By Stoyan Genov, Raiffeisen Bank in Bulgaria |
What could five towns in Southeast European with a population of fewer than 50,000 people have in common? Obviously, the small population… But how about global business leadership? Yes, it’s actually possible. The Bulgarian towns Letnitsa (population: 5,000), Bozhuriste (8,000), Lozen (6,000), Montana (50,000) and Vidin (40,000) host the production of high-class climbing, paragliding and biking equipment used by millions of sports enthusiasts all over the world.
Walltopia, AVA Sport and Cross are the names of the businesses, whose success stories started in these small towns in Southeast Europe. Finding a niche in manufacturing, maintaining high-quality products, and the continuous implementation of innovations are at the heart of their business success, benefitting from the conditions of low taxes and the competitive wages in Bulgaria.
Climbing towards global leadership
There were times when climbers were considered poor and frowzy people, living in their caravans in search of the best rock to climb. Building artificial climbing walls once took months, but nowadays they are almost as accessible as any fitness gym. They are a puzzle of vivid colors, panels, sharp edges and curves. Outdoor and indoor climbing attracts a very diverse public, as people are searching for a sense of balance, precision, and courage, which the sport gives them. And the name of the game-changer is Walltopia.
“I was always convinced that we would be successful”, says Ivaylo Penchev, one of the founders of Walltopia. “It was just a matter of building a few climbing walls, making a few interested people very happy and then waiting while they shared their enthusiasm with their friends.”
Founded in 1998, the Bulgarian company Walltopia is now the world’s biggest designer and manufacturer of artificial structures for climbing, with a production base of over 26,000 square meters. The company operates on six continents through offices in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Austria, Russia, China, UAE, and the Asia Pacific region. Walltopia exports its products to more than 70 countries around the world, with the US being the primary market, where climbing walls are ordered almost every week.
Aside from climbing walls, Walltopia now designs and manufactures a wide range of active entertainment attractions including rope courses (Ropetopia), interactive climbing walls for children and adults (Fun Walls), challenging obstacle courses (Ninja Course), artificial caving systems (Walltopia Caves), and a brand new ride that combines the feeling of zip-lining, hang-gliding and roller coaster riding (Rollglider), all of which being interesting attractions for adventure parks, shopping centers, gyms, recreational areas, schools, universities, hotels, and other locations.
Walltopia’s headquarters is located in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, but the production bases are situated in the small towns of Letnitsa, Bozhuriste, and Lozen, contributing to the growth of the local communities. For example, after the first Walltopia factory had begun to operate in 2010 in Letnitsa, the employment in the municipality grew by almost 70 percent in the next two years, along with a significant growth in salaries – 56 percent, which is 18 percent over the country’s average.
Walltopia has the largest team in the sphere, consisting of more than 600 professionals, innovative engineers, designers and technicians. They have executed more than 1,800 projects. So, while you are reading this, hundreds of people around the world are climbing Walltopia’s adventure products.
From passion to business
This is а real story of how passion and successful business go hand by hand. Angel and Ani Stamenovi are skydivers and paragliding pilots with vast experience. In 1990, just a few months after the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria, the aero club where they worked as parachute instructors was closed. So, they decided to start a small family business, connected with their common passion for flying. Ava Sport was born and began to grow slowly.
Initially, they produced equipment mainly for their friends in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia. Everything changed during an exhibition in Germany, which they funded with a bank loan. The founders gоt their first order there, and Ava Sport started producing paraglider harnesses for other companies under other brands. At the beginning of the 21st century, Angel and Ani opened a new production base and started production under the Ava Sport brand, certified according to German standards of quality. Over the past 20 years, more than 50 employees have built Ava Sport’s reputation as one of the highest quality paragliding and skydiving products.
“There has been a boom in paragliding in recent years. In some countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland paragliding is a mass sport like skiing, for example,” says Ani Stamenova. And Ava Sport is one of the five certified European manufacturers in this growing industry, together with two German, а French, and a Czech company.
Along with the production of paragliding and skydiving equipment, Ani and Angel developed the Аviation centеr near the village of Erden, Montana municipality. Here the World Championship for freefall style and accuracy landing was held in 2018. Thanks to the efforts of the Stamenovi family to keep parachuting alive in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian women’s skydiving team is among the top five in the world rankings, and three Bulgarian women are among the top 20 skydivers in the world!
Crossing business borders
Each year, almost one million brand new bikes (according to Eurostat data) cross the borders of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, France, Denmark and Sweden, coming from one destination: Bulgaria, which is becoming the new EU bike valley. A huge contribution to this strong market position comes from an already well-known and high reputable trademark – Cross Ltd, Montana.
The company was established in 1995 by two young entrepreneurs – Lyuben Martinov and Lukan Lukanov, who started the company without any capital, just with a small quantity of handcrafted kids bikes for the domestic market. In almost 25 years, the company has gradually evolved into one of the biggest European bike manufacturers, with a solid reputation as a high-quality manufacturer and a reliable supplier to Europe’s top bike brands. Today, almost 600 qualified workers and specialists are involved in the management and the production process of a wide range of bicycles.
“In 2010 we were smart enough to believe in the first e-bike shown on the market as the future of our business. We decided that this will be our strategy and we invested all our energy and efforts into developing this new product,” says Lyuben Martinov, owner and CEO of Cross Ltd.
Nowadays, e-mobility is a political strategy worldwide, and the e-bike segment is an essential part of it. Now e-bikes are growing into the biggest bicycle category. E-bikes have boosted the bicycle markets throughout Europe, and Cross Ltd is one of the main players with over 100,000 exported e-bikes per year.
“As a high-end product, the e-bike has a much higher value than the normal bike. So, we came to the point where we could no longer finance the fast growth of our business with our own money and found a reliable partner in Raiffeisenbank Bulgaria,” continues Lyuben Martinov. Today, the figures speak for themselves – 300,000 exported bikes per year and 30 percent average annual sales growth in the last five years.