by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Bulgaria's most influential foreigners talk to Vagabond

Everything you wanted to know about the big boys in Bulgaria. In a special two-part series, VAGABOND spoke to leaders in the fields of banking, communications, technology, agriculture, education, development, real estate, travel and beverages. Find out what the EU means for them, how the people at the top got to be there, and what they really think about living and doing business in Bulgaria.

Read Part 2 here.

Company Twinstar Fraport
Position General manager
Nationality German

Andreas Helfer

History of company activity in the Bulgarian market In June 2006, Fraport Twinstar won the concession tender for Bulgaria's two coastal airports, Varna and Burgas.

Wanted to invest in Bulgaria because As one of the leading airport and ground-handling operators in the world, Fraport is constantly looking at investment opportunities within its core business. A special focus is being set on growth markets in a politically stable environment. So for a number of reasons Bulgaria is a perfect fit.

Market position We are the only international airport operator in Bulgaria. Our two airports in Burgas and Varna make up approximately 60 percent of the Bulgarian market. However, within the framework of a European common market it would be extremely unwise to rely on this market position. The true competitors of Varna and Burgas are not within Bulgaria but at other competing holiday destinations in South East Europe.

Investment - 215 million euros in Burgas and 188 million euros in Varna There is a huge investment backlog at both airports which has to be addressed immediately. There is a lack of equipment, working conditions are far from European standards and the terminals and aprons need urgent improvements to cope with the coming summer season. The major investments however will be in new passenger terminals at both Varna and Burgas which will be ready by the year 2009.

The EU I never doubted that Bulgaria would become a full EU member on 1 January 2007. This will give Bulgarian tourism and the whole economy an extra boost as we have seen in other accession countries. For me as a German it is a fascinating experience to witness how the pieces of Europe are coming together again after 60 years of artificial political separation. After all, the cradle of European civilization was here.


From I was born in Wilhelmshaven (Germany) where my parents studied at the former naval academy. In a way this is also a link to Varna.

Arrived in Bulgaria September 2006

Route to the top After studying economics at Frankfurt University I started my career as a controller with a German nationwide bank. For five years I served the City of Frankfurt as personal assistant to the Lord Mayor. In 1996 I started working for Fraport where I held several management positions. Among those, for five years I was Chief Financial and Operations Officer at Frankfurt-Hahn, Europe's fastest growing airport. I am an open-minded person with quite a lot of international experience. During my studies I spent several months in Zimbabwe.

Personal philosophy Take things as they are. Decide when the time has come. Stick to your decisions. Be open and frank. Ask for the best. Don't accept laziness and stupidity. Reward success.

Three things I never fly without Money, computer, mobile


Highs The heart of most nations is certainly the countryside. I believe this is also true for Bulgaria, but unavoidably it will take some time for me to learn about it. The cities of Sofia, Burgas and Varna are extremely lively places. I enjoy shopping, eating or just strolling around.

Lows Up until now I haven't faced any unforeseen difficulties. I am working hard to improve my language capabilities but even without speaking Bulgarian it is easy to get along.

Bulgarian top three Restaurant Paraklisa in Varna, Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia, Cape Kaliakra

German top three Berlin, traditional cider restaurants in Frankfurt, hiking in the Palatinate.

Companies Aladin Building construction company, Technocentre-Elite technology and electronics retail chainstore, medical and dental clinic Medstom, plus companies in the transport sector
Nationality Syrian - Bulgarian

Aladin Harfan

Market position
Technolux-Elite, as it was then known, was the first and oldest Bulgarian technology brand. It is currently the number one Bulgarian brand on the market.

Biggest current activity The construction of the Mall of Pleven, this is the biggest ever project we have been involved in.

Mall of Pleven investment 32 million euros, completion is expected by 2009.

