Don Markušić is an Australian lawyer of Croatian heritage also admitted to practice in England and Wales. He is the first common law qualified lawyer to be admitted to practice in Croatia. His law firm in Zagreb advises on all areas of foreign investment, property and commercial law. With his combined foreign and local legal qualifications and language skills and having worked on large transactions with multinational consulting firms alongside auditors and tax advisors, he provides unique solutions from both a legal and business perspective. Prior to establishing his own law firm, Don Markušić developed the legal practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Croatia and worked for a prominent international law firms in Vienna and Australia.
Don Markušić is a law reformer, spearheading changes to legislation particularly to the legal framework for foreign investment in order to improve the investment climate in Croatia including the Law on Foreigners and drafting the Law on Factoring. Don Markušić is Founder and President of the Asia-Pacific Chamber of Commerce, Vice President of Transparency International, former President of the American Chamber of Commerce and Expert Adviser on the Croatian Parliamentary Legislative Committee. He is an Honorary Member of the War Veterans Association of Glina and the Nikola Tesla Association.
Your professional career started in Australia. What can you tell the readers of WSI about your life in Australia?
I would firstly like to say how grateful I am to you and WSI for the opportunity to tell my story because people are often surprised to hear that I left a successful legal career in Australia to set up a law firm in Croatia. It was not just my professional career that started in Australia. I was a year old when my parents migrated from Croatia so my only childhood memories are growing up in Australia which was not easy in the seventies and eighties as a second generation migrant from South East Europe. Along with the Italians and Greeks, we suffered discrimination and had to work harder than others to prove ourselves both at school and at work. It was particularly hard being Croatian in those days because I would be teased that there was no such country but there was no way that I would take the easy way out like some and say that I was from Yugoslavia because then I would suffer the wrath of my father.
Hence, Croatian culture and language were instilled in me from an early age because it was the law to speak it at home, with sanctions for the slightest breaches. Whilst it was tough at the time, my cultural and language fluency now holds me in good stead living in Croatia and running my own law firm. Upon arrival I discovered that my Croatian was archaic when I was asked to lecture at Zagreb University and I was introduced by the Dean who told his students to listen carefully to me because that is how they spoke in Zagreb 40 years ago! He even lamented that I would lose the ‘Shakespearean’ Croatian as I take on the modern language. I will always be grateful to Australia for the opportunities that I was given. I gained a high quality education and entrepreneurial spirit in a highly competitive environment in which success only resulted from hard work and persistence, all of which are essential in the somewhat hostile environment of an emerging economy.
When did you make decision about your study and professional career?
I decided to become a lawyer when I saw how hard it was for my parents being foreigners in their new country. The did not speak English well so, being the eldest and speaking the best English in our family, I was always called upon by my parents, as a 10 year old kid to read and explain to them official letters that they received. They were defrauded, even by their own lawyers, because of their lack of English and I vowed that I will do everything I can so that this will never happen again when I grow up. Whilst my school friends dreamed of being heroes and pilots and firefighters, I couldn’t wait to defend the legal rights of little people that were being cheated.
My father was a factory worker so I am from a working class background and did the usual, paying my way through university working in a pub at night and in factories over summer vacations. I went to a government high school where the teachers said that it would be ‘astronomical’ to get into law when I told them that I wanted to be a lawyer. I never mentioned it to them again but this made me even more determined to succeed. I eventually became a lawyer not only in Australia but also in England and Wales and in Croatia. Just like the reasons for my decision to become a lawyer were forged in difficult circumstances which have helped to succeed, so to the difficult path towards becoming a lawyer has galvanised my resolve to ensure that the truth be told and justice must be done, especially in under adverse conditions.
Can you tell us something about your professional career in Australia?
I was mostly a litigation lawyer, standing up for the rights of workers against large insurance companies and individuals fighting multinational companies. I also practiced company and commercial law as well as property law. My clients also came from the immigrant community and I also represented Croatians who migrated to Australia. I also worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in trade and investment promotion.
What was the reason for your coming back to Croatia?
As the Blues Brothers would say, “I’m on a mission from God!” I wanted to use my western legal expertise and Croatian language and cultural fluency to help rebuild my war shattered country by attracting foreign investment. I thoroughly prepared myself and made the move after I gained my Master of Laws in Foreign Investment which I completed whilst working as a lawyer in Australia. I first started with a law firm in Vienna that worked on foreign investment in Central and Eastern Europe and I would spend every two weeks in Zagreb making contacts. Once I had the critical mass of foreign clients in Vienna and contacts in Zagreb, I established an office for the Austrian law firm in Zagreb. PricewaterhouseCoopers soon asked me to build up their legal practice and I then set up my own law firm.
