Published in Nacional number 735, 2009-12-15

Autor: Marko Biočina

INA's biggest oil partner

From refugee to oil magnate

Hetem Ramadani, a Slovenian businessman of Albanian extraction, the owner of the Salbatring company, the chief trading partner to INA, has, thanks to last year's revenue growth of 937 percent, secured the title of the fastest growing company in Southeastern Europe

MEDITATING TO SUCCESS As the secret of his success Hetem Ramadani underlines 'courage, creativity and peace', values he learned during his time in India and with well-known America yoga promoter Deepak Chopra – he meditates with his 14 employees every day
MEDITATING TO SUCCESS As the secret of his success Hetem Ramadani underlines 'courage, creativity and peace', values he learned during his time in India and with well-known America yoga promoter Deepak Chopra – he meditates with his 14 employees every day It is not a widely known fact in Croatia that one of the biggest commercial partners of the Croatian oil company INA is Salbatring, owned by a Slovenian businessman of Albanian heritage Hetem Ramadani. Over the past few years, this company has grown into one of the largest oil and oil derivative dealers in Southeastern Europe. Salbatring, for example, buys up most of INA's exports of petrol coke and liquefied petroleum gas, sells it oil and oil derivatives, and just last year saw a 937 percent growth in its revenues. This is an impressive figure, especially considering that the company only employs 14 people, and a growth in revenues from some 60 million euro in 2007 to 611 million in 2008 has secured Salbatring the title of the fastest growing company in Southeastern Europe.

The success is even greater if one bears in mind that most of the oil companies in the region, including INA, Ramadani's chief trade partner, finished the same period with massive losses. INA alone, in the last quarter of 2008 lost about 1.5 billion kuna in its oil and natural gas operations. In these circumstances, having succeeded in a year of recession in increasing his company's revenues ten-fold, the little know Hetem Ramadani earned the status of the most perspective Slovenian businessperson.

He is currently the seventh richest person in Slovenia, with assets estimated at 68.5 million euro. His wealth, by the estimates of the journalists at Finance, the daily that produces the rankings, has grown by over 230 percent over the past year, and Ramadani is now the owner of the largest private house in Slovenia, with 3,000 square metres floor area, and a number of luxurious properties, automobiles and boats. But this 55-year-old mechanical engineer has earned all he owns over the past 20 years.

He set up his company in Ljubljana in 1990 after having arrived in Slovenia from Kosovo as a refugee. Ramadani has in the past explained his departure from Kosovo as motivated by political reasons, saying that his support of Kosovar independence saw him dismissed from the civil service. When he got to Ljubljana he was 37 years old, jobless and penniless, did not speak Slovenian, and by his own admission did not want, like other Albanians, to work in the hospitality industry or deal fruits and vegetables.

Initially his company traded petrol coke and metal ores, and it is currently the largest importer of oil derivatives on the eastern side of the Adriatic.
Nevertheless, in spite of his massive success, Ramadani is a very unusual businessman. In interviews he cites, as his business motto, courage, creativity and peace, values he learned to appreciate during his stay in India and the seminars he attended by well-known US yoga promoter Deepak Chopra. Even now Ramadani claims to spend a few hours meditating each day, spends 60 days each year on the seaside, 35 skiing and travels somewhere every weekend. Asked how he manages this along with all his other obligations, he says that he "does not work much, but works smart."

Besides Ramadani all of the other employees of the company regularly meditate, and there are only 14 of them, and Ramadani says he does not need any more because he would spend too much time then managing them. As regards the massive revenue growth his company has achieved over the past year, Ramadani explains his business policy by the fact that he has succeeded in establishing personal relationships with major global oil companies. "I have no idea how to use the Internet, and hardly ever use a computer. My associates do that. The Internet accounts for 0.1 percent of Salbatring's success. There is nothing new in the oil business. There are no secrets. Prices are set on global markets. My approach works in person. What is important is how they perceive you personally."

Nevertheless, regardless of the fact that Ramadani often cites major oil companies like Shell and Lukoil, the fact is that Salbatring's key partner is Croatia's INA, and that their trade relation is significantly more intensive than INA's relationship with much larger and better known oil trader companies such as, for example, Lukoil's Litasco. What is more, the representatives of that company have allegedly on several occasions expressed their unhappiness with the fact that they are unable to close direct deals with INA, but are forced to work via a go-between - Salbatring. If this information is true, it could be concluded that Salbatring has assumed the role of broker for INA's supply of oil and oil derivatives.

These kinds of middlemen are commonplace in the oil industry, but are often linked to illegal operations. For example, last year's natural gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine was largely caused by several broker companies that earned massive commissions on the transport of natural gas from one country to another. When these companies were thrown out of the operation the entire situation settled down and the supply of natural gas resumed.

In the oil trade, broker companies also frequently connect buyers and sellers, but in the case of INA it is unclear why such a relatively large company, with a long tradition and as much experience, would need help in establishing direct contact with some of the large global oil trader companies like Glencore, Vitol or Litasco.

