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Slovakia: A Trucking Firm Prospers In Changing Times

By Mark Huntley

Kosice, Slovakia; 15 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- For residents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia has meant a return to some semblance of a normal life. For Quickline, a trucking and freight forwarding agent in Kosice, Slovakia, it's meant shifting business eastward.

Founded in mid-1992, Quickline first established a niche in the competitive trans-European trucking market.

Before the Bosnian war, most freight traffic from Western Europe to and from Turkey traveled the former Highway of Brotherhood through the former Yugoslavia, the only continuous quality route through the region.

When brotherhood and Yugoslavia fell by the wayside five years ago, the route shifted east through Romania and Bulgaria. Trouble was, many Western truck drivers accustomed to Western European highway and safety standards refused to drive the route, especially the risky Romania leg.

That's where Quickline came in. With regional experience from pre-revolution days, its young owners knew the realities and risks of travel in the eastern Balkans. And they took the risk.

Quickline co-owner Fero Gonos puts it this way: "We had to find a place especially for us."

Within two years, Quickline was turning over the equivalent of $70,000 annually. Rather than buy and maintain its own fleet of trucks, the company contracted out to independent drivers. Hazelnuts and other agricultural products going from Turkey to Germany and cheap consumer goods going the other way ensured full loads in both directions. Profits, routes served, and staff numbers all increased.

Over the past year, two factors contributed to radical changes for Quickline -- the Dayton Accords and last year's wave of hyper-inflation in Turkey.

The now-independent links of the former Highway of Brotherhood are reopening as the former Yugoslav republics establish diplomatic relations and repair infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Turkish traders have halted imports as the relative value of the country's currency plummeted. Quickline has adapted by moving even farther east, to Russia and other former Soviet republics. Moscow is a frequent destination and the company has an office in Almaty, Kazahkstan, which arranges back loads. Those consist mostly of Chinese textiles. Trucks going east usually carry machine parts, household materials, and German and Czech beer.

Quickline now sends about 100 trucks to international destinations every month. Trips within Slovakia, mostly for state companies, are on the increase. The company had a turnover in Slovak crowns in 1995 equal to about $1.7 million and now employs a staff of 25, including three regular drivers. But the majority of loads still are carried by freelancers, about 20 of them.

In spite of the company's improving fortunes, Gonos sounds a cautious note about doing business in Slovakia.

"It's not easy," he says.

Operating conditions, especially high taxes, are difficult for all small businesses.