Interview with Mrs. Iskra Vetadzhokoska-Mucunska, Co-owner and an executive manager of Vitalia Nikola Ltd, published in the monthly business magazine “Economy and Business” in March 2015

You are a co-owner and an executive manager of Vitalia, a brand with extremely high reputation in the field of health food. Was the decision to focus on health food a strategic decision from the very beginning, more than twenty years ago? What were the initial plans and expectations, the beginnings of the business?

I.V.Mucunska: Crucial point in the determination to start our own business and promote health food was the desire to help the large number of friends and associates who, back in the nineties, were looking for a solution to their needs for special diet that was then not available in the market. At that time, there was no perception of the importance of healthy diet and innovative ideas were losing the battle with the traditional eating habits. That was when we opened the first small shop in Bunjakovec, which was the first specialized shop under the brand Vitalia. It offered a wide range of macrobiotic and vegetarian products, whole grains, soy products, unrefined sugars and other foods that we were introduced to for the first time. Having faith in our own idea, we committed ourselves to raising the awareness of the consumers about the benefits of health food and introducing it as an investment in their health. But raising people’s awareness about the importance of healthy food in a country of food lovers was a real challenge and actually the more difficult part of the business development. I remember that we were faced with an intense period of educating the population,through publishing numerous educational articles and nutritional tips, by which we successfully made positive influence toward changing the eating habits of the consumers, bringing healthy food in the daily menu of every family. Furthermore, we figured out that it is the perfect time to start our own production and create competitive quality products affordable for the general public. Thanks to the successful development strategy that included innovation, originality, quality and professional service, we have created a strong and well-established brand, which is positioned as a leader not only in Macedonia but also in the region. Today, the successful team of Vitalia has 180 employees who are fully committed to customer satisfaction, who work vigorously, create and live the values of the brand. The strong management team in which my brother, who is an executive manager responsible for technology development, procurement and production, plays a special role, enables a continuous growth and development of the company.

When you look back, according to you, what was the key factor for the success of Vitalia in the initial phase.

I.V.Mucunska: Having the idea to make healthy food affordable for everyone, a few years after the establishment we decided to start our own production and to substitute expensive imported products with Macedonian products, made from domestic raw materials. This is how the famous line of dietary jams and compotes under the brand Vitalia was born, which with their unique taste and aroma of the delicious Macedonian fruit were soon embraced not only by the domestic market, but they were also our greatest asset when we decided to export our products. But we did not stop there. We decided to expand the range with new innovative products that follow the needs of modern consumers and satisfy their gastronomic requirements for healthy, but also delicious food. The second key factor in the success and development of the company is our decision to become an export-oriented company. One of the difficulties that we faced with at the beginning is that we come from a country, i.e. a market which is not well known in the world, and in which people tend not to have full confidence. But the abundance of original healthy products with top quality and top design, the regular participation in international fairs and the excellent service we provide to our customers, attracted the attention of many companies that today are partners of Vitalia.

Healthy food, in general, is perceived as an added value and therefore it has a heftier price tag. How have you dealt with this perception? Given the relatively lower purchasing power of the consumers in the domestic market, has it set your intentions toward exporting your products from the very beginning?

I.V.Mucunska: Our guiding thought from the very beginning was the desire to change the bad eating habits of the Macedonian consumers by helping them recognize the importance of healthy food and healthy lifestyle, thus helping in the creation of healthy generations. That is why we decided to make healthy food affordable for everyone, to start our own production that will allow for substitution of imported and expensive products with domestic ones, at affordable price and created to satisfy the taste of the Macedonian consumer. And that was not all. Simultaneously, we started educating the population about healthy food and introducing the benefits of its consumption. Throughout the past two decades we have shown that we are not aiming at fast profit, but at creating something that will remain as a value for the next generations. And we succeeded in it. The Macedonian consumers rapidly change their thinking in a positive direction, when it comes to the issue of healthy eating, and Vitalia is their trusted partner. Our customers‘ satisfaction is evident. They identify themselves with the brand, they have embraced our mission as their own and believe in what Vitalia is doing. They are grateful and proud of Vitalia as a Macedonian brand and they generously share their satisfaction on our contact address, on our fan page and, of course, at the educational meetings we organizefor them.