The EU
Construction is now booming in Bulgaria. Every other businessman is doing construction in Bulgaria thanks to the British who are investing a lot, especially in the seaside and the mountains. We have already upgraded ourselves to meet European safety standards, but customers should still expect to have to pay five to twelve percent more to meet costs such as protection for employees. On the other hand, we are expecting a lot of investment and inflation of prices, which is a big piece of cake for us as investors. We are expecting a 20 percent increase in the prices of our properties. At the same time, we have to find European partners, as we can't work alone forever like we have in the past.

Medicine In medicine, we are expecting to see a sharp increase in health tourism, and contracts with insurance companies, dentists and hospitals.

Transport Changes have already happened in international transport. The big difference is that now we will have to allow for VAT on transport.

Elite For our Elite brand, an open border means it's easier for us to supply our products to chainstores throughout Europe, and this is an opportunity we intend to make the most of.


Born In Syria, parents are US nationals.

Arrived in Bulgaria 1991

Route to the top I started my business here in Bulgaria in 1991. From 1991-1999 we made electronics locally for export. Between 1999 and 2002 I split my business into 17 different companies, including local transport, international transport, construction, the Elite brand, and Technolux, which is now the Technocentre-Elite chain.

Personal philosophy Whatever success people have had in Bulgaria at present isn't necessarily because they are good, it's because there's been a limited market. This is going to change with EU accession. I am preparing for that. All my companies must be ready for the competition. We have to be the best. Anything we do, we have to do well. The majority of companies in Bulgaria have been lucky until now, they have been in the right place at the right time, now they will have to work hard.


Pluses As a person who came from the Orient, Bulgaria has the best of both worlds, from the Orient and from the West. It has the freedom of the West and a close relationship with the Orient. I like it here. It's easier to live here than in other places, it's easy to communicate with people, and to have a social life. At the same time you have the freedom and the opportunities that you wouldn't get elsewhere. It's a country of opportunity. It's much better than most other countries in this respect, perhaps Romania is in the same position.

Challenges To prove myself. Bulgarian people really believe in personal contact. It's very easy to make friends with people, but at first I had a tough time recognising the importance of the personal touch. As soon as I realised this, everything became very easy for me. The challenge for me now is to maintain our market position after joining the EU.

Bulgarian top three The mountains for sure, I like Pamporovo. A small lake in the Velingrad area, and I would always show people Veliko Tarnovo or Plovidv, for me these are the essence of the country.

Company Kamenitza
Position General Manager Bulgaria
Nationality Belgian

Johan De Smet-Van Damme


History Kamenitza was founded in 1881, we're the oldest brewery in Bulgaria. In the early years it was more of a homebrew. Kamenitza as it's known today only started up in the 1950s. Interbrew bought Kamentiza in 1994. Then, the brewery only had seven percent of the market share. This was because before 1988 every area had its own brewery which could only deliver and sell beer in an area designated by the state. With the move from a Communist to a democratic system, it was a different story. Most breweries lost out. They suddenly had to make a brand because there was competition. When we took over in 1994 we brought the brand up to a 20 percent market share in four or five years.

Current position Kamentiza is the biggest brand in Bulgaria with 17- 18 percent of the Bulgarian market.

InBev owns Kamenitza; Haskovo brewery, Astika; Burgas brewery; Pleven brewery.

Market trends Our initial success was achieved through marketing. You're the first to come in with an international advertising campaign. What happens in two-three years time is that the competitors come in. Heineken, for example. Then marketing is not your focus anymore, sales have to become your focus. The first stage to increased sales is distribution, your wholesalers.

We actually didn't do a very good job of that in 1999-2001 and Heineken did a better job, so they became market leader. We realised we had to improve our relationships with the wholesalers and we became market leader again. In the meantime, Carlsberg entered Bulgaria in 2003 with Shumensko and Pirensko. They took a brand, Shumensko, that in real life had a three percent share, but in the past was one of the biggest brands, and they revived it. Everyone in Bulgaria knew of Shumensko somewhere in the back of their minds and suddenly they brought it back into the shops. They gained a big share just by making the product available across the country again.

In the last year and a half, the power is shifting to the retailers. It's not only Billa and Metro anymore. Sofia Mall and these kinds of places create a new environment, people's requirements change. It's no longer "I want to have a good beer," it has to be good looking too.

