SOKOL KRAJA, “The International Business Success of Tea & Chocolate”
Journalist – If you decide to go online and do a detailed search about the Albanian company Kraco, you will discover that it is a leading company in the Albanian market and one of the well-known international companies in the field of hot drinks. Kraco products, completely “Made in Albania” can be found today in the supermarkets of Spain, France, Holland, Italy, Greece, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. This is thanks to the high standards, strict procedures, and truly wonderful employees of the international level that this company has. The Kraco company can be called a good ambassador of Albania in the markets of the European Union with about 250 employees who are constantly trained and evaluated. And behind this company, this strategy to constantly discover talents capable of representing Kraco in international markets and not only in Albania, but there is also a name hidden, the one who conceived it, founded it, and built it, the man who gave it his soul, energy and its own time. He is Sokol Kraja, who welcomes us warmly in his office.
Today we have chosen another company, the Kraco company, and to interview its executive director or CEO, Mr. Sokol Kraja. Thank you very much for welcoming us and opening the doors of your company to conduct this interview.
CEO: Thank you for coming, you are welcome anytime, to share and exchange thoughts with each other related to development, the economy, business, or anything else.
Journalist: Thank you very much, I would like to start with something that I noticed as soon as our TV Scan car entered your company, I have seen many companies, many warehouses, and many institutions and if we had a list of them I would say that KRACO is one of the most prized and the cleanest, most brilliant gem, how is it possible to have all this high quality, hygiene, purity here, everything shines while it is a production and warehouse company, it surprised us.
CEO: This is a very important question, companies that deal with food are one step away from pharmaceuticals since pharmaceutical products and food enter the human body and it must be like a pharmaceutical company at the level of cleaning, at the level of quality control, at the level of food safety, the level of employees, the level of order, the level of discipline, so it is a unity, a complex of measures that we try to apply day by day.
I am now expanding on the question since you allowed me to expand on quality, which sums up many things, the quality of a company does not sum up only purity, purity is a main element, a key element, but another element. is the purity of the human brain, how clean it is because the person who comes to the company and the food, he takes with him must be very clean, he must be uncontaminated and the clothes he wears must be uncontaminated after all these elements affect the food that he packs or processes during the day in the production lines for sale. Our company is a certified company with the highest standard rates where we received the International Food Standard (IFS) certificate with 97% out of 100% in companies where the audit board, i.e., their audit body, was by TUV NORD. They have inspected everything for us to get this level of certification, the IFS certificate allows us to export to Europe, if you don’t have IFS as a certificate, it is difficult or very impossible to export products to the countries of the European Union. All over the world, 16,000 companies have this type of certification, and we are one of these companies. We have tried to do our best, not for the certification but for ourselves since we have several layers of control, and several control networks in the company to ensure the procedures of internal development and internal organization. It has arisen as a necessity from more exports because the local market does not need these certifications with super high standards.
Journalist: I believe it should be transformed, and it should return to the work culture of Albania.
Ceo: It is necessary, as the people must be educated, society does not yet require that you have high standards in food, so a product that does not have a LOT Number is not rejected in the supermarket, so let’s say that each of our products has a lot number that indicates when it was produced, the day it was produced, I will tell you later, the date it was produced, the employee who produced it, the raw materials that were put into this product, the analyzes that were done for this product. Since it often happens that in the market we find products or some companies have contaminated products and have to withdraw the product from the market, it has often happened when international companies, as we do with cars, for example, the car is defective and they withdraw it from the market, the same thing happens even with food, there are contaminated foods that appear on the market, so the parent company tells him that, let’s say, the cocoa that I supplied has a problem, he tells KRACO, and KRACO, in case they don’t know where this cocoa is sold, has not the width of the product, then it is impossible to have this, and there is a risk that people with this contaminated, poisoned product will go to hospitals, so this is the call, you must know to which market you sold this product.
Journalist: While KRACO has achieved this, that is why it is one of 16,000, let’s say it is a very small figure, 16,000 in the whole world means that you must be part of a very select group of companies and we are lucky to have it in Albania. Is this your market or is it your biggest export market?
