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Predrag Balentovic grew up in the small town of Zupanija, Slavonia, beside what was then the “Road of Brotherhood and Unity” – the Zagreb-Belgrade highway, the asphalt pride of then Yugoslavia.
“All my life I was listening to those cars. It was very exciting,” he remembers.
A quarter of a century later, he heads the company that makes the twinkling signs and flashing numerals that control the ever-increasing traffic on Croatia’s modern motorways.
Mr Balentovic, an electrical engineer, joined the research and development department of the then Telefon-Gradnja, primarily a telecoms hardware company, in 1996.
With the war for independence over, Croatia made the strategic decision to develop its nascent motorway network. The purpose was to support economic growth, particularly tourism, and exploit Croatia’s geographical position on a number of key routes across central Europe.
It is difficult to imagine how rudimentary the road system was at that time, he says. “A car trip in Croatia was an adventure in itself. After the economic destruction in the war [of independence], the country had to make choices, and focus on bringing benefits in the shortest time. Transport and tourism required a huge highway network.”
The company was well placed to win orders such as emergency telephone systems for the new network, but saw many more opportunities, particularly in terms of value-added work, in modern signage and traffic management systems.
By analysing the problems, learning from others and creating its own solutions, Telefon-Gradnja developed in tandem with the Croatian motorway network, steadily gaining expertise, especially in tunnel traffic management due to the often mountainous terrain. On the way, it gained its first export contract, almost unnoticed. “We worked as a sub-contractor on a tunnel in Montenegro nearly five years ago, but since it was ex-Yugoslavia, we didn’t really consider it ‘foreign’. Our first proper foreign contract was a small job in Germany two and a half years ago for the highway around Stuttgart,” he says.
“We can now equip motorway systems on a turnkey basis with state-of-the-art, integrated traffic management systems, including variable signs, weather stations and control centres. We’ve done 24 stretches in Croatia and six abroad.” The company’s exports, initially tentative, have begun to climb as publicity spreads – a process boosted by the International Road Federation, which presented the Croatian company with its top award in the Traffic Management and Intelligent Transportation Systems category last year.
“We expect revenues of about €39m (£32m, $50m) this year, up from €30m in 2007. Exports, which were just 10 per cent of business last year, are now at 35 per cent, and we expect that figure to double next year. We’re doing business from the USA to India,” he says.
On the way, Mr Balentovic has become chief executive, and the company – now employing 150 near Zagreb – has changed its name to Telegra. “We still see work potential in Croatia, but the future is abroad,” he says.
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