Seva Duty Free: Travel retail's
fast-emerging force

Seva Group Founder Severino Pušić on a landmark day for one of travel retail’s boldest independent players.

There’s a new kid on a very large duty free block in Croatia. On 13 September, Dutch firm Seva Group celebrated the Grand Opening of its first duty free store, a border shop in Metković, less than 200 metres from the road crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Moodie Davitt Report was the sole media to attend, joining leading suppliers, company officials and local VIPs for the opening. Martin Moodie reports.

Prologue: When the Deputy Mayor of Metković cut the ribbon to mark the inauguration of Seva Duty Free on 13 September, it was not so much the culmination of a dream for Seva Group Founder Severino Pušić but another giant step on an extraordinary and far from completed journey.

Pušić told guests that the opening represented a landmark for the company, the first duty free store for the fast-growing, Netherlands-based real estate to wines & spirits distribution powerhouse. Already, he said, plans are in place for further stores. Given the combination of passion, professionalism and, most of all, persistence, that were evident at the opening celebrations, those plans seem likely to bear early fruit.

The red-ribbon day began with a visit to the group’s 4,300sq m bonded warehouse in the Croation deep water port of Ploče (a facility that will be doubled in space next year), followed by the inauguration of the store. Guests then crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina for a memorable evening at Seva Group’s Rubis winery, near the historic city of Mostar.

The Deputy Mayor of Metković cuts the ribbon to mark the inauguration of Seva Duty Free on 13 September. The store benefits from a prime location just before the busy road crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Seva Duty Free majors in local and international wines & spirits (including an outstanding single malt offer), tobacco, food & confectionery, destination merchandise, sunglasses and convenience items with a small but growing beauty business.

Seva Group worked with local architects, designers and constructors to incorporate a modern and clean design and lay-out, with merchandise displayed in a modular system that uses colour shades to differentiate between categories. This design has been developed exclusively for the company in line with its retail operation branding, and with plans to implement it across future planned openings.

The crossing handles around 2.8 million travellers per year, 93% of them tourists, with the main nationalities including Italian, German, Irish, English, Spanish, Nordic and Asian (Chinese and Koreans). The store caters to international tourists travelling from Croatia’s coast to the Bosnian interior as well as regional visitors bound for the beautiful Croatian coastline.

Seva describes the store as “the first of many planned duty free operations” and in line with the company’s strategy of investing in the Central and Eastern Europe markets ahead of targeting further growth in other regions.

An average of around 6,000 people per day cross the Metković border in high season, while there is year-round traffic from visitors to Medjugorje, since 1981 a popular site of Catholic pilgrimage after reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to six local children. Medjugorje has since become one of the world’s most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics and has turned into Europe’s third-most important apparition location.

Average transaction value in the few days since the recent soft opening is around €22.40, driven by strong Russian and Asian spending. An encouraging start then for the newest kid on the duty free block. “Seva Group’s success originally grew out of our expertise in providing route to market for international brands in Central & Eastern Europe,” says Pušić. “We’ve built our business on reputation, knowledge, adaptability and reliability; these are the foundations that firmly support our latest venture into duty free and travel retail store operation and we look forward to working with existing and new brand partners to deliver a first-class duty free retail offer to our new travelling customers in the region.”

So who then is Severino Pušić? Here we profile a Mostar-born man turned professional footballer, turned opportunistic entrepreneur, become leader of a multi-national real estate-to-distribution powerhouse.

Over two days of celebrations marking the opening of Seva Duty Free in September, Severino Pušić constantly downplayed his own achievements and instead deflected the plaudits to his team. That, he says, is both recognition of the loyalty, commitment and ability of those around him but also of his dislike of the limelight.

“I’m not really a man that likes to stand up on the biggest tower and shout out what I have been through and how I have done things,” says the reluctant interviewee (this is his first industry media profile).

That modesty is borne both out of family values and of a belief in letting deeds rather than words do the talking. Today Pušić is a highly successful entrepreneur, with a sprawling multi-national enterprise that spans real estate to domestic and duty free distribution and, now, travel retailing. But life wasn’t always like that. Pušić grew up in Mostar, spending the first 15 years of his life in what is today the cultural and economic capital of the Herzegovina region. But after war broke out through 1992 and 1993 the young man, a highly talented schoolboy footballer, moved to the Netherlands to stay with his brother Marino (also a top-level player), ultimately making his big breakthrough at professional level as a forward for Leverkusen in North Rhine-Westphalia.