CEO: This is a very good question; we have tried to diversify our existing portfolio. The portfolio is 50% export and 50% local, so when there is a local crisis you rely on exports, and when there is a crisis in exports you rely on the local product. It is not easy to sell in supermarkets in Europe, our company today exports a lot of products, we have private label products in Mercadona, Spain, one of the biggest supermarkets with 1700 supermarkets. We produce chocolate for France, over 5 types of chocolate, for the French airport, the French army, and French hospitals. We produce tea for Holland, we produce tea for the Italian highway, we produce and are the leading market in Kosovo, we export our products to several Greek islands, and we are the leading market in Albania.
Journalist: To try Kraco chocolate, we must go to the airport in France or can we find it here in Tirana?
CEO: You can find Kraco products at almost every point of sale in Albania.
Journalist- We Albanians are big fans of coffee. We love coffee more than chocolate, tea, and cocoa, and you are telling me that you have brought another alternative to this product, which is healthier, and safer for those who have health problems.
CEO: We also have a coffee factory, called Dua Caffe. Dua Caffe has been on the market for 5 years. We produce all types of coffee; we have a fully automated and very modern factory. We produce coffee for bars, Turkish coffee, cialda coffee which is used for office espresso, ginseng coffee, Barley coffee, and decaffeinated coffee, so we have a whole range of coffees. Dua Caffe and Kraco complete the portfolio for a bar, hotel, and Horeca. Our product portfolio covers about 50% of the local market.
It is very interesting when we cooperate with foreigners, they come to audit our company, they come to check the company’s ability to produce for their supermarkets. If you don’t have trained staff, staff at the European level is impossible to convince them that you are a company that can sell in Europe. The “Made in Albania” brand is not very important in Europe. The brand of a country is not only made by a product, but also by politics, culture, sport, etc. It’s like saying “Made in Italy” and by “Made in Italy” comes to mind Armani, Berlusconi, pizza, etc. The brand is a whole of things. When you say “Made in Germany”, you understand that it’s Germany, but when you say “Made in Albania” there’s a kind of prejudice. We try to convince them that it is not as you have heard.
Journalist: How did you manage to break this mentality, to break this stigmatization of the Albanian market?
CEO: This is not easy because the first impression is very important. For example, we participate in fairs all over the world, in the biggest food fairs and our stand is one of the most beautiful stands. We represent ourselves with dignity, if you go, you must be very dignified. When they ask us “Where do you come from?”, we tell them from Albania, and their reaction is “Well done”, but why well done, why don’t you say well done to a German, why only us?
So, when he says “Bravo” think that there is prejudice, “Why is Albania here?”…
I have also employed foreigners because we have this different mentality. I have employed foreigners here, I have had a Dutch, an Italian director, and a Greek director, I worked with them and both were terminated because they are not at the level we require, but there have been also successful ones in the Italian and Greek directors.
Journalist: You are a global company, and you have reversed the market so that not only Albanians apply abroad but we also have foreigners applying here.
CEO: They find themselves well, work well, and do not want to leave Kraco. We have said that if they meet the standards required by Kraco, they can stay, if they do not meet the standards, you are not for Kraco.
The company has a strong HR Department, a strong Quality department, and it has very strong procedures, but you have to work according to the style that we have.
The Kraco company is also a partner with the EBRD. We were chosen last year by this bank, which is headquartered in London, together with another Albanian company. We have also been selected by the Blue Ribbon Club; we are one of the two selected for the blue ribbon. The companies with the best performance, the best procedure, the best system. Not the biggest companies, the companies that perform well, have systems, have procedures, have the best performance.
We have been chosen to be part of this Club for the next 7 years together with another Albanian company. We represent Albania in banking meetings where there are 2 companies from Albania, 2 from Serbia, 2 from Bosnia, 2 from Poland, and 2 from Romania., and this made us a reliable partner with all banks, so even when European banks or other banks come, we are a very reliable partner for them. We do not betray people’s trust, it works well, we have a history of success with every institution, with the World Bank, with EBRD, with Intesa San Paolo, with Raiffaisen, with many institutions.
Journalist- It seems like you reached the European Union before we joined the European Union.
