Mark Harrison moved his private and professional life to Serbia in 1997, after running the Central & Eastern Europe Practice of a major UK Law Firm, although his visits before that were all but infrequent. A fan of Crvena Zvezda, he is a “srpski zet” and a radiant optimist concerning the legal, business and overall future of Serbia. His company has acted on more than half of all the major privatization and investment deals since 2001.

You came to Serbia over ten years ago, in times of great turbulences, when very few people decided to return, let alone come for the first time. How is it you decided to come?

I first came to “the old Yugoslavia” in 1973 and to Belgrade in 1976. Beogradska Banka, the biggest bank in the old Yugoslavia, decided to send a representative to London in 1983, as a placement at a large City of London law firm where I was working. He introduced me to the London community of Yugoslav business people. It was a tight-knit community but once I had gained their confidence, I would say we were acting for over 50% of the Yugoslav business community by the end of the 80’s.

Was it a significant business community?

Yes. In those days there were the big Yugoslav “mother companies”. Generalexport, for example, was doing 7 to 8 billion dollars of trade with Britain. Yugotours brought hundreds of thousands of British tourists to the Croatian coastline and Montenegro. So, in the late 80’s, I convinced my law firm we should open an office here in “Yugoslavia”.

So when did you exactly come?

I was finalizing plans to open an office in 1989/90, the last of the golden years. Unfortunately the problems started with Slovenia in 1991. Between 1992 and 1995, when there were sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, we were the only foreign firm that acted for Serbian interests. There was a stigma attached to representing companies which came from Serbia and Montenegro and fighting court cases for them.

What kind of work are we talking about?

It was mainly fighting court cases to prevent the assets of Serbian companies being confiscated by creditors. Under sanctions Serbian companies couldn’t make payments in relation to loans. A classic example of that was Aviogenex. They had a fleet of airplanes and could not make loan repayments. The creditors expected to seize the planes back, but we fought the case in the highest court in England and got an order, which protected the fleet, using Sanctions Legislation to our advantage! Post 1995, when the sanctions were eased, I decided I wanted to come over and promote Yugoslav-British trade. My British Foreign Office, in fact, encouraged me to come over.

British government encouraged you to come in 1995?

After the sanctions were eased there were a lot of British missions in the region, predominantly to Serbia, promoting business, and I was actively involved. So in 1997, I decided to move to Serbia. I was here often, not only on business and grew to like the country a lot. Approaching the big 40 and being a long-time partner in an English law firm, I saw an opportunity in coming to a country where there was no international law firm. So, I resigned my partnership, sold my house, came over, rented a tiny office in Prote Mateje above a place called “Bread of Christ”. It was the time of my life when I moved out of my comfort zone. My ambition was realized when we created the first international law firm in Serbia.

But times were difficult. You landed in the times bombs were landing. How did you absorb the shock?

Many people thought I was crazy, giving up my practice in the UK, but I came in 1997 and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I, of course did, what one always does upon coming to Serbia. I married a Serbian girl and both my two children were born here. I have always said that if one day I do not look forward to going to work I will pack my bags and move on, but I relish every day and the fresh challenges they bring.

Ways of conducting business in Serbia can contain dynamics unseen in the Western world. How did you find this?

The plus point for me was that, when I came in 1997 there were very few foreigners around, so I had to quickly adapt. It is not like now when you work for an international company here, as they could spend their entire time mixing with their own people, not integrating with Serbs. I had a close friend, a JAT pilot, who helped me “land”, finding an apartment for me and being an excellent connection with the business community in Belgrade. We dealt almost exclusively with Serbian clients as there were few foreign companies then. That was a great experience, giving us a clear advantage over other law firms. People knew we were friends with Serbia that we weren’t here just to make a quick buck and run away. Serbs saw we stood by them in the tough times, and were in Belgrade, way before the other foreign law firms arrived in 2001 when things were completely different.

Since you were the only foreign lawyer in Serbia, it is more than conceivable that Milosevic regime knew about you. Were there any difficulties?

We found out, in due time, that we were followed and checked all the time. If you are one of the few British people working in Belgrade pre-October 2000, it is not surprising they were constantly checking, but we never had any trouble-we are and were just lawyers!

What was the worst thing that happened to you at the time?