Speaking of exports, where can we find the products of Vitalia in the world and which are your products that are most demanded? What is your assessment of the individual foreign markets? For example, in what way is our regional market different from the US or the European market in terms of consumption of healthy food?

I.V.Mucunska: Each market has its own specifics. For example, markets in the Middle East insist on healthy, but well sweetened food. For them, taste is the first priority, which is then followed by functionality. Unlike them, the Nordic countries are quite opposite in their requirements and habits. For them, the health aspect is the first priority, but the functionality is a must. Just for illustration, at the moment, for our partner from Sweden we are developing a product that carries the attributes „free from“, meaning free from all ingredients that are problematic for specific categories of consumers. Japan in itself was also a challenging and inspiring project that pushed us to a higher level of competitiveness. In fact, by penetrating each new market, we are richer for one more experience, the confidence of our team strengthens and we have the sense that we are a global player. And that is crucial for the success and further development of the company. Our stance is to accept the challenge, to say YES even to what seems impossible, not to refuse the customers, to always find a way to meet their requirements. That is our strength, that is what distinguishes us from the competition, what makes us unique, the one and only. As a result of the quality and original products, prompt service and willingness to meet the specific requirements of customers, today the brand Vitalia is present in the most famous world retail chains, such as: Auchan, Tesco, Kaufland, Metro, Billa, Veropulos, Carrefour, Spar, Mercator, Konzum, Delhaize, Wholefoods, DM, and in the last two years the products of Vitalia can be found in the world online store amazon.com, and on the shelves of Wholefoods USA and Canada. We have shown that healthy food under the brand Vitalia made in Macedonia is an equal competitor of world famous brands in this field. Our regular presence at world fairs confirms our determination to succeed, and Vitalia is a brand with a solid position on the map of regional - European producers of healthy food with credibility in its field. Today the brand Vitalia is exported to more than 35 countries on five continents, including: European Union, America, Australia, Japan, Middle East, Russia, India, Lebanon, UAE, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Seychelles...

In general, is there anything that our economic policy makers could do to further support exporters?

I.V.Mucunska: As an export-oriented company, the biggest constraints we face are customs procedures and policies, which unfortunately make the process more difficult, create higher costs, and are simultaneously being time consuming, which creates a general negative impression among foreign customers. Hence the need to improve the economic cooperation with as many countries as possible, sign free trade agreements and the eliminate customs duties on imports of Macedonian products which directly reduces the costs and improves their price competitiveness. An important segment is the necessity to harmonize the export documentation especially with the countries of the region through mutual recognition of documents issued by authorized institutions, which would dramatically shorten the time and the cost of exports. Furthermore, there is a need of simplification of export procedures in terms of reducing the volume of documentation and the time frame for validation by domestic institutions, i.e. they should serve their primary purpose - be of service to export companies and be the wind in their sails. Let us remind that the export is high on the agenda of any economy, including the Macedonian.

You pay great attention to the quality control of your products. What quality certificates you have and how much have they opened the doors for export? What does your experience show, has the investment in the quality certificates paid off?

I.V.Mucunska: The main prerequisite for success in what you do is to have ethics. The ethics is especially necessary in the production of food. This is precisely the essence of our success. Every product we develop is created with love, from the heart, and primarily must satisfy our strict criteria for quality, functionality and, of course, taste. We have confirmed our orientation towards producing quality products also by introducing the strictest international standards for food safety, such as HACCP, ISO, BRC, Vegetarian, which have increased our competitiveness and the confidence in the brand Vitalia. We have also implemented the specific Kosher and Halal standards which enabled us to enter the markets of the Middle East. Recently we have implemented the prestigious IFS certificate for quality and safe production that aims to facilitate the access to important retail chains from the European Union and is designed to improve the communication between food producers

Speaking of exports, where can we find the products of Vitalia in the world and which are your products that are most demanded? What is your assessment of the individual foreign markets? For example, in what way is ourregional market different from the US or the European market in terms of consumption of healthy food?

