Driving from Sarajevo to Fojnica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we didn't even dream of meeting people living the true American dream. The population there is aware of the value of nature surrounding them. Every tree there is valued and not taken for granted. The wood-processing technical high school has been reopened after many years because of the MS&WOOD wood processing plant and it represents a good foundation for future forestry workers, perhaps even forestry engineers.
Upon discovering a devastated forest fund in some of the poorly managed forests, MS&WOOD decided to plant two new seedlings for one cubic meter of felled wood, in cooperation with the Forests of the Central Bosnia Canton (SBK Šume). This is a story of sustainability which is implemented thanks to the vision of the company's director, Muhamed Pilav, who claims to be running a company that offers competitive and quality products which are exported to more than 50 countries, with steady growth in revenue. This claim is backed up by a number of partners the company collaborates with. One of them is IKEA, a Scandinavian furniture company, working alongside WWF on the implementation of the "Sustainable forest management" project with the emphasis on FSC Forest certification.
However, possibly the most noteworthy thing about the company is the fact that a good part of their profit is invested in - knowledge.
The company was founded in 2010 and it took three years for the local community to recognize its potential. It also took some lobbying to recognize the need of reopening a school which had been closed for two decades. "In former Yugoslavia, Fojnica represented a wood industry, but it was destroyed during the war. The wood-processing school was then closed and everyone focused only on tourism in Banja. We had a medical high school, but nothing resembling the wood processing industry. Mr. Pilav has recognized the potential of the region and has invested in this company together with the local authorities," says Ahmet Parlić, product manager at MS&WOOD.
This year will mark the first generation graduating high school with the title of wood technician or carpenter. As they did not have the adequate facilities for the apprenticeship, MS&WOOD offered their facilities and one of their engineers to carry out practical classes. All the students receive a scholarship amounting to 100 KM per month, with a promise of future scholarships designated for higher education. Even if a student wishes to study abroad, MS&WOOD will co-fund their education. "Ultimately, our desire is to invest in our future employees, because by providing them with the best possible knowledge, we make sure one day we will have the best workforce," Parlić explains while giving us a tour of the entire plant. Once inside the factory, it takes two months for a log to come out in the form of a finished product. Also, everything is done on the spot - from timber to a chair that is highly competitive in the Scandinavian and other markets. Students are here to witness this and simultaneously gain knowledge few other teenagers in the region have access to.
I'm thrilled by the fact that I only see young people around me. The preconception that forestry is a man's job instantly proves wrong - we encounter almost the same number of women and men. There is even a surprising twist in the only division where - due to the nature of the job - no women work. The whole division is led by a woman.
"We have around 40% of female employees, and the median age of all our employees is 27", points out Merima Polutan, who is in charge of sustainability in the company. Merima moved to Fojnica for love and then she fell in love with her job. Although a biologist by vocation, she fervently explains how wood is dried by burning the waste and scrap thus making the whole process sustainable. But she also points out that they are among the few companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina that pay three months full pay to women on maternity leave.
Students join the employees while visiting trade shows throughout Europe, and employees have the right to participate in lifelong learning programs to enhance their knowledge. Merima points out that they offer their students paid apprenticeships during holidays, during the summer. "In fact, we go by IKEA's claim that says that children are the most important people in the world."
"We even had cases in which the work of a student was ultimately better than our employee's work," Parlić concludes. "I really felt that some of my best students were very interested and that gives me hope for a better future with real masters of the trade. Knowledge is something that we cannot go on without! That's why it's so great to have IKEA as a partner because IKEA is definitely the best teacher. As a technical director, I have visited all the factories where IKEA works and I have learned from the best so that we can apply it here," says Parlić.
MS&WOOD's mode of operation has influenced others. There are more similar companies adopting the sustainability route every day. However, many others leave a lot to be desired when it comes to investing in the education of young people. "Students are obliged to do an apprenticeship, but few do. As far as we are told, there are no other companies working with kids in the same way we do," concludes Parlić as we stroll through the factory and observe diligent workers.
This company employs 383 workers, and when we take members of their families into account, we have about 2000 people who depend directly on MS&WOOD. As they have a lot of associates and subcontractors, private companies that work with them, and they buy food in Fojnica and prepare about 400 meals a day, one can conclude that MS&WOOD feeds half the population of Fojnica. "There are a lot of families in which everyone works in our company, and we even have a family who moved from Maglaj to Fojnica to work here. Let's not forget about the love stories that came to be just because of people meeting at their workplace," adds Merima as we reach the end of the factory. At the fore of the pavilion the workers sow leather and cotton for the chairs. Down the line we can see the finished products, including their Elle collection which is completely developed in-house. There is a large MS&WOOD College sign in the corner. Both girls and boys can usually be found here, but we come across a male group.
Jasmin Imamović is a sophomore, and he's focusing on carpentry. He is currently working on a coffee table and is extremely pleased with his work. When asked about how he decided this was his calling, Jasmin replies that he did not follow in his father's steps. "Here in Fojnica, wood processing is a tradition and it seemed like a logical choice. I am extremely happy that we have the opportunity to put the things we learn about at school into practice," Jasmin concludes. He is also pleased with the fact that MS&WOOD takes them to fairs where they can get acquainted with global trends.
"My classmates and I went to a fair in Zagreb and this gave us insight into how to work. I'm looking forward to this job and I hope I continue working in this company in the future. However, it would be nice to also work abroad, to expand my knowledge and views, "says Jasmin, adding that the nature that surrounds him makes him happy because it sources the material he and his colleagues work with.
Jasmin's mentor Nijaz Bajić is a teacher at MS&WOOD and he works on educating kids together with the school in Fojnica. "The girls are at the forefront when it comes to aesthetics, but guys are technically really excellent. This year, according to the current information, only one student will continue studying upon graduation, and everyone else wants to start working in our company," says Bajić. He recalls his childhood and formative years. "I graduated from the wood-processing technical high school in Sarajevo, but my apprenticeship from back then had nothing to do with what these kids are offered today. I am also not sure you can get the same high-quality apprenticeship anywhere else in B&H".
One man's vision has kept many families in Fojnica. As we have already heard, some, including our interlocutor Mr. Parlić, have moved to Fojnica for work.
The question arises as to where and how Mr. Pilav reached his vision.
The answer comes as no shock - somewhere in America. However, since he studied economics in Sarajevo, he entered the workforce in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a couple of years he quit his job because it was not challenging enough and he started his own business. The rest is history.