While making his case to Atlanta investors Sept. 5, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski rattled off a litany of American and European companies that have seized opportunities in his country.
But perhaps the endorsement that mattered most to the local audience came before Mr. Gruevski stepped to the podium at the World Trade Center Atlanta.
In 2009, the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, topped the Atlanta-based beverage giant’s rankings for best quality throughout its worldwide system.
“We are very proud that Macedonians reach for some of the best Coca-Cola in the world,” said Michael Goltzman, a Coke vice president for government relations and public affairs, who introduced Mr. Gruevski.
Mr. Goltzman also credited the prime minister with contributing to the country’s vitality by reforming its customs system and enacting rules that have improved agribusiness.
Mr. Gruevski, however, was more interested in touting the country’s achievements, especially in creating a friendly business climate for foreign investors.
His focus fit with the theme of the event: Macedonia, European Land of Opportunities. The luncheon event was a coming-out party testing the waters in Atlanta, where Macedonian officials are considering opening a consulate.
A country of 2.1 million people north of Greece, Macedonia has enacted economic reforms that have garnered international recognition even as its neighbors have struggled.
In 2010, it was the top reforming economy in the World Bank‘s annual Ease of Doing Business rankings. Last year it ranked No. 22 overall, ahead of Austria, France, the Netherlands and many other European countries.
That’s all thanks to low taxes, cheap land, educated workers and an openness to the rest of the world, Mr. Gruevski said.
Macedonia has free trade agreements with every country in Europe except Russia, providing basically duty-free access to more than 660 million consumers. That includes bilateral pacts with Turkey and Ukraine.
“This way, we overcome the handicap of the small market,” Mr. Gruevski said.
Sounding more like an economic developer than a head of state, the prime minister beamed while highlighting a tax regime many Americans would envy: a flat 10 percent on income and 10 percent on distributed profits from corporations.
Companies that reinvest their earnings into their businesses pay no levies on them at all. There is no value-added tax, and manufacturers can avoid duties on raw materials brought in to produce export products.
If that weren’t enough, Macedonia has three free economic zones focused on manufacturing (two of which are ranked in the top 50 worldwide, according to fDi Intelligence). Eleven more are planned around the country in an effort to even out labor distribution and development.
Within the zones, companies that invest more than €50 million or hire more than 100 people are eligible to receive a €500,000 (about $625,000) subsidy for construction of their facilities. Outside the zones, the government is selling land for as cheap as one euro per square meter.
Macedonian-born Atlantans who maintain business ties in their home country were encouraged by what they heard.
“I think they are moving in the right direction,” said Zlatko Bogoevski, a wine importer who supplied a Macedonian pinot noir at the luncheon.
The son of a wine producer still living in Macedonia, Mr. Bogoevski came to Atlanta and during college began joking with a buddy about importing wines from the country.
Soon, the Two Friends Import Co. was born, playing to restaurateurs’ thirst for novelty. Macedonia is both relatively unknown in the wine world and it boasts a few unique varietals, or types of grapes. Most wines in the country are certified natural, meaning no yeasts, sugars or sulfites are added during the fermentation process, Mr. Bogoevski said.
Now the Decatur-based company brings about 20,000 bottles per year through the Port of Savannah, selling them to distributors who target chefs. Most of the product ends up in the Midwest.
Two Friends also has retail ambitions. For the World Trade Center lunch, the company brought in a pinot noir under its private label, 4000 B.C.
The name is a nod to a country that began making a rudimentary wine by fermenting grapes with honey as early as 6,000 years ago.
“One thing we’ve noticed about the consumers in general when it comes to the wine – they look for the story first and foremost,” Mr. Bogoevski said.
He hopes 4000 B.C. and other Macedonian wines will be able to hit the sweet spot for wine retailers in the U.S. – priced in the mid-teens, high enough to make money but low enough to appeal to mainstream buyers.
Tale Buling sees the opportunity on the Macedonian side of the market. Now living in metro Atlanta after coming to the Unted States in the late 1960s, he distributes meat and poultry in Eastern Europe through International Food Bazaar, a Skopje-based company.
He believes the country has all the tools to do with pork what the U.S. did with poultry: create a mechanized industry that offers a cheap protein and changes the way the country eats.
“I’m telling you, 10 years from now, many companies in the States will say” – he smacks his forehead – “Why the hell did I not do that?”
As for Macedonia’s business climate, he believes the hype, but said there should be more integration between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority.
“The natural opportunity of Macedonia is there, and nobody can take that away. Now, is it signed in an envelope and delivered? No, they can screw it up because of the fragmentation of society.”
Its international ambitions are being held up by external tensions. Though it has been seen as a model reformer, Macedonia’s proposals to move to the next steps in EU and NATO membership have been stalled over a naming dispute with neighboring Greece, also home to a region called Macedonia.
Mr. Gruevski, the prime minister, addressed the topic briefly in his remarks.
“We are trying to find some solution with them,” he said of the Greeks.
For more information on Macedonia’s ambitions in Atlanta, read:
For more on how to invest there, contact Sasha Grujevski, director of the Atlanta office for InvestMacedonia and a key organizer of the Sept. 5 event. Email Mr. Grujevski at email@example.com or call (404) 636-8798.