These companies have at their disposal massive quantities of oil and oil derivatives, own their own fleets of ships and massive storage facilities, and based on this as a rule also offer the most competitive prices through long term contracts, which makes it odd that INA would purchase derivatives from a small Slovenian firm, which itself probably buys them from some major company. Nevertheless, although the volume of the total trade between INA and Salbatring is unknown, it can be assumed that it is significant.

DEEPAK CHOPRA, an American guru of eastern spirituality is Hetem Ramadani's inspiration
DEEPAK CHOPRA, an American guru of eastern spirituality is Hetem Ramadani's inspiration Ramadani himself, in an interview for the Ljubljana-based Dnevnik, said that his company in 2008 imported over a million tonnes of oil derivatives by sea, which makes it the largest importer on the eastern side of the Adriatic. Considering the needs of the Croatian company it can be assumed that a significant quantity of these derivatives were in fact for INA.

On the other hand, according to unofficial information, Salbatring has for years now been one of the key buyers of INA products, primarily of liquefied petroleum gas. These operations started in the 1990s, when INA became Salbatring's first major partner. Salbatring was then involved in the trade of iron ore and coal. One of the company's first jobs was with the former coke plant in Bakar, to which it supplied a large quantity of coal purchased in Albania. As the coke plant was by then already in financial duress, the top managers at the Bakar plant offer to pay Ramadani in coke.

He quickly grasped that there was a growing demand for this fuel, especially in the metallurgic industry, which was highly represented in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. He decided to intensify his trade in coke, and signed his first major contract on the supply of coke with INA in 1994.

At the time the Croatian company had sizeable quantities of coke at its disposal, as it is the by-product of an oil refining process called coking, used to produce larger quantities of diesel fuel.

The contract was allegedly concluded with the backing of then INA general director Dragutin Koscec. Salbatring grew selling INA's coke to the countries of Southeastern Europe, and after the NATO intervention in Kosovo new business perspectives opened for the company. Ramadani was by then already considered a prominent Kosovo businessman, and his company bid for a series of lucrative contracts in the country. Salbatring became the local partner for the major global postal firm DHL, and made an unsuccessful bid for a telecommunications concession in collaboration with American Motorola.

In 1999 he joined INA in setting up a joint oil derivatives trading company in Kosovo, and that same year a contract was signed giving Salbatring exclusive rights to buy up INA's entire coke production. But because of its low price, coke trading is considered a low-profitability venture, and Salbatring only achieved a significant breakthrough in its revenues in 2005 when it began buying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from INA. Salbatring bought up INA's significant excess production, as the company produces about twice the PG at its refineries than domestic production as a whole.

This fuel has, on the other hand, seen a massive expansion in Europe over the past decade, especially as a household fuel and as a cheap and ecologically acceptable alternative to petrol. The supply of LPG in the European Union does not, in principle, meet the demand, especially in the winter. That is why Salbatring had little difficulty selling INA's gas in Western Europe, or the gas coming from Algeria.

In January of 2006 the company signed a long-term contract with INA on the purchase of most of INA production of excess LPG. This contract has often been criticised by representatives of the Croatian association of LPG drivers, saying that it is inadmissible that INA export LPG, and that at the same time there be shortages of the fuel in Croatia. Among oil experts there is speculation that the contract provides for exceedingly high profits for the Slovenian company, to the tune of some 40 dollars per tonne.

Early last year Salbatring started direct sales to INA of oil and oil derivatives. That year proved to be the most successful in the company's history, but also highly unsuccessful for INA. The business year ended with INA showing 1.1 billion kuna in losses, and soon thereafter Government and MOL concluded a new shareholder agreement, the Hungarian company launched preparations for personnel and organisational changes in the company's top management, and in the situation there was no analysis made of the Croatian company's operations during the last three months of last year.

As INA had recorded profits of 355 million kuna during the first nine months of that year, it turns out that it lost about 1.5 billion kuna in the last three months of the year.

BUSINESS RELATIONS between Salbatring and INA started back in the 1990s; INA headquarters on Veceslava Holjevac Avenue
BUSINESS RELATIONS between Salbatring and INA started back in the 1990s; INA headquarters on Veceslava Holjevac Avenue This loss was probably largely caused by the sudden drop in oil prices on global markets, and significant changes in the dollar exchange rate, but it comes as no surprise that one high-ranking INA manager, with whom Nacional spoke, feels that this period is in fact key to understanding the later events in the negotiations between Croatian Government and MOL over the management rights in the company.

"If the State Attorney's Office is in fact already carrying out an investigation into the privatisation of INA, it should also analyse the situation in INA at the moment the deal was signed. The company was then burdened with a billion kuna in losses, and that situation certainly contributed to the final outcome of the negotiations, because it could be used by the Hungarians as an argument that INA had not in the past been managed well, and that management rights should be ceded to them.

INA's losses last year have, in fact, never been adequately explained, because it is evident that some of INA's trading partners, like Salbatring, made enormous profits on oil purchase operations, while INA itself recorded catastrophic losses."

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