A Former USAID Recipient Pays It Forward
Innovator in Serbia coaches new generation of entrepreneurs
With just two initial employees, Miodrag Tomić opened a small food processing business in his home town of Knjaževac, Serbia, back in 1992. Today, that business — Desing — employs 45 people in a 100,000-square-foot factory, and exports to 27 countries worldwide with an annual revenue of 4 million euros (roughly $4.3 million).
Named Serbia’s second-best business in 2017 by the World Bank, the company is a leading producer of fruit and cream desserts in the Balkans, launching 20 innovative new products each year.
What was the key to his success? Tomić says two decisive events shaped him as a business leader and helped grow Desing to where it is today. First, after less than a decade in business, McDonald’s Serbia selected Desing as its main supplier of ice cream toppings.
“McDonald’s taught us a new system of values and management that is not typical for this region — that everything is measurable and what you cannot measure you cannot manage,” says Tomić.
“And most importantly, they taught us how to plan. A little-known concept in post-socialist Serbia.”
The second event was four years later, when they started working with USAID. “Since a small company always faces challenges with financing, USAID helped us acquire knowledge to design our label, develop new packaging, obtain food safety and quality standards, (and) procure software for managing the company that helped us generate savings,” said Tomić. “We are still using the bottle for desert dressings that USAID helped us develop.”
When Desing was ready for the spotlight, USAID supported their participation in the Fancy Food Show in New York in 2005 — opening up a whole new world of opportunity.
Desing’s success is especially remarkable given Serbia’s post-conflict, transition economy in the 1990s — in which incentives for businesses were few and hurdles to overcome were many. Understanding that the expertise of others helped launch his business, Tomić decided to share his know how.
In 2016, Tomić established the Desing Taste Center to drive innovation in the food industry. Each year, the center offers internships to the 20 best students of Belgrade’s agriculture and technology faculties. Through its Food Design Hub, USAID teamed up with the Desing Taste Center in 2018 to help a new generation of entrepreneurs in the food industry excel and innovate.
Having once been in their shoes, Tomić understands what it takes to translate a good idea into a profitable business and hopes to assist promising young entrepreneurs to leapfrog forward and to help usher in new prosperity in Serbia.
“Aspiring entrepreneurs often fail to recognize and articulate their problems,” he said. “Many believe that having an idea and approval from friends and family is enough to sell their product. They rarely have a plan.”
By providing step-by-step guidance in entrepreneurship, Tomić helps his interns at the Desing Taste Center break down the daunting prospect of launching a business into individual, manageable tasks.
“Using an old Indian saying and an elephant as a metaphor for a large business, I ask them, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’ — to explain vividly that managing a business is a demanding and complex process that can only be conquered through small steps.
With USAID’s support, we are helping them get on top of these steps.” — Tomić
Through guidance and mentorship from leaders in agriculture, technology, and business at Tomić’s Desing Taste Center, a new cohort of young entrepreneurs has already achieved considerable success as new business owners. With new products on the shelves of Serbia’s most prominent grocery stores, they are on track to becoming the next generation of innovators to drive Serbia’s food industry forward.
The Desing Taste Center leverages the skills and knowledge that USAID helped Tomić develop, and passes them on to a new generation of young leaders capable of taking on Serbia’s future development challenges.
The success of these trailblazers in Serbia’s food industry opens doors for other start-ups to succeed. Seeing the impact of USAID’s Food Design Hub and potential of local Serbian producers, German retail chain dm-drogerie markt decided to partner with USAID to bring more made-in-Serbia products to its shelves. By investing in local business leaders like Tomić, USAID invests in Serbia’s journey to self-reliance.
About this Story
For more than a decade, USAID has worked with Serbian counterparts to form the building blocks for an open and transparent market economy and modernized laws and regulations that will move Serbia closer to EU integration and make it easier for businesses to operate and prosper in Serbia. USAID’s Competitive Economy Project has helped dozens of firms develop new and improve existing products–now sold in major domestic retail chains.
About the Author
Mirjana Vukša Zavišić is the development outreach and communications specialist for USAID’s Serbia mission. Follow her work at @USAIDSerbia.