CEO: Absolutely yes, I say it out loud, we are integrated. Today, few Albanian companies have their goods in European supermarkets. I’m sorry about that, it could be us and one or 2 other companies, so you won’t find Albanian food on the shelves of the European Union because European events have very strict food regulations. There are Albanian companies that export raw materials, but ready products, packaged for the consumer to receive, are not found, it is impossible. We need to improve standards, and the companies themselves need to step up. Unfortunately, in Albania, the owners are still CEOs, the owners know everything, they are finance directors, production directors, chemists, and engineers, and unfortunately and fortunately the level of the owner determines the level of the company. If the level of the owner is high, the company does well, in cases where the level of the owner is low, the company will slow down, the company never exceeds the level of the owner, so it is the maximum level of the company.
Journalist- So Sokol decided to work for Sokol.
Journalist- What year was it?
CEO: In 2004-2005 I started to work for my business. In 2003 I started to build a new factory, which is now gone because we moved to the new factory and I started to manage my own business.
Journalist- So it was 2005 when you started with this building.
CEO: This is the building that we started in 2003 and this photo was taken in 2005, that’s the year when we started to get inside, it’s Italian architecture, and it’s one of the most modern buildings of that time, so we got inside in 2005, it took us about 1 year – 1 and a half year to get inside. These are some pictures that we were very poor, it was empty, and from the inside, it was like a football field, we used to pack sugar, this was the main item we made, with the name of the bars.
Journalist: To me, it seems too big for a man who had only worked in customs and tax offices, with small incubators, and now you say that it was like a football field, how did you get the courage it needs courage right?
CEO: We started to make it a 200 m warehouse, then we thought of making it 400 m, but it seemed too small to us, let’s make it 500 m, why not make it 1000 m, then I said let’s make it 1500 m and have it for a long time. But those 1500 after 5 years did not go to us anymore, we started to make additions above and below, to make it with two floors in some places, we added offices, and we managed to get warehouses for rent around the highway. We managed to rent 4-5 warehouses as big as this because we couldn’t afford it, it was impossible because the business grew.
Journalist- What were the reasons for this success?
CEO: This is a question that I have to stay here all day to explain success. At that time there was no need for such thinking. To be honest, in those years the market was empty, the market needed every kind of product that came or was produced. Back then, businesses ran ahead of whoever ran the fastest. I had friends, a friend, a businessman who traveled day and night. He got into the car, went to take the products out, and brought them. Now it’s not like it was back then, it’s been many years since it’s not like it was back then. Now you need structure and organization, businesses don’t go with the one who gets tired the most. Today you have to put the structure to work, you have to delegate, direct, know, and find the direction where you can be stable, and persistent and have a little vision, understand, and know how to do the company’s accounts well. To be successful, the company does not have only one direction, so it is like the human body, which does not fit well in just one organ, we are complex and so is the business.
Journalist- You are all quiet here at Kraco because I see that you also drink tea, I see a very interesting box there.
CEO: This is a tea box that we introduced at the fair in France. This is with 6 flavors of tea, and it is more for the health and benefit of the human body. We have matcha, which is a very important detox for the human body. Matcha is 50 times stronger than green tea and doesn’t have as much caffeine as green tea, so you take this and flush out all the toxins your body has. The other tea is immunity, it’s immunity tea, we made 2 types of immunity teas after the pandemic, multivitamins and vitamin C. After the pandemic, people needed to boost immunity, so tea has added vitamins and added multivitamins, so you drink tea and you don’t need to drink vitamin pills, but you get it through tea. It’s ginger and turmeric, Curcuma is a natural antibiotic that we have today, I use turmeric a lot. Turmeric is a yellow powder, Indian powder, it is very delicious with a very good taste, which we have combined with ginger, and it is a very good drink to increase human immunity. I suggest you all drink ginger with turmeric in a tea bag. It is fantastic when you have a cold, or when you have an internal temperature, it is a natural antibiotic for the human body. I take 4-5 bags of this for myself, it’s fantastic to drink.
Journalist- You didn’t compare it to the pharmacy for anything.
CEO: Yes, because it is a natural antibiotic.
So, drink tea and eat these good microbes that are good for digestion, immune boosting, and the gut. We made tea with forest fruits and lemon flavor. Teas of several flavors are available here.
