United in Content

Emerging Europe speaks to Dragan Šolak, an entrepreneur who has built a Balkan success story and is significantly contributing to the economic development of the region.

Dragan Šolak, group chairman of the board at United Group, gives a precise answer when asked how he turned a small cable company he started in his hometown in Serbia in 2000 into the leading cable and media provider in the region of Former Yugoslavia.

“We always had a clear strategy: to give customers in this region – with its tremendous development opportunities – the services they really need and want. This includes a great variety of TV programming, innovative customer experience, as well as fast, reliable broadband, the best movies and shows from around the world, but also fantastic local content. And it was important to offer these services in the right bundles, at the right price and the highest quality,” he says.

Power of new technology

Mr Šolak, who began his career in the 1990s in the film production and distribution business, says new technologies and the rise of the internet presented him with a real entrepreneurial opportunity to launch his cable company.

“Coming from a content production and distribution background, I saw an opportunity to deliver content straight to the consumer. And the development of so-called DOCSIS technology, which allows the addition of high-bandwidth data transfer to cable TV systems, enabled us to include internet services and interactivity in the mix.”

Dragan Šolak

The company, which expanded by launching new services and adding assets in a number of new markets, was eventually named United Group, with Mr Šolak assuming the role of group chairman of the board. In his current role, he is involved in all aspects of the business and is responsible for the overall strategic leadership of the group, and he has sound advice for businesses in emerging Europe.

“Never label yourself, your company or your environment,” he says. “It can only limit your potential. Think globally and set the highest standards for you and your team, regardless in which market you operate. Follow your dream and there won’t be any obstacles to creating great things. Where others see limitations and problems, you must find opportunities.”

He says that he also received support early on from renowned international investors, who wanted to work with the company to bring world-class telecommunications and media services to the region.

“From the outset, I made sure that United Group was equal to global business standards and governance. This not only helped us to offer very competitive products and services but also to foster strong partnerships with internationally renowned investors and attract some of the best talent in the market. From the start, we partnered with the Southeast Europe Equity Fund, and then in 2004, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development joined our ranks. Mid Europa Partners invested in 2007,” he adds. “United Group’s channels are operating under the umbrella of the European law as they comply with the European Union’s audiovisual media services directive,” he says.

A regional leader

And since 2014, United Group is majority-owned by KKR, a leading global investment firm. Mr Šolak remained significantly invested in the business and kept his position.

Today, with its fibre and cable networks, United Group operates in six markets and reaches about 1.75 million households – an increase of one million since 2011. The company provides communications services to support the growth of over 50,000 businesses in the region. It employs more than 3,400 people and has revenues in excess of 500 million euros.

Looking ahead, Mr Šolak says, “we don’t see any limits to what we can achieve.”

“We see how the global broadcasting industry is going through a significant transformation, given that the internet and the boom of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets offer viewers much more flexibility in when, where, and how they view content such as shows, sports events, and news programmes. So to innovate and grow successfully, we must listen and adapt to our customers’ needs and demands.”

A control room at United Group’s network and television operations

Relying on local talent

Mr Šolak says it was also important to create an unique culture to attract the right people and keep them with the company long term. Alongside him, there are two other people on the management board who were there from the very start, vice-president operations Violeta Vasiljevic and United Group CEO Victoriya Boklag.

“An entrepreneurial culture attracts the kind of talent that is essential for a business to grow, and we have definitely thrived on it. We have always placed great importance on identifying, guiding, and developing talent across our company and in all the markets we operate in.”

According to Mr Šolak, the company has strived to be a meritocracy since the beginning, where work and achievements determine the career of employees, regardless of their nationality, religion or gender. Currently, over 40 per cent of the company’s senior team are women.

“Our customer-centric philosophy has been key to our success and some of our recent innovations highlight our commitment to constantly adapt our offering and anticipate the business drivers of the future,” Mr Šolak says.

“For example, last year we launched a video multiscreen service to allow customers to access content at their convenience across a variety of platforms. And as part of our commitment to improve productivity and efficiency and develop the digital services of the future, we established United.Cloud in 2016 — a technology innovation and software development centre with offices in Slovenia and Serbia. It is home to a team of more than 65 developers, many of whom have coding capabilities.”

Mr Šolak believes that producing high-quality local content is also vital part of the company’s strategy.

“Despite the rise of global media players such as Netflix, we understand local audiences want to watch shows and movies telling stories that reflect their lives and experiences. And we aim to ensure that our content has the same production values and quality as international offerings. One great example is the most-watched talent show in the region that we produce, with a total audience of over 30 per cent in the countries where it is broadcast.”

United Group has invested to increase its local production capabilities to boost the percentage of owned content on its channels. Mr Šolak is certain that it is this combination of the best local and global content that has helped United Group build a loyal base of customers.

Building the backbone

“If you look at United Group’s customer churn rate, it is only seven per cent, compared to an average of about 14 per cent for our Western European peers. I believe that our territories are actually very similar from both a cultural and social perspective, and our home-grown content is popular across the whole region — in 2017, United Media channels in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina were among the top two pay TV channels viewed and in Slovenia in the top ten pay TV channels viewed.”

Still, Mr Šolak isn’t complacent; he continues to see opportunities.

“The region’s economy is growing and customers are becoming more connected. As the central focus of our business is to meet our customers’ needs, we have built out a diversified business that offers a range of highly popular products in each of these markets,’’ he says.

But he adds that it’s important to him that United Group also gives back to the region that has supported it.

“We’re not only proud that we have shown how an enterprise can thrive in the region and the positive impact it can have. But also that we played an important part in developing the backbone of the region’s digital infrastructure, helping to boost connectivity and creating new opportunities for local business. We’ll continue to create jobs in the region and we are investing more in developing local content that is helping the region’s creative ecosystem to flourish. All that will help to showcase the economic opportunities in this region to the rest of the world,” he says. •