I.V.Mucunska: Each market has its own specifics. For example, markets in the Middle East insist on healthy, but well sweetened food. For them, taste is the first priority, which is then followed by functionality. Unlike them, the Nordic countries are quite opposite in their requirements and habits. For them, the health aspect is the first priority, but the functionality is a must. Just for illustration, at the moment, for our partner from Sweden we are developing a product that carries the attributes „free from“, meaning free from all ingredients that are problematic for specific categories of consumers. Japan in itself was also a challenging and inspiring project that pushed us to a higher level of competitiveness. In fact, by penetrating each new market, we are richer for one more experience, the confidence of our team strengthens and we have the sense that we are a global player. And that is crucial for the success and further development of the company. Our stance is to accept the challenge, to say YES even to what seems impossible, not to refuse the customers, to always find a way to meet their requirements. That is our strength, that is what distinguishes us from the competition, what makes us unique, the one and only. As a result of the quality and original products, prompt service and willingness to meet the specific requirements of customers, today the brand Vitalia is present in the most famous world retail chains, such as: Auchan, Tesco, Kaufland, Metro, Billa, Veropulos, Carrefour, Spar, Mercator, Konzum, Delhaize, Wholefoods, DM, and in the last two years the products of Vitalia can be found in the world online store amazon. com, and on the shelves of Wholefoods USA and Canada. We have shown that healthy food under the brand Vitalia made in Macedonia is an equal competitor of world famous brands in this field. Our regular presence at world fairs confirms our determination to succeed, and Vitalia is a brand with a solid position on the map of regional - European producers of healthy food with credibility in its field. Today the brand Vitalia is exported to more than 35 countries on five continents, including: European Union, America, Australia, Japan, Middle East, Russia, India, Lebanon, UAE, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Seychelles...

In general, is there anything that our economic policy makers could do to further support exporters?

I.V.Mucunska: As an export-oriented company, the biggest constraints we face are customs procedures and policies, which unfortunately make the process more difficult, create higher costs, and are simultaneously being time consuming, which creates a general negative impression among foreign customers. Hence the need to improve the economic cooperation with as many countries as possible, sign free trade agreements and the eliminate customs duties on imports of Macedonian products which directly reduces the costs and improves their price competitiveness. An important segment is the necessity to harmonize the export documentation especially with the countries of the region through mutual recognition of documents issued by authorized institutions, which would dramatically shorten the time and the cost of exports. Furthermore, there is a need of simplification of export procedures in terms of reducing the volume of documentation and the time frame for validation by domestic institutions, i.e. they should serve their primary purpose - be of service to export companies and be the wind in their sails. Let us remind that the export is high on the agenda of any economy, including the Macedonian.

You pay great attention to the quality control of your products. What quality certificates you have and how much have they opened the doors for export? What does your experience show, has the investment in the quality certificates paid off?

I.V.Mucunska: The main prerequisite for success in what you do is to have ethics. The ethics is especially necessary in the production of food. This is precisely the essence of our success. Every product we develop is created with love, from the heart, and primarily must satisfy our strict criteria for quality, functionality and, of course, taste. We have confirmed our orientation towards producing quality products also by introducing the strictest international standards for food safety, such as HACCP, ISO, BRC, Vegetarian, which have increased our competitiveness and the confidence in the brand Vitalia. We have also implemented the specific Kosher and Halal standards which enabled us to enter the markets of the Middle East. Recently we have implemented the prestigious IFS certificate for quality and safe production that aims to facilitate the access to important retail chains from the European Union and is designed to improve the communication between food producers and major European market chains. Furthermore, Vitalia is the first company in Macedonia which has implemented the SA 8000: 2008 international standard for social responsibility. The purpose of this standard is to ensure practicing of the code of ethics in every segment of the company‘s operations, which means creating an environment free of the use of child labor, forced labor, and discrimination on any grounds.

The success in the food industry is largely due to the quality of the staff, which is specific, such as technologists, nutritionists, etc. Is it difficult to find such a quality staff in Macedonia?

I.V.Mucunska: Vitalia has an excellent team of ambitious, brave, intuitive employees who dream the same dream, and that is to create healthy generations by creating top healthy products. For them we have created comfortable and positive working environment and high level of company culture which inspire them to be team players, creative and free in expressing themselves. Each team member is encouraged to participate in the creation of the company‘s policy. The practice of Vitalia is to build and develop its staff. Several times a year the staff receives training in their field of interest in order to improve their work performances. Macedonia has good and educated staff, which only needs to be properly oriented, to be inspired and motivated. I am proud of my colleagues, all of them equally cherish and live the values of Vitalia. Therefore they are a successful team that is a pleasure to work with.