In another 5-10 years it will actually be the consumer who makes the choice. Today it's in between, but it's more retail driven than consumer driven at the moment.

EU beer prices If you look at the last 10 countries to join recently, there was almost no impact on the beer prices, because beer is extremely local. We buy local, we produce local, we sell local, what's the impact of the EU? Nothing. We buy 95 percent of our ingredients on the Bulgarian market.


From Brugge, Belgium

Arrived in Bulgaria 2001

Route to the top I joined a Belgian brewery in 1986, which was the foundation of what InBev is today. I was a lawyer, but I knew that wasn't really what I wanted to do. I started as a sales rep and never left. I worked in Belgium for about 10 years and ended up as field director there. In 1996 I went to China and worked in Nanjing for about four years. I was in Korea for a few months, and from there moved back to Belgium and worked for the Central and Eastern European zone. Then in 2001 I was asked to come to Bulgaria.

Business approach I'm not the guy to find you a market. I'm not the guy to start up an organisation either. But, give me a rough thing and I will make something good out of it. I'm not a jeans guy and I'm not a suit guy, I'm somewhere in between.


Bulgaria top three Rila Monastery, Nesebar in summer, Sofia Mall to show the changes that are happening, and a local dinner in a mehana with rakiya.

Belgian top three Brugge, then the brewery because it's interesting to show the history of our company 15 years ago, we were number 20 on the market, now we're number one.

Bulgarian Beer Facts

Bulgaria has the highest consumption per capita in the world of Becks. There's not a single other country in the world where the two litre plastic bottles are as popular as in Bulgaria.

Organisation American University in Bulgaria, AUBG
Position President
Nationality US Citizen

Michael Easton


History Through a partnership of USAID, the Open Society Institute, the University of Maine, and the City of Blagoevgrad, AUBG opened in Blagoevgrad in 1991. It is the only institution of its kind in the South East Europe region, offering an American style liberal arts education in English.

I understand there was a lot of suspicion in the early days, especially with Americans coming in, people were quite cautious; they probably thought it was the CIA. You have to admire the students and the faculty who came that first year. There was no history, no reputation, no background, so they were truly pioneers. Any suspicion has died out now, but to have the old Communist headquarters with an American flag and a Bulgarian flag flying on the building was sure to have caused a lot of conversation about what was going on.

Subjects The most popular course has always been business, along with economics, journalism, European studies and computer science.

The students About 60 percent are Bulgarian. The other 40 percent come primarily from the Balkan region, but we have students from 25 different countries, including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia. Entry is open to students from anywhere. We actively encourage Roma students to apply, but they must meet the standards. We have some Roma enrolled, but it's a challenge to get people from this community. You have students from countries that have been historical enemies or adversaries living together and we work hard on tolerance, diversity and understanding. We have no problems between any of the nationalities. It's a very exciting place to be.

Career prospects AUBG students were Bulgarian employers' first choice in a recent survey. About a third go to graduate school in the United States or the UK, a third get jobs in their home country, and a third go to work in the United States, often in banking and finance. In recent years we're seeing more and more interest from Bulgarians who have graduated, gone to the United States and would now come back if they could find something as meaningful and well paid in Bulgaria.

Funding Originally through USAID, but as funding stops with EU accession, we must be self-sustaining. Tuition fees are the major source of revenue. The rest relies on our ability to raise funds.


From Boise, Idaho

Arrived in Bulgaria August 2005

Route to the top I began my career as a teacher. In the first semester that I taught, one of the deans of the institution retired and I was made a dean, I was 27 years old, and I've been an administrator ever since. I've always taught along the way too. I had been to Bulgaria on a couple of business trips and knew of AUBG as I had been president of
the University of Maine, the original institution that sponsored AUBG. I was living in Seattle and was interim president of City University when I got a call asking me to be president of AUBG. At first I said no, but they persisted. Eventually, I thought I've never lived and worked abroad and this is an experience I should have in my career. At the time, AUBG needed some leadership and I knew I could help in providing that. I think I was the right person at the right time.