I have the advantage of understanding both sides of the equation. Foreign investors relate to my Australian accent and international legal experience and I fit in well with the locals. My measure of success is not in financial terms because I certainly would have been better off financially in Australia, but rather that I made a difference in some people’s lives in relation to their particular cases and that some large projects would not have occurred if I had stayed in Australia. I am doing my best to train young Croatian lawyers who are passionate about the law to understand that they are in a privileged profession that can make a difference if they uphold fundamental values and principles as well as ethics. I try to impart my experiences in Australia particularly in relation to the treatment of our war veterans. From a very young age, we are taught to honour Australia’s war veterans, which is not the case in Croatia. I am very proud that the Veterans Association of Glina made me an honorary member because of my support in terms of showing the respect with which war veterans should be treated and how it is done in Australia.
How would you compare your life in Australia and Croatia? Similarities and differences?
I was certainly able to fit into life in Croatia after growing up in Australia in a Croatian household with Croatian language and culture. Both countries are sporting nations and pride themselves on their international sporting achievements and their national sports have big followings. The biggest difference is that Croatians work to live whereas in Australia, we live to work. Croatia prevails when it comes to quality of life in terms of leisure and café lifestyle. There is an exodus of young people looking for better opportunities abroad but the biggest thing they miss, apart from their families, is the layback lifestyle that Croatia offers. This also goes for foreigners living in Croatia.
I live and work in the Old Town of the capital, Zagreb, right next to the Government and Parliament which would not be possible in Australia. I have cases before the Constitutional Court which would also be rare in Australia. I have been able to develop an excellent network of contacts and personally know the Prime Minister, President and other major politicians and players which would be much more difficult in Australia. It was much easier to succeed financially in Australia but my lifestyle and political and business relationships that I have developed in Croatia are invaluable and it would have been much more difficult to achieve the same level of contacts in Australia if at all.
The Croatian community in Australia is well organized, what sort of impressions you bring from there?
The Croatian community in Australia was certainly well organized during Croatia’s struggle for independence and contributed immensely both materially and politically by lobbying the Australian Government to recognise Croatia as a state and showing support with massive street demonstrations. The Croatian community also invested in Croatia with mixed results initially. However, Croatia has since transformed its economy to large extent and joined the European Union and NATO during its relatively short time as a nation state.
There has been a recent revival of interest in investment in Croatia from the Croatian diaspora with Australian-Croatian Chambers of Economy being revived in the major Australian states. I was involved in establishing the Australian-Croatian Chamber of Commerce before I moved to Croatia and it is good to see the younger generation of Croatian business people coming through the ranks and joining the Chambers, including Australians that are not of Croatian heritage. I certainly bring the passion that we have in Australia for our homeland and the desire to make Croatia succeed.
When you came back to Croatia, you bought a house in the old centre of the Croatian capital, Zagreb. This house is more than 200 years old. What can you tell us about the restoration?
I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to buy a house that is located on St. Mark’s Square in the Upper or Old Town between the Croatian Parliament, Constitutional Court and the Prime Minister and Cabinet Building. You could say that it would be like No. 8 Downing Street. It dates back to 1744 which makes is older than Australia. It was totally dilapidated but I felt it my duty to restore it to its former glory. With my investment, I have retained the historic integrity of the building which will be an invaluable resource for future generations. My house also has important historical significance because it was the site of an uprising against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1845 when the Croatian people demanded self-determination long before they finally gained independence in 1991.
At the front of your house you have a beautiful fresco of the Holy Family. During the communist regime in the Republic of Croatia, this beautiful fresco was hidden. How did you discover it?
I already felt privileged that I managed to buy a house on St. Mark’s Square at the seat of power and in the historical centre of Croatia. Discovering an eighteenth century fresco of the Holy Family on the façade during renovations is nothing short of a miracle. When the workers were taking off the old render on the outer front wall of my building, they found something bricked up in between two windows and thought it might be another window but when they removed the bricks, there it was, intact with the colours a bit faded so that it only needed to be slightly touched up. It is actually a very rare image of the Holy Family because usually only Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus are featured. However, my fresco features the entire extended family including Mary, Joseph, Jesus and also Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, (ie. Jesus’ grandparents) as well as God and the Holy Spirit and not to forget the angels.
There were many frescos in the Old Town but the communists just destroyed them or painted them over so I am really lucky that previous owners thought to protect it by bricking it up. It really is a true blessing and I like to think of my house as a metaphor for the transformation of Croatian society as a whole because the communists could not destroy the fresco nor the spirit of the people that eventually prevailed.
At the end of this interview, what would you like to say to the readers of WSI Magazine?
Anybody who has been to Croatia will tell you that it is a beautiful country with diversity ranging from snowy mountains that are only an hour’s drive from the sunny coastline. It is also a country where the locals and foreigners alike feel very safe and one of the main reasons for bumper tourist seasons. Croatia is full of business opportunity and potential with a highly educated workforce and young innovative people who are constantly winning international awards for their ideas and innovations.
Like all former communist economies, Croatia has socialist legacies that it is still trying to overcome including a burdening bureaucracy and a mentality that is limiting for free enterprise. However, the younger generation coming through the ranks is unburdened by the ideologies of the past and speak English fluently and are open to working with foreign investors in order to succeed. Persistence is the key to doing successful business in Croatia and you also need to have a sense of humour and being an Aussie, I have both.
God bless you all.