“I was always crazy about football as a kid. It’s in our family,” he says. “My father played football and handball. My mother played handball. My sister was probably one of the best handball players in the world in her time, without any exaggeration.

Two of Severino Pušić’s key managers, Development Manager Duty Free & Travel Retail Laura Klingeman and Petar Bokan, in charge of Seva Group’s state-of-the-art warehouse and logistics centre in the port of Ploče, celebrate a big moment in the young company’s history.

“My brother [Marino] is now the Head Coach of FC Twente in the Netherlands. So, we have a very sporty family and that’s basically how we were raised by our parents – playing outside, being outside. I am very happy with the way our parents raised us. There is a great mutual respect and we have extremely close family relationships. When I look to my brother and to my sister, I don’t think that there is a day that we are not in touch with each other, however busy we are. We simply support each other in every way.”

For most young men, landing a contract at such a club would have been the fulfilment of a dream. After all, he was rubbing shoulders with big-name German football identities such as Ulf Kirsten [former German footballer and manager], Rudy Feller and Bernd Schuster. “It was an amazing club and an amazing place,” he recalls. “It was a privilege to play with those guys and to learn from them.”

But all the while, Pušić did not feel right being away from family and country during the darkness and tragedy of war. “I started struggling with myself, because of the war back home,” he remembers. “And, you know, after a few months, I didn’t want to play anymore. The family and everyone else was pressuring me, telling me, ‘You should keep playing. People are commenting on how good you are.’ But quite simply at that moment I was not interested in the game at all.”

Brewing up plans: Severino Pušić tells guests about the tough road that he and the company have trod to develop the Ploče warehouse (also pictured below). Behind him are sacks of coffee, a key product category for Seva Group's distribution business.

Two years into a highly promising football career, Pušić decided his destiny did not belong on the pitch. By the end of 1996 he was back in Mostar, where he started a small-scale business, mainly in liquor and tobacco distribution. Soon after, he began investing in property on the beautiful Croatian coast. His sojourns weren’t over, though. Pušić returned to the Netherlands for a lengthy stint in the Royal Netherlands Army, later entering a business there dealing in exotic imported fruit and vegetables and spending time in Vietnam.

Having learned the ropes of running an international business, Pušić sold out and returned to his favoured liquor & tobacco sector, creating Seva Group in The Netherlands in 2006 as the base for a distribution business focused on the Balkans region.

His big break came when he convinced Frans de Groen (“an amazing guy”) from the then family-owned Grolsch Brewery (it sold to SABMiller in 2008 for €800 million-plus) to grant the new group distribution exclusivity for the former Yugoslavian countries. That was the start, Pušić recalls, of something much bigger. “I said, ‘Okay, I don’t want to be just a local player… I definitely want to be an international player’.” Steadily his new group began developing a regional platform for multiple brands, while he put “the right people in the right place” in different countries. With big brands such as Moët Hennessy coming onboard, Pušić knew he must be doing something right. But the restless entrepreneur hankered after further opportunities and saw the duty free channel stood out like a beacon.

To make the breakthrough though, he needed the right leader. He found the individual at the TFWA World Exhibition in the form of Laura Klingeman, an ebullient Sales Manager for Dutch duty free distribution powerhouse Sea & Sky Supply. “I noticed her on the stand in Cannes,” Pušić recalls. “She was always so energetic, always happy. Whether it was on the stand or in the restaurant or having morning coffee, there was always a smile on her face.”

The corporate courtship didn’t happen overnight. The pair talked repeatedly over three years until, with Seva Group’s momentum now irresistible, Pušić convinced Klingeman to join the company as Development Manager Duty Free & Travel Retail. Initially the focus was exclusively on distribution. But Pušić always believed that once the business reached a certain level, he would look to enter the retail channel directly. And so, partly driven by Laura Klingeman’s exuberance and ability, it came to be.

"How can the candle not burn bright with these kinds of people around you?"

– Seva Group Founder Severino Pušić

(Above and below) Seva Duty Free offers a surprisingly wide array of super-premium and ultra-premium spirits, Champagnes and wines. Note the unusually strong single malt whisky line-up for a land border store.

Today Seva Group’s domestic and duty free spread includes operations in Panama’s Colón Zone, to service Latin America; Sydney, Australia; the Dubai Free Zone; its Dutch headquarters and the state-of-the art warehouse and distribution centre in Ploče, which services global accounts.

“So, today we reach out quite wide and as a group my team are definitely going for it,” he says. “But, you know, it’s a case of everything in time and I don’t need to explain you how tough it has been to get where we are today. Of course, we have had luck as well in all that we have done, but at the same time you’re kind of making sure those moments get created in the first place.”