Personal philosophy Give 100 percent all the time to whatever you're doing, and enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, change it. I believe in strong ethical values at all times. Treat others with respect and respect difference. Enjoy life as much as you can. Every day is not only a new experience, it's one day less, and you'd better enjoy it.


The challenges The major concern is that I'm a long way from family and friends. I'm a long way from my two granddaughters, so that's a major loss. Probably like everyone else, I was appalled by the driving - and parking is non-existent. Bulgarians also ski like they drive!

Bulgarian top three The walking tours in Sofia, Rila Monastery, skiing in Bansko and Melnik for wine tasting.

US top three Seattle, Glacia Park and Yellowstone Park, and my hometown, Boise.

Organisation The British Council
Position Country Director
Nationality British

Ian Stewart


History Since the 1970s there has been British Council work here through the embassy. In 1991 it was finally possible to open our own office.

Areas of activity The British Council has a very wide range of projects and activities, these include the library and the teaching centre; governance projects in judicial reform, training magistrates, setting up a probation service in Bulgaria; raising awareness about people trafficking; awareness and integration projects for people with disabilities; the role of the media in promoting social cohesion; and projects with young people and education.

Roles I sometimes call the British Council a chameleon; it has this amazing ability to adapt itself to circumstances or environment. We seem continually to be under threat of either financial or operational reductions. Many people think of the Council as an arts organisation, whereas we do very little directly involved in the arts. Even globally, arts expenditure is only about seven percent of our total budget. Here in Bulgaria we've been focusing very much on two areas in this respect: one is the so-called creative industries and their role in regeneration in inner cities and in areas where industry is declining. The other is cultural heritage work. Cultural heritage in the broad sense is a unifying theme in South East Europe. It's the one thing that all the political leaders can agree on. We produced an award winning website (www.otkrivame.com) which allows people to look at cultural heritage sites in the region.


From Fife, Scotland

Route to the top When I was at university I went to work on farms in the north of Finland for a couple of summers. I really wanted to spend a winter there. In order to do that, I had to find a job and the only organisation that was offering one that I could do was something called the British Council. I was interviewed as an English teacher, although at that time I had no qualifications whatsoever, this was the 1960s you have to understand. I spent a year working for a steel company as an English teacher just north of the Artic Circle. I got very interested in English teaching, although my original degree is in Geography. I did a postgraduate TEFL certificate at the University of Wales and then I worked for the British Council in Portugal, Sudan and Iraq before doing my Masters in Applied Linguistics. I applied to join the establishment in 1978 and have been there ever since. I was director in Croatia in 1994-97, which was quite interesting given the war. I also started work in Bosnia at that time. I went to the Baltic States for nearly five years and was director of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Then I applied for Bulgaria. From this post I will go into retirement.

Personal philosophy Working and living in all these different countries and different cultures, having in the back of your mind "do as you would be done by" is not a bad mantra to have. If you behave to others as you would have others behave to you, it generally works whatever culture you're in.


Expectations I feel there's a great difference between the "Old Balkans", for example, Former Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. There was a palpable difference when I came in 2002, because there wasn't the same recent history that seems to be a weight on the shoulders of the people there. There was a psychological lifting of the spirits when you came to Bulgaria.

Difficult aspects I do find things like time keeping very difficult to get used to. The reluctance to make any decisions is also quite frustrating, and the "last minuteness-ish" of it all. In terms of work, these are all aspects of the Bulgarian character that take a lot of getting used to.

Bulgarian top three Plovdiv. The two areas that we like to show people that are slightly off the beaten track are Rozhen Monastery near Melnik and the area around Perperikon and Kardzhali which I think is one of the most evocative sites in Bulgaria.

UK top three Edinburgh. The whole Dartmoor area is also very interesting and it would show Bulgarians a whole different kind of wilderness. I'd also like to show them a city like Cardiff or Newcastle or Liverpool where there has been change and development through the creative industries.


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