It was to receive a phone call in the middle of the night in March 1999 and be told “Get out immediately”. To have half an hour to pack a bag and not to be allowed to even tell my secretary that I am going. To jump in a car and race to the Hungarian border at five o’clock in the morning. It was to leave and not know when you’re coming back. We went to London and for the first time in my life, I took part in demonstrations. We demonstrated with the Serbian community in front of No 10 Downing Street and at Trafalgar Square. The thing that disappointed me about Great Britain, my country of birth, in whose freedom of press I had always believed, was to see “war” propaganda flood newspapers. My wife and I could not stand it so we moved to Sofia, Bulgaria and immediately after the bombing stopped, we came back. Unfortunately as we were trying to get into Serbia, we had a serious problem at the border. They said: “He is a spy”. And my wife said: “No, he is really a Serb”. So, to prove my “loyalty” I had to recite by memory a restaurant menu in Serbian in front of police officers and customs officers (much to their amusement!). In the end, they let me through. I remember four months after the bombing ended we had an unofficial trade delegation from Britain coming to Belgrade. They were staggered at how warm the reception was. About 95% of people have this basic misconception about what Serbia is like, how the people are, and how business is conducted. In the end, they go back with a completely different view, which I think is fantastic. So, the big low was Kosovo, but the big high was October the 5th 2000. As a City of London lawyer I would never had seen that in my life-time-being a tiny part of history-the liberation from Milosevic-what an amazing day; first being tear gassed in the park, struggling to stand up in the ensuing stampede, then seeing the first signs of smoke, and then strolling the streets until the early hours, drinking whisky by the bottle with the Cacak guardians inside the burnt Parliament building! Something to tell my grand-children!

As a City of London lawyer you would never have established a rugby team in Belgrade, I assume. How did this decision spring?

I think it only right we give something back to the community so we are very focused on CSR. We do a lot of raising money for charities. Establishing a rugby team in Belgrade is another example of what I call soft diplomacy. England is the home of rugby and Red Star is an excellent sport brand. The boys are keen to play and you are doing something worthwhile. Hopefully one day they will be champions, like their football colleagues!

There is a saying that if you spend more than seven years in a foreign land, you will never go back home. What do you say to this?

I will never leave Serbia full-time, that is for sure. Serbia has a place in my life and in my heart. This is where I was married and started my family and where I have many friends. I do not miss much from England, certainly not the wet weather or the 50 minute journey to work. I would rather walk 5 minutes in the sunshine along Terazije.

If we go back to business, why have not more companies come to Serbia?

Unfortunately the issues of Kosovo and war crimes are still the two big things influencing people’s perception of Serbia-people who do not know Serbia but who are considering investing here. There are difficult economic times coming ahead in 2010. The Government should get ready for the up-side.  The key to that is branding of Serbia as the place to come and invest. Serbia has excellent ambassadors, like its tennis players.

Greenfield investors are essential, as most of Serbian Industry has been privatized. Look at IKEA- they have been negotiating to enter the Serbian market for over a year now. Stopping them, are high prices of private land. If I was the government, I would give them state land for nothing and say come and build your factory here, because we want you. As long as foreign companies are choosing neighboring countries in preference to Serbia, then Serbia is missing out.
What would you say that the companies like yours are doing to speed up Serbia’s accession towards European standards?

As an English law firm, we know what Serbian law firms must have when Serbia joins the EU. High professional standards right across the board with no restrictions or impediments to competition-like any other market. For example my law firm is regulated by the English Law Society and we are subject to very strict rules and regulations, involving confidentiality, conflict of laws, anti-money laundering. Unlike domestic law firms, every year we have to take out expensive Professional Indemnity Insurance-without that an English Solicitor cannot practice.

Western companies help people achieve new standards. U.S Steel brought with them brand new ideas, sets of regulations, regarding health and safety, reporting bad practices, environment, training, all of which increased the quality of an employee’s life dramatically.
You are a member of the Advisory Club for the South-East Europe. What does it promote?

It is a part of the Stability Pact. The whole idea was to appoint representatives of major regional and western companies who have a wealth of experience in working in South East Europe. I was appointed by the British Government and Serbia has 3 members. After the Yugoslav conflict I am very keen to overcome political barriers by encouraging and promoting cross-border business and trade. At the end of the day business crosses all borders and can only help heal old wounds from before.

Aside from Belgrade and London you have offices in Podgorica. How do you synchronize the activities?

In almost every major project that Montenegro undertook since 1996, Serbian based law firms were involved. We simply took it a stage further by having an office there. Due to the high volume of business I fly down every week. For example we have seen a rapid expansion of Middle East and North African interest in Montenegro. We are the only law firm in the world that has offices in Belgrade, Podgorica and the City of London. The key role of our office in London is to say to Investment Banks and Investors in the City “Come to Serbia”!  After all, that is how it all started for me, all those years ago!