You have to become a good specialist in every field, if you sell cars you have to know how to sell cars, if you build buildings you have to know, know buildings. I also tell my staff the skills you do, the product you sell, that product what you do, you have to know it perfectly. In any kind of business, you must have 100% knowledge, otherwise, you will not succeed. We do continuous staff training to train you because when a customer or in a contract someone asks you about the business, you have to know everything, especially a CEO of a company has to know every hole of the company. After all, you have to know the production lines that it has, you have to know the staff it has, you have to know the capacity of the lines, you have to know the logistic capacity, you have to know everything. This is the central figure around which the axis of the company rotates, it is the central axis around which everything revolves.
Journalist: All this time you were focused on building the company and establishing yourself as a businessman, but you neglected the rest, hobbies, books, and other desires, so you had time for this part, your social life, or are you back later?
CEO: The outside of the company is just as busy as the inside of the company. I am currently the Honorary Consul of Latvia in Albania for several years. In 2014, I was elected Honorary Consul of Latvia and we have the consulate in Tirana Gallery, where Latvian citizens in Albania have a problem, where there are delegations, or when there are various events, the consulate is part of solving problems.
Journalist- This is again part of work, work for society, and contribution to Albanian society, but I wanted to know the contribution to Sokol.
CEO: I read a lot, all these books are marketing books I have read them all, they are important books by the greatest authors in the world today, and I underline all the phrases and share them with the staff.
Journalist- The books are in Italian, and English.
CEO: They are the best titles in the world today, they are the bestsellers today, I read them too, and I underline them. I can show you all the underlines and take pictures and send them to the staff because they are important quotes
Journalist- You became the guru of Kraco’s staff.
CEO: We have to pull it back because as I said before, the CEO level and the owner level is the maximum level of a company. If we lower the level, everything lowers, if we raise the level, they come from behind.
Journalist- Do you read Artistic Literature?
CEO: I was a journalist, I wrote poetry, and I have published poems since I was a student. I like to ski.
Journalist- Can skiing be done in Albania, do we have the right slopes or will we have to go abroad?
CEO: No there isn’t, skiing is a complex thing, it’s not just skiing. In addition to having good tracks, you need good cable cars and you need to take care of those who maintain because the excavator works at night, they fix the snow, you need personnel who stay on the cable car, the cable car needs maintenance, it needs good bars, so it is complex. Skiing is not only a ski sport, but it is also a complex, so you need that beautiful weather, but you also need a good hotel with conditions, you need warmth, you need light, you need a hotel of good to stay in, so skiing is good. I had a few skiing accidents, I remember tearing my kneecap.
Journalist- But it still stands
CEO: I had an operation in Bologna and the doctor told me to be careful. The next year, I skied again and after 2 years I had another accident. I was in Austria and they hit me from behind. A friend of mine who was skiing accidentally fell on me and dislocated my shoulder, injuring my muscle. I went back to the same hospital in Bologna and the doctor told me not to ski, but I continue to ski.
Journalist: Is it worth it?
CEO: Yes, yes, I go skiing because it’s something beautiful, the aim is to do it. We make beautiful marathons. We follow them up to 10 km because the marathon is a big word. Even in the company we regularly participated in the marathon of Tirana, the first year I did it with 10 people in the company, while this year 80 people participated, all in uniforms with logos.
Journalist – Do you have it for a specific purpose or is it just the pleasure of being in a group?
CEO: To present to the company, as I said, if the CEO of the company is involved in something, he also involves the company in sports, e.g.
Journalist: 80 people from the company
CEO: Yes, we signed up for a price. The first received a prize for men and women, the first 3 places receive gifts for both women and men, then at the end of the marathon we distributed the gifts, and we all had lunch together, showing how it turned out, how it was done.
We did the marathon at Mali I Dajti, I also did other marathons in Greece, in Voskopojë, to be a little active because the work in the office closes my mouth, I go to the gym, I try to reach 3 times a week.
CEO: We try, but it would be good if they catch him, we have to catch him.
Journalist- It would be good to ski then, easier.
CEO: Unfortunately, there is no skiing in Albania.