The competition in the food industry is huge. Success requires constant investment in modern technology and new products. How is Vitalia doing in this regard?

I.V.Mucunska: Without innovation there is no development, and stagnation leads to failure. Our portfolio consists of over 300 healthy products covering 15 categories, which makes us a leader in the production of healthy food in the region. Each year we invest in human resources and technology, whereby we successfully maintain our competitive advantage – the innovation. Each year we launch at least 15 new original products that follow the latest trends in healthy food. Thus, earlier this year we launched the attractive Take away muesli in a cup, which due to their convenience and attractive packaging made a true splash in the market. We also made a positive surprise by launching the first healthy dessert on the market, Vitalia Finest dessert selection, a unique dessert composed of sweet cereal bites enriched with nuts, dried fruits and natural sweeteners. This is another confirmation of our leadership and top performance in what we do. That is why today the brand Vitalia is the number one choice for healthy food not only in Macedonia, but also in the region. Confirmation of this is the Superbrand award, as well as last year‘s survey QUDAL in Macedonia, where in competition with international and local brands Vitalia was selected No.1 in quality.

You have also opened a so-called e-shop. What are your expectations and experiences from the use of this distribution channel?

I.V.Mucunska: Although our products are available in all types of retail facilities such as supermarket chains, local supermarkets, pharmacies, drug stores, health food stores, kiosks, sports centers, the dynamic life rhythm has imposed a need for a new way of providing service for our customers by using the technology that is at our disposal. We created the Vitalia electronic shop www.shop.vitalia.com.mk where consumers have a 24-hour opportunity to choose and order their favorite healthy products of the brand Vitalia in a quick, easy and simple way, every day of the week. Currently, the electronic shop makes deliveries only on the territory of Macedonia, and our next challenge is to engage in international sale. The first impressions suggest that the Macedonian consumer is still rather oriented towards on spot shopping, in the stores where shopping is not only a necessity, but it is also a way of entertainment. That is why this year we have invested in opening two new modern shops, one in City Mall and the other at the current location on 50 Divizija St. near the Clinical Center.

I think that today the future of healthy food, both in the world and in Macedonia, looks brighter than it did in the past. We see national campaigns for a healthy diet, and the other day the World Health Organization highlighted the need of reducing the quantities of sugar we consume, etc. Will we be successful enough in educating the population about the importance of healthy food? Will we manage to reduce the number of obese children in Macedonia? In that context, do you sometimes see your business as something more than an individual company success, as a mission that is greater than that, a mission that should rapidly improve the eating habits in the society?

I.V.Mucunska: Our mission is to create a healthy nation, healthy generations, healthy youth that will lead this country in the future and will be its backbone. The health food we create is the basis for the realization of that mission. Our customers believe in it, too, they are part of our big family, and together we dream the same dream. In this respect, at our initiative, and in collaboration with the educational institutions in Macedonia, we have been organizing the project “Grade five for healthy food” for seven years in a row, for which in 2013 we were awarded the prestigious 13 November award of the City of Skopje. The project is aimed at introducing preschool and school children to the world of healthy food and helping them create healthy eating habits. Satisfaction with the result is obvious among both the teachers and the parents. So, our mission in the field of education continues, and our team of doctors and nutritionists prepares new, modern and interactive methods of communication with the children.

The authentic Macedonian business stories like this of Vitalia are inspiring. What is your message to current and potential entrepreneurs, to all those who have a business dream?

I.V.Mucunska: When two decades ago, during a family lunch, my father who had just returned from a stay in Germany, informed us of his pioneering idea to start with the promotion of healthy food in our country, we thought we were facing an illusion. The reaction at that time was understandable, but looking back from today’s perspective I can only confirm that Vitalia is a remarkable example of how by having faith in your own ideas, with a determination to succeed, with a vision and hard work you can reach any heights. That is why my message is: be brave, let yourselves be guided by the vision of your own success and love for your work. Believe in yourself, in your idea, in your abilities. Believe in your vision and the success is inevitable. Fight, be persistent, because only determination will bring you results.

In the end, let me ask you a completely different question. At your home, do you talk more about healthy food or about the latest car models?

I.V.Mucunska: Food and cars have a common point of contact – they are not only a necessity, but also a real pleasure for the people. Healthy food is a choice that will enable us enjoy those pleasures longer. All this, coupled with love, is the true formula for success.

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