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Serbian confectioner enjoys sweet success, ahead of country's EU entry

By Anna Stewart, CNN
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Serbia is struggling with sluggish growth, high inflation, unemployment at 25%
  • Serbia's minimum wage, at $1.36 an hour, is one of the lowest in Europe, and comes in below China
  • Entry into the EU has raised fears the country's educated youth will flee

(CNN) -- Serbia's economy might be in the doldrums, but one company is tasting sweet success as the country readies itself for entry into the European Union.

Serbia, which begins EU membership negotiations next year, is struggling with sluggish growth, high inflation, unemployment at 25%, and excessive public debt.

Despite the country's problems, Bambi -- the country's biggest confectionery maker -- is investing in its operations and looking to new export opportunities.

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"We are not sleeping, we are not waiting until these things [entering the EU] come about," its COO, Daniel Boehi told CNN. "Bambi is a good role model in that sense."

The company's factory in Pozarevac is already state-of-the-art. The fast-paced operation is open 24 hours hours a day, and run with three shifts of workers.

New technology has been brought in to keep the company in line with EU regulations, including a machine which automatically weighs every product to ensure it maintains its advertised net weight.

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"We have food experts, technologists and lawyers who tell us what to do," Boehi told CNN. "Our portfolio, our production lines, our quality standards...[they] are not much different to what Nestle or any global player would be doing."

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The factory visited by CNN churns out 40 tonnes of Bambi's best-selling biscuit, the Plazma, each day. The company is investing $13 million in more production lines next year. Boehi told CNN he expected joining the EU would increase demand for products and open new markets.

"New opportunities might open up, mostly with surrounding markets like Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia," he said.

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Boehi added: "We don't see actually countries like Germany, Switzerland [and] the UK as a real opportunity for us... these markets are saturated."

While Serbia aspires to EU membership, such a move will also provide challenges.

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Serbia's minimum wage, at $1.36 an hour, is one of the lowest in Europe, and comes in below China, Malaysia and the Philippines. The country is also struggling with its rising unemployment levels. Entry into the EU has raised fears the country's educated youth will flee to better economies within Europe.

"Wage costs will go up, this is clear, but the way we will deal with that is not laying off people. It is by simply organizing ourselves in a better way," Boehi told CNN.

"We are paying more than others and the competition will slowly, slowly need to ...adjust to that and come up to the same level. So, it will go up but that is part of life."

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