by Anthony Georgieff

Coffee shop chain chooses to ignore Sofia's expat community

Expats used to buying their copies of Vagabond in Sofia will no longer be able to do so at Onda, the coffee shop chain, as its new management has decided against renewing its distribution contract with Vagabond Media. Victoria Pavlova, Onda's new general manager, told us that she would like to see "other opportunities" to "add value" to Onda's customers.

Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Magazine, has been on sale in Onda since 2006, as part of a deal with Sofia's first Western-style café chain. Embassy staff, expats living in Sofia as well as British, Irish and American visitors taking a "coffee break" in Bulgaria's capital were able to obtain their copies at Onda counters. An increasing number of Western-oriented, English-speaking Bulgarians had joined their ranks. That ceased in October 2010. Victoria Pavlova was unable to give an explanation for her decision, except to say that she wanted to "measure the market" and find another publication that "would suit the target customers better."

Asked what Onda's targets were, Pavlova said research was being carried out: bar staff at Onda were asking "selected customers" questions about what they expected from the cafés. It was not immediately clear what these questions were, nor to what extent the "selected customers" were representative of the café crowd in Sofia.

Pavlova also chose to ignore Vagabond Media's written questions about what benefits or losses Bulgaria's English magazine has incurred for Onda in its four-year relationship with the cafés or what benefits or losses a continued relationship would incur, and also what methods Onda would employ to "measure" the media market in Bulgaria. Our emails to her remained unanswered, but in previous conversations she had justified her actions as part of an effort to change the image of what used to be a successful coffee shop chain in Sofia.

Onda started out in 2003 as a Bulgarian company and in 2010 it was purchased by Italy's Lavazza. According to the Bulgarian trade register, the company is represented in Bulgaria by an Italian, Giampaolo Arpe. Vagabond Media's efforts to reach Mr Arpe for comment, or to get in touch with Lavazza in Turin, were also ignored.

Not renewing a commercial contract without having an alternative to it indicates that Onda's new management under Lavazza has serious doubts – or does not really care – about the way it wants to run its operation in Bulgaria.

The case of Onda illustrates a wider issue that other Western companies in Bulgaria face: employing local staff and entrusting them with running the business. What checks and balances do these companies employ to control what their local staff are actually doing? How do they test that staff's competence and ability to carry on what was a successful business?

For many reasons, including the economic crisis, the standard of education here and the whims and quirks of the local environment, Bulgaria is in the midst of a serious human resources crisis. Gone are the days (if there ever were) when young, educated Bulgarians were seen as a "highly qualified" and relatively cheap workforce. Anyone head-hunting in Bulgaria now will testify that in many instances the only thing a potential employee is interested in is the salary, but they wince the moment some actual work is mentioned.

In this environment, speaking English, having had some kind of education abroad and looking smart is not enough.

There are many ways some local staff would use to present a different reality to their overseas employers – from asking interpreters "not to interpret everything" to using ostensibly legitimate schemes, like "measuring the market," to conceal their little games. One ploy used by local staff to justify their action or inaction is to procrastinate and resort to the sort of empty talk associated with the state bureaucracy in Bulgaria, notorious Europe-wide for its inefficiency. Sadly, attitudes usually associated with civil service corruption, incompetence and hollow talk may penetrate the private sector as well. There are many telltale signs, meaningless hyperactivity and overusing professional jargon being surefire pointers. In this situation the If-It-Ain't-Broke-Don't-Fix-It argument can be ignored by the desire to change things for change's sake – and thus create the illusion that something meaningful is being done.

"Honesty rarely meets competence in Bulgaria," one political analyst put it.

But the picture is not as black-and-white. As some Western companies in Bulgaria have discovered, the typical Bulgarian way of doing things is a measure of corruption, (in)competence and personal likes and dislikes. If corruption prevails, personal likes and dislikes do not matter. If there is honesty minus the competence, however, it will be mainly down to personal attitudes. These are hardly the best advisor in business.

But while in the state sector and the civil service there is at least a tentative move to thwart corruption and boost competence, in the private sector it is all... a private affair. The real measure is, of course, the market. But it takes time to test it through purely market means, especially if you are a foreign company using a "translator," both a language and a cultural one, to communicate with your local staff.


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