From Manager to a Martyr: The Rise and fall of FAP’s Radmilo Lavrenčić

The introduction of workers’ self-management placed concrete limits on the control the party-state could exercise over industry and paved the way for a stronger voice of workers from below. Paradoxically, it also enabled the emergence of a powerful layer of directors or ‘technocrats’ as they were named in the party terminology. The rising enterprise autonomy, greater insistence on market criteria in business decisions and the possibility for workers to elect individuals to the leading managerial positions nurtured strong bonds between the workforces of single factories and their professional management. An accomplished general manager (director) was expected to fine tune economic expertise and political connections in order to obtain up to date technology (usually through licensing and cooperation with foreign companies) and find a market for the company’s output. Most importantly, a talented director had to balance the interests of different occupational groups within the factory and unify the work collective behind common business goals.

During the four decades under the system of self-management, the workers of Yugoslav factories frequently developed and cultivated myths around a particular type of strong handed, but just director. In these local narratives, the ‘golden years’ in the enterprise history are connected to the personal characteristics of a distinguished general manager. In the same vein, the periods of hardship are less related to broader economic junctures, but the alleged foul play and political intrigue against the upcoming director unleashed by rival producers or envious politicians.

Highhanded directors with strong personalities and paternalistic management culture marked the early development of Yugoslav automotive industry in the 1950s. Stojan Perhavc headed Tovarna avtomobila Maribor (TAM). Zavodi Crvena Zastava from Kragujevac had Prvoslav Raković. The person credited for establishing modern manufacturing in the economically underdeveloped Polimlje region was Radmilo Lavrenčić. The legend of the ‘rise and fall’ of this controversial executive is an important trope for the building of local identity in Priboj, the town that grew around the once prominent Yugoslav truck manufacturing factory Fabrika automobile Priboj (FAP).

The Flamboyant Modernizer

Radmilo Lavrenčić gained his first experience in industrialization policy as an employee of the Slovene Ministry of Heavy Industry in the early postwar years under the guidance of celebrated Slovene Partisan and party functionary Franc ‘Luka’ Leskošek. His subsequent engineering studies in Belgrade were cut short in 1952 when the Serbian authorities decided to put his knowledge to use and dispatched him to the rural, mountainous municipality of Priboj with the task of setting up a truck production plant. In a few years under his leadership, FAP evolved from small repair shop into a proper manufacturing plant with the help of the licensed technology from the Swiss automotive company Saurer. FAP gave great impetus to the overall development of Priboj, attracting the first nucleus of educated staff, training the local workforce and investing in the local infrastructure.

 

Lavrencic i Tito
Lavrenčič (right) with Tito and Svetozar Vukomanović ‘Tempo’

 

Lavrenčić proved himself as a skillful economic strategist and the trailblazer of Priboj’s industrialization. However, in the narratives of former and current FAP workers, the first director appears not solely as a successful manager, but a much more comprehensive agent of economic modernization and cultural emancipation. Lavrenčić comes across as an outsider who embraced the economically underdeveloped region and its inhabitants with all their vices and virtues, thus becoming an activist for the local cause. The small town that local journalist and former FAP employee Mujo Bjelopoljac describes as a ‘god forsaken place’ (nedođija) where ‘almost nobody had ever seen a car and people only knew wooden carts pulled by oxen’[1] gained a champion who was determined that Priboj would catch up with larger industrial centers in Yugoslavia and adopt global modernizing trends.