Journalist: Anyway, you’re not afraid of skiing, you’re not afraid of taking such risks, what Sokol is afraid of?
CEO: This is one of the themes I tell all the staff, fear is the biggest enemy, fear has stopped humanity, the fear in our heads. We should not be afraid, because we have some walls to cross. Fear to invest, fear to dare, fear to play sports, fear to change something, so fear is the biggest enemy. People are stopped by fear, fear of doing business, and fear of running away, so they take the car to go on vacation without a plan. We are instilled with fear as children, children have 2 characteristics, children are born spontaneously and without fear, so nature made small children spontaneously and without fear, and children walk spontaneously and without fear. Parents use them saying don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t and the biggest word in our head is don’t, don’t, don’t, or no, no, no, no. This has made us all afraid. It is an education that enters the child’s character and is the most used word, and spontaneity is the best thing that nature has given us, children are born spontaneously. We are already super controlled because we say that our parents introduced us, be careful, don’t, be careful, don’t talk like that, don’t behave like that in society. No, we have to be ourselves, if you are spontaneous with yourself or you like me the way I am or you don’t, it’s my business, why do we all have to wear masks? I am the one with this type of body and this type of behavior, that’s why I’m Sokol, you’re Suela, or that’s why the cameraman is this one with this name. That’s why we are all different, we are special, but if we all become copy-paste, then we will all become pages produced from the production line.
Journalist: Then what makes you happy when you find such a spontaneous person or maybe other reasons make you happy?
CEO: I often say journalist and I also tell the staff, often when we are preparing lunch, when we are at a party, when we are at dinner, I always compare it to small children, that is, small children if you see them when they are 3-4 years old, they run in the parks, walk in the parks, rejoice, laugh, cry because the child in those moments does not think about anything, he only thinks about the moment.
Journalist- And for yourself.
CEO: So, he doesn’t think about the past or the future. When we are at work or when we are at a table or when we are having fun or when we are on vacation we think about the past and the future, only 40% think about the current moment and this is the worst part. Therefore, we must enjoy it and we must enjoy every moment where we are, we are making lunch, think only about lunch, don’t think about anything else, you are on vacation, think only about vacation, don’t think about anything else, so we are on vacation and we think “I have the plane in 2 days I will leave”, we should enjoy the moment. Life has only the past and future, life has no present, and present time does not exist.
Journalist: The coffee I’m drinking is very special, what is this?
CEO: It’s ginseng coffee that we produced, its ginseng coffee, ginseng is a Japanese root from Japan, which is used to give energy to the body, so it’s very good to give a lot of energy to the body, it doesn’t have a lot of caffeine.
Journalist- Make me a bottle.
CEO: Different drinks can be made with ginseng; it is very good. As well as this, we also have barley coffee, which is 0 caffeine. So, we can drink it during the day and it is very pleasant.
This balcony here was made by an Italian architect, and he made it like a cube, sometimes he joked and said, Sokol, you should come out here and bless people like the Pope.
Journalist: A very interesting choice, because it brings a lot of suns and a lot of light to the office. Especially for Albania, because of course in Europe, they know the value of the sun more because it comes out less, they use it more often, while in the sun we take it for granted.
CEO: We are lucky to have 300 days of sunshine, it is very lucky for this country, it is a fantastic place to live. But you notice that when you go to Indonesia, Malaysia, and China, which are only 38 degrees in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, which are just rain and sun and you never get that cold, you don’t have winter, you don’t have summer. Here we are lucky to have 4 seasons, we are lucky to have the mountain, the sea, we are fantastic. The Mediterranean climate is the best in the world, you have a fantastic sea and you are in the heart of Europe.
Journalist: And that’s why you never regretted that you returned from emigration and decided to live forever in Albania,
CEO: Never, I tell all the staff not to leave Albania because I often do this during training. We know that salaries come out some time ago and Albania has salaries from €300-400 to €200,000, then you are not to blame, you do not find yourself in this salary segment. I tell you, 4-5 years ago, I was the Chairman of the Producers’ Association for all businesses in Albania and our concern is why people are leaving, we must do a campaign to sensitize these people who are leaving. People say, for example, we are going to England or Germany, that there is a salary of €2000, €2500, €3000, but what are the conditions, what are the living expenses, you don’t have more than €500 left in your pocket.
