, we are still fighting like the average Croatian, but I’m also looking to recruit in the coming weeks. If there are any Australian/Croatians looking for a job in this field, they should send us a line.
How has your wife and children, Eden 4, Emerson, 3, settled?
Michelle loves being here and has created a close circle of friends, while the kids are like free-range chickens here, so care-free and full of life. Michelle enjoys the food, the downtime with coffees and the dramatic change of seasons. Croatians highly value social life and put friends, family, fun and relaxation ahead of material things and that suits us just fine.
What is the main difference to Australia?
The main difference is distinguishing between ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life.’ All the Western polls indicate Sydney and Melbourne among other Western cities as the best places to live based on living standards. Even Croatians fall for this illusion, thinking new buildings, cars, streets and all the material abundance translates into a great life, but it doesn’t.
Quality of life is the key, how we spend our most precious resource – time. How long do we travel to work, how much time we spend with family, how often we see friends, how healthy we eat, how much time we get to just breathe and think about our spiritual happiness.
I think we glorify being busy in Australia, we postpone life for tomorrow, which never comes. Croatians don’t even know there is a difference between standard and quality of life, they are morbidly cynical and pessimistic. I’m sure their lives would be so much better if they were more optimistic and celebrated the few things they have that are better than anywhere else in the world. It would probably motivate them to participate in change and bring it about sooner.
So many people are emigrating from Croatia, what are your thoughts as someone who went in the opposite direction?
I think it’s good that people have the courage to try their luck outside their comfort zones. As long as they have realistic expectations of how hard it will be elsewhere, I truly hope they make it as most people would never leave Croatia if they weren’t forced to do so economically. It’s actually very sad that we have such poor government and that people are forced to leave just like in Tito’s regime, ‘trbuhom za kruhom.’
What do you think is the problem?
Well, the problem is quite simple and so is the solution. Croatia has serious structural problems but it does not have the political will to fix it. Reforms, from taxes to the judiciary, cannot be introduced because the people perpetuating the problems are also the ones required to introduce them. We are essentially asking them to cut the branches they are sitting on.
Is there any hope for change?
Sure, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are new entrepreneurs emerging, with lofty visions and strong work habits, independent of the government. If you look at what Mate Rimac is doing with the world’s fastest electric sports car or Ivan Mrvos with smart benches or Neven Bakic with his STEM revolution in schools, there is hope. I hope I can help a lot of SME’s adopt Western strategies and employ armies of young workers, the best we can do is to try and be the change ourselves.
Is there a secret to surviving in Croatia?
Given your experience, would you recommend others to follow your footsteps?
Sure. Croatia is a great country to live, it’s beautiful and the social fabric makes it easy to bond, but people need jobs, financial stability and opportunities to pursue their dreams. If you can’t find work or start your own company, then your future will be uncertain and you may be on a bus or plane out of here before you even get a chance to really appreciate it.
I would advise that people do their homework, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Fingers crossed, it could be the best thing that ever happened, or you can always return back and pick up from where you left off, no regrets.