The key aspect of this ‘civilizing mission’ was the arrival of young educated professionals from other parts of the country and contact with a Western European business partners. Lavrenčić’s business trips abroad in the mid-1950s are routinely seen as the first steps of a continuous process, which culminated in the 1970s when FAP established long-term cooperation with prestigious German producer Mercedes-Benz. Direct contact with Western European companies, their know-how and experts are seen as the crucial factor helping to instill modern organization, work discipline and more sophisticated lifestyles in Priboj.[2]

In the collective memory of the local workforce, the factory canteen stands out as the most vanguard and enduring symbol of Lavrenčić’s emancipatory project. Not a single interviewee failed to mention the FAP restaurant and its allegedly unique architectonic features. The responsibility to design the hall was given to a young female architect fresh out of university who was to become Lavrenčić’s wife. The director allegedly had very precise demands when it came to the project, keeping in mind the central role the factory canteen played in workers’ everyday life. The entire roof construction of the hall, with capacity for over 300 people had to be supported without inner columns, allegedly a rather unique construction in the 1950s.[3]

Far from being the caprice of a powerful director, the challenging spatial design was supposed to permit transparency, eye contact between the workers and managers seated behind different tables and provide a direct view of the stage during political manifestations and festivities.[4] Lavrenčić’s utilization of modernistic architecture for cultural and political emancipation is allegedly also mirrored in the restaurant’s frontal staircase. Local legend claims that the staircase was constructed as steeply as possible in order to dissuade a local troublemaker nicknamed Džafo from continuing his drunken prank of entering cafes on his horse.[5]

Fap-restoran
FAP restoran

Radmilo Lavrenčić did not mind drawing attention to himself in Priboj or anywhere else for that matter. FAP’s director seems to have been an energetic and flamboyant character, a perfect match for the pioneering stages of local industrialization where improvisation and personal initiative was often more important than long-term planning and economic rationale. He did not shy away from seeking personal connections at the top of the party state and stood up for the interests of the company in political forums and during frequent trips abroad. According to Bjelopoljac, Lavrenčić escorted the first shipment of FAP trucks exported to Turkey personally, heading the column of heavy trucks in a Chevrolet limousine via Belgrade and organizing a stunning showcase of truck’s durability for the Turkish press in Istanbul.[6]

The Downfall

The pioneering work of successfully establishing automotive production in a short time span in a formerly unindustrialized region assured Radmilo Lavrenčić’s place in local history. But, what truly sparked the imagination of Priboj’s citizens and fed the myth that subsequently flourished around him, was not Lavrenčić’s rapid ascent, but his even faster and more spectacular downfall. Thirty years before the famous Agrokomerc affair,[7] FAP was the site of Yugoslavia’s first highly publicized case of financial crime.

In 1957, FAP’s leading manager was put on trial for using the factory funds on his personal initiative without the consent of the workers’ council. The trial broke into the national headlines becoming one of Yugoslavia’s very first public affairs involving highly positioned individuals. Lavrenčić’s gaudy style of management fed the media, which created the image of a reckless and decadent director who mismanaged public funds and disregarded the work collective. The newspapers accused him of using business trips to party and gamble in bars and casinos of Western European metropolises. As an illustration of his opulent lifestyle, the Zagreb-based daily Vjesnik wrote how Lavrenčić drank champagne from the shoe of the Italian singer Caterina Valente in Vienna’s famous 1950s nightclub Eden.

Eden-Bar-Wien 50s
Eden, Vienna in the 1950s
nova godina u FAP-u 1960
1960 New Year Celebration (FAP restoran)

FAP’s general manager was found guilty and given a fifteen yearlong prison sentence. After serving nearly four years the sentence was cut short and Lavrenčić was set free. In 1967 the disgraced director lost his life in a car accident. Needless to say this fatal event only added controversy to the case inspiring allegations that foul play was involved.

In the collective memory of FAP’s workforce and the citizens of Priboj this is a traumatic historical period, as it is widely believed Lavrenčić was the victim of a conspiracy. Allegedly, the entire trial was staged and the main ‘crime’ Lavrenčić ever committed was giving Priboj’s nearby village a jeep and the local school a radio set without the consent of FAP’s workers’ council. These acts confirm the popular image of a benevolent director using all means at hand to modernize the backward surroundings even to his own personal detriment. According to the stories circulating in the factory milieu, the real reasons for Lavrenčić’s arrest remain hidden until this very day.