Journalist: Anyway, has the time come for the business to review these salaries to reward these qualified employees?
CEO: Salaries are now doubling, we have increased salaries quite a bit, we have affected all salaries because it is impossible, salary is a matter of competition. In the Association of Producers, we always say that we should only look at salaries, people do not run away from corruption, forget it, people only run away from salaries because there is corruption in all countries of the world, we have higher emigration for this reason. Corruption is also for someone who has high salaries but does not go away, so we have to increase salaries, then comes corruption, etc. In business, our task is only to raise wages, then there are other things, to do, when companies have no income and raise wages, they go bankrupt. The issue of the company comes after how they will succeed, so investment in production is the best thing that the state, and society can do because, after all, it is the taxes that are paid. I say that 1 million people could have left Albania, 1 million with less coffee, 1 million with fewer bottles of water, 1 million with fewer bags of sugar, and 1 million with fewer bags of tea, that’s sad. Today countries are taking people, they are stealing people, Canada is taking staff on the phone, offering them jobs, the Canadian embassy or embassies are publishing job offers for us and it’s unfortunate because they are laying hands, this is the future of this country. Schools are emptying, faculties are closing, and there is no more talent in schools, this is the disaster we see.
Journalist: These are very big rooms that make a lot of impressions, here a person can either feel very small or can feel very big at this height, how does the Falcon feel here Inside this endless warehouse,
CEO: This is the new factory I built, 11 months ago we entered, it is one of the most modern factories in the world, not in Europe as it is new, because after 10 years it will have to be repaired. We used the highest standards to get the IFS (International Food Standard) certificate because, as I said before, international auditing bodies come and certify it. Every material came from abroad, we followed the highest construction technology and engaged all the best international specialists to assist because it is not just about building the building, all the food technology must be respected because you have to adapt it to the standards with higher in force today. Everything is made with 30 cm insulating concrete panels that do not allow the transmission of temperature from outside to inside and from inside to outside, so we have perfect temperature insulation because the climate is always warming. Above we have automatic open ceilings and automatic windows that are programmed in case of fire, in case of high temperatures, and open automatically or for ventilation when you need it. Everything is separated by fire-resistant panels, so this thing is protected for 120 minutes, the panels are fire-resistant from room to room because the warehouses are separated to meet the highest food standards. We have several warehouses, this is for the finished product, we have other warehouses such as raw materials, a packaging warehouse, a stamping department, a masking department, a restaurant where the employees eat their lunch, and changing rooms. We have tried to have the highest standards. We don’t use paper in the warehouse, everything is paperless, and everything has a barcode, so when the warehouse workers come to pick up the product, they have a barcode that tells them where this product is that they are going to get. Everyone works with Palmar, with tablets, there are no papers.
Journalist: It seems that it is a very large area of the factory, how much m2 does it all cover?
CEO: The environment is 32,000 m2 in height, while the factory is 7700 m2. We plan to build another one here and this will be the boulevard that goes through. We have such a thing that will last 5 or 10 years because these buildings are built once and we have taken measures to do the best, with all the technical conditions that such a contemporary thing offers today. Now it’s an economic issue of markets, it’s a war of markets today, they often when we have meetings in the Manufacturing Association that we need markets, degrees, university staff, and curricula, they have to adapt to all the real things. The market today has become very competitive, in case a foreigner comes to Albania, he comes only because of the price because when you say that I have good quality, he says that quality is a necessity that you must have, so it is not appreciated. Today you need to be competitive on prices. I often say to all my friends, however, China is big, we can make the Chinese very competitive in Europe, so it can be a step to compete for the advantages that we only have in Europe today are cheap prices, we don’t have any advantage over the other. Since it did not welcome us like Europe, as a developing country, the markets are super crowded, if we look at everything today, the market is a war.
Journalist: We leave the Kraco company truly amazed by what Albanians can do, how capable they are when given the right opportunities, and how much courage and desire they have to reach the highest international levels, which, although a small nation, we have often achieved them, one of these examples is the Kraco company.