Seva Duty Free captures the spirit of Croatia in every sense with an impressive focus on local products.

Big international brands also command plentiful shelf space in the key confectionery offer and in sunglasses.

Vehicle for growth: Mercedes-Benz is a popular name in the Balkans and its fragrance version is selling strongly.

Luck? Perhaps a little. But it's what you do with your luck that counts. In fact this is a story crafted out of hardship, displacement and, most of all, family values. “I truly believe that my family is the fundamental base that has helped me to be who I am today," says Pušić, married to an “extraordinary” wife and the father of three children aged from 12 to 18. He also treats his team as family, believing firmly in employing calibre, trustworthy people and then empowering them.

Today, Seva Group, stands on the threshold of a new and dynamic era of expansion. I ask Pušić how he sees the journey to date. “You know, people ask me sometimes, ‘Would you do anything different?’ and I know it sounds like a cliché but I say ‘No, I wouldn’t.’”

He reflects on that for a moment, then adds, “Well, if I could have found a way to bring it [more quickly] to a bigger and higher level, that might be the only thing I would do differently. I know that I am the kind of guy who simply needs perfection. And that’s what you’re seeing in this border store in just 150sq m of space.

“People commented to me, ‘Isn’t this too much for this region?’ Well, it depends how you look at it. If you look at it financially, you have to be quite crazy to put so much money into a 150sq m store. But from another perspective, you want to give something back in terms of those people who don’t have much in that region. You saw that with your own eyes. So, I liked that challenge and I took it up.”

Pušić has grown the company enormously. Does the candle still burn bright in terms of further ambition? The reply is immediate and almost bursting with enthusiasm. “Absolutely. Absolutely. But it’s mainly thanks to the whole Seva Group family. You’ve met some of them. That’s what I see and feel every day. I mean, how can the candle not burn bright with these kinds of people around you?” 

"I truly believe that my family is the fundamental base that has helped me to be who I am today."

– Seva Group Founder Severino Pušić

Seva Duty Free General Manager Nikolas Brkić makes a passionate speech at the Grand Opening, underlining all the hard work that had gone into the development and spelling out the company’s commitment to the region.

Severino Pušić with Martin Moodie at the inauguration.

Laughter and sweet transgression in Croatia & Bosnia and Herzegovina

Seva Duty Free. Remember the name, you’ll be hearing it a lot more, writes Martin Moodie in The Moodie Blog. I attended the Grand Opening of the company’s first duty free store, a border shop in the town of Metković on the Croatian side of the Bosnia and Herzegovina crossing. I promise you, it won’t be their last.

This was preceded by a tour of the company’s bonded warehouse in Ploče, a splendid 4,300sq facility that services not just the Balkans region but much of the world. A facility, like the whole Seva Group empire, that was crafted out of hardship and through overcoming challenges.

After witnessing the landmark opening of the store, it was on by mini-van to magnificent Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, home town of Seva Group Founder and Owner Severino (‘Seva’) Pušić. The city (pictured below) straddles the Neretva River and is famous (among other things) for the wonderful Stari Most (Old Bridge), a reconstructed medieval arched bridge.

Magnificent Mostar: The majestic view from the Stari Most.

That night Seva and his team hosted us in memorable style at the company’s Rubis winery (pictured below), a beautifully elegant and stylish facility outside the city. We drank their main two wines, Vionica (a red made from the popular regional grape Blatina), which won a Bronze Medal in the Decanter Wine Awards 2018; and a lovely peachy/tropical fruit white made from Zilavka (the predominant white wine grape in the southern part of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina).

We topped that delightful duo off with Rubis’s premium label, Veteribus Blatina Barrique Crveno Suho 2015. If you think that’s a mouthful, you ought to try the wine – a fabulously velvety, fruit-forward gentle giant.

Renowned Bosnian author Ivo Andric once said, “Zilavka is full of laughter while Blatina is full of sweet transgression.” That probably explains the non-stop merriment of an enchanted evening, and if we transgressed by knocking back a few too many glasses of red, it was indeed the sweetest of mistakes.

Just writing about it brings back the taste, and the warm memories of the evening. So much so, in fact, that I have decided to take the cork out of one of the bottles of Vionica I brought home. All in the interests of research of course. It’s a beautifully balanced, easy-drinking red, just 12.5% in alcohol. One writer describes the best wines made from Blatina as both strong and tender. That’s as good a combination in wine as it is in human character.

The Moodie Davitt e-Zine | Issue 248 | 28 September 2018