Albanian on a mission to expand business to the far east

Irfan Hysenbelliu is one of the richest Albanian businessmen.

Irfan Hysenbelliu is one of the richest Albanian businessmen.

HE comes from a south-eastern European country unfamiliar to many Malaysians. But in his homeland, he is one of the most successful businessmen leading a conglomerate with its entrepreneurial tentacles in a diversity of industries.

Already running ten successful subsidiaries in five unrelated industries, 54-year-old Irfan Hysenbelliu’s ambition is to continue growing his sprawling conglomerate into an even more diversed one as he quenches his thirst for new industries and terrains.

The group, among the top three in Albania, has businesses in the beverages industry, producing the first Albanian beer under the Birra Korca brand, making wines and spirits as well as exporting water, a plentiful natural resource in Albania. It recently bought a fruit drink line as well.

Birra Korca was acquired in 2004, an old brewery established in 1928, and is now the third leading beer brand in Albania. It is estimated to make up 25.7% of imported and locally produced beers consumed in the country.

One of the group’s core businesses is in construction, which the group is leading in Albania, building residential units and trade centres. Like Birra Korca, the construction company Erjoni Ltd came into the Hysenbelliu stable through acquisition. It is wholly owned by Irfan.

Irfan also owns 100% of Panorama Group, a media company with two popular dailies – one on politics and economy, another on sports – and a magazine. He owns 50% in another media venture, Focus Group, which owns a newspaper, a radio, a top national television station and a news portal.

“Our media business is one of the most profitable under the group,” Irfan tells StarBizWeek, adding that the media business is one of the easiest to manage in the Albanian business environment.

In 2011, Irfan showed his taste for variety when he acquired 50% stake in a law and economics university. Universiteti Luarasi is the first private university in Albania to be accredited in law, which boasts of 75%-80% employment among its graduates.

Irfan has also taken Hysenbelliu Group across borders, collaborating with businesses from Europe and China.

It has a healthcare joint venture with Italian company Villa Maria and jointly operates 16 hospitals in Italy and one in Paris.

Irfan has also set eyes on new businesses to venture into, mainly in tourism and insurance, energy as well as oil and gas.

“We are going to focus on tourism, and we have spoken with various Malaysian companies,” he reveals.

“There is the trans-Adriatic gas pipeline project to connect gas from Azerbaijan to Europe which will pass through Albania and we would be part of,” Irfan says of the group’s foray into the energy business.

Attractions in Malaysia

Irfan, who enjoys travelling, football and music, is in town on his second visit to Malaysia this week. His first visit was a during a stopover after a business trip to China.

He was impressed with the country and had decided to bring his family along this round.

“Among the places I have found interesting in Malaysia are Genting Highlands, Pullman in Putrajaya and the administrative city on the whole, Malacca city, Menara KL, Suria KLCC and Petronas Twin Towers.”

Irfan admits to finding inspiration when he travels. In Malaysia, he notes that he is impressed with the Genting Highlands story – of how the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong took a chance on a hill and made it into an international business.

Like any serious businessman, Irfan does not waste his trip to Malaysia just sight-seeing. He has spotted some opportunities he would like to explore in Malaysia, one of which is a possible collaboration with The Star Media Group.

“I have a clear picture of the company now, having met acting group chief executive officer Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, and there are similarities between both The Star and my media groups as they are multi-media operations,” he says.

Irfan hopes to see fruition the potential cooperation with The Star either in Albania or Malaysia. “I was very impressed with the vision, energy and passion Wong has to develop this media company.”

Aside from the media industry, Irfan also met with the chief minister of Malacca during his trip here and has invited Datuk Wira Idris Haron to visit Albania in September. Irfan says he would be visiting Malaysia again next month.

The group says it hopes to confirm some form of collaboration in September.

If Hysenbelliu Group manages to work out a deal with a Malaysian business, it would make its first entry into the Asean market.

Thus far, the group has partnerships with investors from Europe mostly.

“China, like Malaysia, has been very inspiring for me,” Irfan says of his aspiration to form partnerships in these markets.

Bring on the competition!

As a successful entrepreneur, Irfan’s business philosophy is surprisingly unselfish. He does not want to “own” any industries and rejects the idea of monopolies.

“I’m against monopolies in Albania, because I believe that competition pushes other companies to further develop their businesses,” he says of his preference for a competitive market.

Albania has shed its communist past into an open-market economy in the 1990s. Gradually, it has seen a rise in foreign direct investments. One of the main reasons for that is, according to Irfan, the low tax rate to attract foreign investors at 10%.

“Many foreign companies are investing in the energy sector in Albania,” Irfan says.

The Albanian government has forecast its economy to grow 3.1% this year, compared with an earlier forecast of 4%.

As one of Europe’s poorest countries, it enjoyed a growth spurt averaging 6% a year in the decade to 2008 but was affected by the eurozone crisis as its main trading partners, bankers and investors are Italy and Greece. However, it is one of the two countries in Europe to avoid recession in 2009.

Since his daughter Fabiola was appointed group vice-president three years ago, Irfan has been able to focus on his main aspiration – to uncover opportunities for new businesses.

“I want to look for new businesses, to venture into new things,” he says, “And when a new business is up and running, I leave it to Fabiola to manage while I look for more opportunities.”

Keeping the 100% family-owned business intact, Irfan is also grooming his son Fatmir to join the group in two years time.

In any case, the globe-trotting conglomerate is not resting on its laurels, having come a long way from when it began in 1990 by importing rice, sugar and coffee from Turkey and France.