Balfin’s history stretches back to 1993, when it began as an electronic devices trader and eventually created the largest network of electronics stores in Albania. From there, the company branched out into real estate development, building Albania’s first modern shopping mall in 2005. Likewise, Balfin dove deeper into the realm of retail, establishing the first Albanian chain of supermarkets and bringing popular clothing brands to the country for the first time. As the group grew and consolidated in its markets of expertise, it also diversified further in 2013 when it acquired full ownership of AlbChrome, Europe’s only vertically integrated producer of high carbon ferrochrome, and then ventured into the energy sector, logistics, agriculture and nickel mining. In 2018, it also acquired the Tirana Bank, the first private bank in Albania, and is beginning investment in the tourism sector. Here, Samir Mane, who has built the company into one of the region’s most powerful conglomerates, explains the opportunities available in the Western Balkans and how German investors can get involved
What have been some of the most important developments in your company in recent years?
We are mainly a retail and real estate company, but our recent diversification has been important. We bought NewCo Ferronikeli in 2018. It is a very big, dynamic company and accounts for around 40 percent of Kosovo’s exports, making it the top exporting company in Kosovo. We also got involved in the banking system, acquiring Tirana Bank also last year. It is just the beginning for us in the financial sector, but certainly we will invest more in Tirana Bank and share our expertise while also gathering international and national know-how.
What’s in store for 2019?
Now, we are undergoing organic growth and consolidation of all the businesses we have. One of them is investing in Austrian real estate. From October 2018, Balfin Group started a residential project, which is already in its construction phase. The residential complex is located in the Altmünster area of Austria, a well-known tourist area near Lake Traunsee. The project includes two residential areas with three-story buildings. Altmünster is a tourist town located three kilometers south of Gmunden, in the Upper Austria region that borders Germany and the Czech Republic. The project is expected to be completed by 2019.
Real estate is a big focus indeed, and we are seeking opportunities to invest in other countries. At the same time as we go abroad, we are in no way are forgetting about the Western Balkan region – we are one of the biggest players here in several different areas. At the moment, one of our biggest developments is the Skopje East Gate project, in which we are investing €350 million. It will include 10 blocks of residential complexes, five building blocks for business purposes and a shopping center with over 250 stores.
How would you characterize your investment strategy?
Most of it is focused on high growth. In Albania, our main focus is investing in the industries that we know— the metal industry, retail and real estate, which also happen to be the main industries in the country. We also have other opportunities and specialized staff with a lot of experience from abroad. We have German, Italian, Greek and Canadian people working with us who are helping us to create and discover new opportunities in the West as well.
You have led the company for over 25 years. How has your own management style evolved?
We don’t invent management styles ourselves. We closely follow the trends in management methodologies. We read a lot, watch how large conglomerates are running in Germany or the U.S. and customize what we’ve observed for Albania. In the early 1990s, I was designing everything myself, now we are meeting people around the world like advisors, who help us run this conglomerate. What we are doing is taking the best management methodologies from Western companies and incorporating them in Albania and in our own way.
In 2015 and 2016, the international chains of SPAR and Carrefour became part of Balfin Group in Albania. What opportunities are there for German companies to participate in the growth story of the company in Albania?
The investment opportunities are quite immense and I know that German companies are both present and interested in the market. Overall, Germans are investing heavily in tourism, which is a totally virgin market with a lot of potential. I would say that at the moment, tourism is the single biggest investment opportunity in the country because it’s completely undeveloped. We are in discussions with many German companies, considering opportunities in tourism, of course, but also in other industries.
What are your plans for the tourism industry?
We are developing a hotel now. However, infrastructure is an important piece of the puzzle in fostering investment in the industry, so the government needs to help it grow. We believe they’re going to do it, and so far there’s been progress. As soon as infrastructure improves, many foreign partners, including Germans, will then take the step of investing in the country.
Besides tourism, which industries do you view as having the most potential?
For us, we are known in the metal industry. We have AlbChrome, which is the second biggest ferrochrome producer in Europe. We are also an important producer of nickel and sell our products around Europe. Another important focus, for us, is investing in real estate in countries like Austria and Germany. The main reason behinds our investment abroad is to diversify our portfolio geographically. However, at the end of the day, our main focus will remain in the Western Balkans. We want to increase our presence in the countries where we are already present.
It is said that German investors are conservative. What would you say to them about risk in Albania?
There is no risk at all. It’s a myth. Albania is a really safe country, Albania has gone 15 years without problems, and despite the international perception, I believe that the level of criminality in the country is low both compared to the region and even to Europe as a whole. The international picture of Albania is inaccurate. We had a bad time during the ‘90s and some people misunderstood the rules of democracy and made very bad decisions. But most of the people here and also the Albanians abroad are very respectable and law-abiding. The only way to change this incorrect perception is to bring people to the country to see it’s a completely different reality than what they might imagine.
As someone who knows the region well, what would you tell German readers about the competitive advantages of Albania as an investment destination?
First of all, I would mention that Albania has huge opportunities in tourism. Not only is the market undeveloped and genuinely full of potential, but the government is also working very hard to develop the sector, offering incentives and support to investors. Secondly, the tax system in Albania is also very favorable compared to other European countries.
The country has made EU accession one of the key foreign policy objectives. What are your thoughts on Albania entering the EU?
EU membership would be very positive. This is a very pro-European nation; around 95 percent of Albanians are pro-European. Yet, to be frank, I don’t know how interested Europe is in Albania. The EU has been focusing on its own problems lately and has basically sidelined the Western Balkan countries. Now, we are something like an island – surrounded by EU countries on all sides. Originally, Albanians and other countries in the Balkans thought they would follow in the steps of Romania, meaning they would carry out reforms and then eventually be accepted. Yet, now I’m starting to believe that joining the EU is not just a matter of doing our homework here in Albania, but it has become a political issue within the EU. I would tell EU leaders that they can’t leave the region isolated like this. The Western Balkans are beautiful, historical, European and full of talent. I’m sure the benefits of allowing our countries to enter will far outweigh the challenges they bring.
Twenty-five years ago when you started a small trading business, did you ever imagine it was going to turn into one of the most important companies in Albania?
Definitely not. I was selling consumer electronics successfully but I didn’t think that I would reach the point of making €500-700 million in revenue, which is what we’re predicting for this year. By 2020, our aim is to bring in €1 billion in revenue.
What do you feel most proud of in your career so far?
Making money isn’t important to me anymore actually. We now enjoy what we create. That’s the most important thing. We help other people make money and I do enjoy that, when we bring new business into the country it creates employment and touches people’s lives that way. But what I’m most proud of is helping to create a different lifestyle for Albanians. By bringing in firsts like shopping malls, consumer electronics and more, a new way of life was made available in the nation, similar to that which is available in Western countries like Germany.