|Bank Opportunity Bank Serbia|
|Client Gorjana Ponjevic Ballani|
|Location Novi Sad, Serbia|
Gorjana Ponjević Ballani is an unusual woman on at least two grounds. First, she is an exceptional carpenter and started her own workshop for wood processing and furniture making Wood Planet, and secondly, she transferred the business from Italy to Zrenjanin.
A woman, a carpenter. This is not something that is often encountered. What did the path that led you to this business look like?
Two decades ago, I went to Italy, to the city of Forlì, where I got a job in a factory that is a leader in the production of interior wooden stairs. Since I had no experience, the first thing I did was sand the steps between the two varnishes. I fell in love with the tree, studied and progressed quickly. However, after a while, I realized that I didn’t have enough space in that factory for what I could give. Luckily, I wanted to meet my husband, who was our supplier. With his support, I left that company and slowly imprinted myself in the entrepreneurial waters in which I am today. Many have told me that what I have chosen is impossible or difficult to achieve. However, I managed to break all those prejudices and make myself a woman carpenter.
Like many successful businesses, yours started in the garage.
That’s where a wonderful story begins. My first piece was made in my father-in-law’s garage in Italy. I made a custom-made wild cherry cupboard for my best friend. It was my first standalone product. After that, people saw my work and the abnormal development of the company came very quickly. Unfortunately, the Italian economy was not in the mood for the development of small and medium enterprises at that time. So in 2010, we decided to move to Zrenjanin.
I escaped from Sarajevo here in 1992 and it was logical for me to stop there, even though my husband had his own company in Romania. Luckily I got pregnant after 15 years of marriage, so we were forced to stay here for a while. Those were the beginner’s steps where we didn’t become famous.
I can freely say that our agony began then. Unknown space, you don’t know people, you don’t know how to move. The beginning was very difficult. There are big differences between Serbia and Italy. Nothing was available to us, and we had obstacles at every turn. When you have private, family problems, as a small entrepreneur you are not able to dedicate yourself to work the way you should. Thus arose the desire to give up to which I even succumbed briefly. However, then a person makes a choice, goes on the right path, understands business values and moves forward.
How did you manage to solve all the problems you had?
We solved all that slowly. I had a strong desire to move forward and not give up. I joined various associations, expanded my circle of friends, came to some workshops, scheduled business meetings. There I learned a lot about entrepreneurship, how others struggle and emerge. Automatic life has become easier. If it weren’t for that, we would have to swim alone. We ran fast, but we didn’t get far. This is how when we united and united, for example through the Association of Business Women and the Association of Employers Zrenjanin. We found ourselves surrounded by people like us from whom you get information. You keep some to yourself and take advantage of them, and you spread everything further to help others. That’s how I got the “wind in my back”. Very quickly, people started recommending me, and then my work was recognized, so the media became interested. To help, support, empower, give guidelines to an entrepreneur, in my opinion that is the essence and recipe for the success of an entrepreneur. That is how that upward trajectory and the course I follow today began.
How do you reach clients? Are you advertising?
When you do something authentic, when you do it with quality and professionally, the best form of advertising is a recommendation. When, as a small entrepreneur, you invest a part of yourself and a lot of time, hours and days in one product, people easily recognize that. Today there is no need for advertising and I think that Wood Planet through quality and authenticity has created a strong brand, which each of our clients is happy to recommend. We work practically exclusively through referrals. People come to us through pieces that went to Germany, France, or people came here on vacation and saw something we were working on, or they saw a report. You know how, one tear, a drop of sweat left as a seal on that product says it all. And that hand that made it. There’s not a piece that came out of here without me mourning it. Emotionally, a person becomes attached. I have a special feeling for what I do because I give a lot and I find it hard when my piece goes. But, the best thing is when a friendship develops with the client. There, the essence of us small craftsmen was recognized and felt.
The lack of people who would practice this craft is something you face from the very beginning, but also a problem you struggle with wholeheartedly to preserve your profession.
We still have the same problems as in the beginning. But, if people look at how to solve these problems together, of course we will be able to set sail. Let’s say the lack of manpower is a problem we are constantly struggling with. Specifically, I am involved in dual education. In several primary schools, I often hold a general technical class, or these kids come to the workshop where I show them the beauty of this craft, which is dying out and is included in rare crafts. So I pass on my knowledge to them and show some things. For example, kids are thrilled with the redesign. In high schools, I am a frequent guest in entrepreneurship classes as a living example of a female entrepreneur and I have a cooperation agreement with the technical faculty, so they send their students to practice here to get acquainted with woodworking from the school desk. Since there are not enough people who are interested in doing this business, we are constantly increasing the number of machines and tools in order to have faster and more efficient work. Unfortunately, that is why we can only do limited production. In other words, there is more work than we can achieve and we are full for the whole year.
You started from scratch. At what point did you get to the point where you were overbooked?
This happened when the fear of both private business and entrepreneurship disappeared. Fear that you will fail even when family things have fallen into place. And it all happened about three years ago.
When we decided to market our knowledge that has been collected for decades with an innovative product. Whether it is the authenticity of a window from 1882 or it is the making of the front door of a religious building or a private house or an internal staircase, a wooden house. That wide range of knowledge has led us to become aware of our quality and to boldly appear before the market.
Was being a woman doing this type of work a mitigating or aggravating circumstance?
That, in fact, was the problem, perhaps the main problem. People looked at me skeptically. Somehow it is not easy for them to see a woman behind a forklift or driving a Brent and cutting logs or driving a truck and delivering goods and working on assembly or scaffolding. However, over time, people have accepted that there is one such woman, so now such problems are almost non-existent and I think there is a possibility that another woman can learn this beautiful craft and continue.
What projects do you like to work on the most?
Looking for strangeness in business probably brought me to where I am. If I had gone into series production of the door probably none of this would have happened. This diversity has led us to be able to respond to any request – from a meat cutting board to the largest wooden house of 148 square meters that we made in Italy, which is an example of eco-building. Even the insulation was wood wool.
Every project is dear to my heart. The business of facade carpentry in France, where we have been doing authentic work since 100 years ago, that is, we are making an authentic product in the way it was done a century earlier. I like to do authentic work on buildings of importance that are under the protection of the state, and there are a lot of people who own old houses and want to return everything as it used to be – the end of 1800 and the beginning of 1900. Then, in cooperation with art historians and the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, we managed to find answers to the questions of that period, and we really have a wonderful cooperation with them. That is why I cannot single out any project. Each is special and unique. I like to single out people who care about having something like that, to save their grandmother’s dresser, or great-grandmother’s armchair. I pay special attention to those jobs.
We are repairing wooden chairs for the church in Srpska Crnja, we did the Svetosavski dom in Prelez, the restoration of the Scheherazade building in Zrenjanin. Also, abroad we were subcontractors of a large factory for the production of blinds, and it happened that they were looking for blinds that were supposed to be made as they were made 120 years ago.
And you do it all yourself.
It is a pity that I have no one next to me to stand with me on the scaffolding. I would like to give my knowledge to someone so that he can continue this craft. I really try to support, explain, tell wherever I can. Whether it’s a girl who does decoupage and she will ask me how to protect her work from UV rays, or a man who is experimenting with, say, some glue and he needs advice on how to solve a problem.
What are your plans for the future?
The plan was for the people of Zrenjanin to meet me first. Well, then it was, let’s go to the Serbian market for Serbia to meet me. Then I won a few awards and it came true. Then my wish was to enter the European market and it came true. My only plan and biggest wish is to pass on everything I know from someone and that would be the “icing on the cake”. To continue this craft.