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Leading the Way in Serbia: An Interview with Milos Velimirovic on the Recent Kinstellar/SOG Merger

Leading the Way in Serbia: An Interview with Milos Velimirovic on the Recent Kinstellar/SOG Merger

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On July 4, 2023, CEE Legal Matters reported that Kinstellar and SOG were teaming up in Serbia through a strategic partnership. Recently appointed Kinstellar Belgrade Managing Partner – and co-head of the firm-wide Financial Institutions sector – Milos Velimirovic shares an insider’s perspective on the move.

CEELM: First off, congratulations on the move! Can you give our readers a bit of background on SOG?

Velimirovic: Thank you! I’d be happy to: the firm was founded between 2010 and 2011 by Milan Samardzic, who was the Founding Partner and previously part of DLA Piper Vienna. He was joined a year later by two other Partners and, together, they commenced operations in Belgrade under the name SOG, an acronym derived from the initials of their names. From its inception until July 1, 2023, the firm experienced significant growth, highlighted by several large transactions along with numerous small and medium-sized ones. SOG is a full-service law firm covering all sectors and service lines, growing its team from around 25 people last year to more than 45 now. We were a mid-sized law firm by Serbian standards before the merger and ranked among the top 10 in the country in terms of revenue and team size. Now our position has improved, and we are among the top 3 firms. Our goal was to elevate our status from second tier to first tier across all service lines.

CEELM: And how did this Kinstellar/SOG merger come about?

Velimirovic: While the Serbian market is currently vibrant with discussions and actions regarding potential mergers – particularly among mid-sized firms – this merger was a first of its kind, to my knowledge. Prior to engaging with Kinstellar, we had been approached by several entities interested in growth in the Serbian market through acquisition or merger. Kinstellar presented a compelling strategy along with their local team and references, proposing we join them to become part of their broader organization. The consolidation trend is global, and in the CEE region, law firms can generally be divided into two categories: established firms with long-standing referral networks outside their local area and younger, growth-oriented firms with burgeoning connections. We were identified as part of the latter, appealing for Kinstellar on account of our entrepreneurial spirit and approach.

CEELM: Why did joining Kinstellar make sense for your team?

Velimirovic: The business rationale was clear for us; we aimed to augment the portion of our business sourced from abroad. Prior to the merger, international work constituted around 15% of our revenue. This figure has since increased substantially. Even though 85% of our portfolio pre-merger comprised international companies, the majority was local work. The synergy with Kinstellar also extended to our shared values and work culture, albeit with Kinstellar adopting a slightly less aggressive approach than ours in pursuing clients and projects. Nevertheless, our methods and philosophies were highly compatible.

CEELM: You had been approached before. What made this proposition more attractive than the others?

Velimirovic: Beyond financial considerations, cultural alignment is paramount. While many potential mergers seem viable on paper, they must also be practical and resonate on a deeper level. Kinstellar’s approach and vision aligned with ours, making this partnership the right choice.

CEELM: What was your selling point – what drew Kinstellar towards the SOG team and operation?

Velimirovic: Kinstellar was attracted to our local expertise and entrepreneurial flair. They sought to expand in Serbia, aiming to become a leading firm capable of handling significant transactions and work, both in terms of size and quality. This merger was envisioned to increase market share, enhance client service capabilities within Serbia, and improve our ability to service inbound clients and manage work sent to other regions.

CEELM: Which stage of the integration process are you currently on?

Velimirovic: The formal and technical merger occurred on July 1, 2023, with the integration process spanning approximately six months until the end of that year. While we have addressed most of the major integration points, some aspects of our business operations still require fine-tuning.

CEELM: What synergies did you find? And what required ironing out?

Velimirovic: The merger has yielded numerous synergies, notably in specialization across sectors and service lines, consolidating firm-wide knowledge with SOG’s local insights. Additionally, SOG’s experience in the Western Balkans has been a significant asset, enabling the creation of a hub to cover the region from our Serbian and Croatian offices. The primary challenge was integrating two previously independent teams into a cohesive unit.

CEELM: What were your team’s clients’ reactions, and to what extent did they remain on board?

Velimirovic: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We emphasized the benefits of the merger, reassuring clients of the continuity of service with the added advantages of broader knowledge and reach. All our existing clients stayed with us, and we attracted new ones post-merger, bolstered by our enhanced connections and capabilities.

CEELM: And how did your client portfolio evolve after the move?

Velimirovic: Post-merger, our focus has increasingly shifted towards international work without neglecting local engagements. We’ve seen a rise in inbound work and cross-border transactions, reinforcing our transactional focus while maintaining a vibrant dispute resolution and arbitration practice.

Our objective is to maintain and expand our local client base while also growing our international portfolio. This dual focus allows us to pursue growth opportunities both locally and internationally, catering to a diverse range of client needs.

CEELM: Finally, please share with our readers a bit on what we can expect from the Kinstellar Belgrade team in the future.

Velimirovic: Looking ahead, we are committed to achieving first-tier status in Serbia, a goal supported by our quality of work and the recognition of legal directories. The SOG-Kinstellar collaboration will tackle larger transactions and more significant dispute resolution and arbitration cases. Internally, we are transitioning from service lines to sector-focused services, aiming to align more closely with our clients’ business perspectives: they are used to speaking about their businesses and care less for the separation between different legal lines of work. So we’ll focus more on seeing things from their perspective. That’s important, especially for business leaders.

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