Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My Car Lost; Feared Stolen by Balkan Shipping Company

Dang! Cars are insanely expensive in Europe so we decided to ship my US car to a Croatian port and then drive it to our home in Sombor Serbia. After surfing the Web and getting quotes for RORO (roll on, roll off) services, I picked ShipOverseas because they were at the median price and answered emails more quickly and politely than others.

Thing is, in the US when you hire a shipping company to send your stuff overseas, they don't do it themselves. They are "freight forwarders" and subcontract the actual job to shippers. As an individual apparently you can't deal with the shipper directly.

As directed, my step-son drove my car down to a warehouse in New Jersey in early February. It was "totally sketchy" with a lot of cars with parts taken off sitting around. He was concerned but I said, "No problem, ShipOverseas have been in business since 1983, they know what they are doing. Warehouses are always weird places."

I was an idiot. Or rather, ShipOverseas were idiots. When we never got the email announcing our car had departed, nor the email announcing our car was arriving, we began to worry. I just got off the phone with the guys at ShipOverseas and they are worried too. Turns out they entrusted our car as well as six other ones to a shipper they'd never done business with before. Now nobody at the shipper's offices, from the president on down are answering calls or emails.

"What country are the shippers from?" I asked. "Well they have offices in the US," said my rep. "No, what country are they actually headquartered in?" "They have a really really great Web site and wonderful references," my rep said. "What country are they from?!" "They ship all over Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia. They are local experts there, that's why we chose them," the rep replied.

"Oh no!" I said. "You're doing business with a company from the Balkans? We're screwed. If I had known you did business with those people I would never have given my car to you." "Don't worry," the rep said soothingly, "if there's any trouble we will register a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission and they will launch an investigation." "Yeah, and sometime in 2009 we'll find out my car is gone forever and we're screwed."

I don't want to be undiplomatic. But here's the factual truth. Every single businessperson I've met in the Balkans has earnestly told me, "Don't do business in the Balkans." At first in my peppy naive American way I'd chirp back, "Oh come on, it can't be That Bad." Then they'd look at me like a screw in my head was loose.

By the time a close connection who was a top exec at the bank of Serbia told me this February, "Don't ever put more than a few thousand dollars into any bank here, it's not safe," I nodded my head calmly. Of course. I'd be screwed. I wouldn't make that mistake.

(Note: The golden exception to this rule are small, entrepreneur-owned companies where you know the owner personally and/or they used to be ex-pats so they've had a lot of Western business experience. Even then, watch their charactor, do they want to get rich quick? Are they a wheeler dealer type? Or are they an earnest, slightly geeky small businessperson with a passion for the business they are in? Only do business with the latter.)

Unfortunately, the ShipOverseas people don't have Balkan business experience. "We never have problems with shippers to Finland or Russia," the rep told me like this should make the Balkans OK. After awhile I just wished him good afternoon and ended the conversation. I've accepted the fact that my car is gone, almost certainly for good. I guess the grieving process now begins.


Victorious said...

My name is Vicky and I was supposed to move to Sombor for a year in June, however due to the politcal unrest I am now going to wait a bit...how are things there...I often read B92 for news on the situation and saw your articles...tried to comment on the learning one, but do not know enough Serbian to even do that! I then found you and your blog. I do agree it's very hard, and I have the teach yourself book....so unmotivated! Anyways....hope things are good for you there. I love that town and can't wait to come back.

Victorious said...

how long have you lived in sombor and what part of town are you?

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

Our house is about three blocks from downtown. We live part-time in the US and part-time in Sombor. It's my husband's hometown and my step-hometown ever since I married him a few years ago. I loved Sombor at first sight and have never stopped since. Personally I recommend that you NOT cancel your plans for June. Sombor may be a small city, but it's not very provincial and people come from all over the world in the summer. They understand that national politics and individual people are separate. Anyway, Sombor is so near the Croatian and Hungarian borders, you can leave quickly if you need to if visas are changed or something, but I doubt that will happen.

Anonymous said...

That's so sad what happened :(
I shipped a 20' container and my car to Serbia, and everything arrived! :)

I guess my freight forwarder was better than yours, I did lots of due diligence prior to picking the best one. They told me to get a connection locally who will handle the goods on arrival, that is what I did and it went well.