The unofficial popular narrative claims the following: The young star of Yugoslav industrialization allegedly made many enemies on his way to the top. Lavrenčić’s arch rival was his former mentor, the Slovene politician Franc Leskošek. Furious with the fact that Lavrenčić created a direct rival to his own project, Slovene truck producer TAM, Leskošek offered a merger to FAP’s management. Once Lavrenčić refused the offer, legend claims Leskošek swore that he would bring him down: ‘I made you and I will destroy you.’ Of course, the conspiracy could not be successful and the legend incomplete without the act of betrayal amidst FAP’s own ranks. Apparently, a band of bad workers and bureaucrats disliked Lavrenčić’s pushes toward more work discipline inside the enterprise. They had sent a secret report to Tito defaming their director after which Lavrenčić lost political protection. The factory conspirators were also instrumental in hiding the documents proving that workers’ council approved all financial transactions for which the general manager had been accused.[8]

Rehabilitation

It is unclear at which point of time the myth surrounding Radmilo Lavrenčić gained a foothold in Priboj. It is very likely that different layers of the story were added over time. The study of other factories shows us that the tendency to claim past injustices increases when the work collective is faced with economic hardship and crisis. In the post-socialist landscape of deindustrialization, political changes and mass scale historical revisionism, the story of FAP’s legendary director gained fresh impetus and became embedded in new ideological tropes. In the late 1980s the growing nationalist frenzy inside Serbia promted tales of the intentional deindustrialization of Serbia after World War II by the communist authorities and transfer of technology to Croatia and Slovenia. This claim became a sort of common wisdom in popular historical narratives in Serbia today.

Following the changing intellectual and media climate nationally, FAP’s local narratives also became highly ethnicized. The rivalry between Yugoslavia’s two major truck producers, FAP and TAM, is now commonly seen as the struggle between the national interests of Serbs and Slovenes. Stemming from a mixed marriage between a Slovene father and Serbian mother, Lavrenčić’s ethnicity and national allegiance also became a topic of consideration. Allegedly, Lavrenčić’s love for his newfound home made him overcome his ethnic and political allegiance to Slovenia and adopt the interests of Priboj and Serbia.

In 2011, Lavrenčič’s widow and a group of former associates tried to renew the case inside the courthouse and appealed for the Serbian state to officially rehabilitate FAP’s first director. In its public addresses, the initiative and its legal representatives used the rhetoric of national victimization and anti-communism usually encountered in the ongoing wave of rehabilitations of entrepreneurs, distinguished citizens and politicians which were associated with the Serbian bourgeois traditions and condemned by the communist authorities in the early postwar years.

The depiction of intra-party factional clashes at different levels was thus exchanged for a simpler narrative of a totalitarian state, its prosecution of nonconforming individuals and national resistance. The local court in Užice declined the appeal for rehabilitation as Lavrenčić was prosecuted for economic, not political crime. In 2013, Priboj’s local government named a local street connecting the factory to the town center after Radmilo Lavrenčić and erected a plaque in his honor

plaque2

Goran Musić, 04.03.2016

—————————————————–

[1] Mujo Bjelopoljac, „Franc Leskošek uništio Radmila, ali nije uspeo i Pribojski FAP“, Svedok, no. 1020, http://www.svedok.rs/index.asp?show=81411

[2] One of the outcomes of the cooperation with Mercedes was the presence of a dozen German engineers in Priboj. The workers and staff we talked to were all fond of pointing out the fact that German engineers lived in their town and contributed to Priboj becoming more cosmopolitan with their civic manners.

[3] According to many interviewees this was a very demanding feature for the construction technology of the 1950s, implemented in very few places in Europe at the time.

[4] FAP’s restaurant building has been privatized recently and turned into a nightclub. The older workers perceive this change of function and ownership over the restaurant as an insult and paradigmatic of the fate of the factory/city as whole.

[5] S. Bjelić, „Početna cena 106 Miliona“, http://www.priboj033.com/pocetna-cena-106-miliona/

[6] Mujo Bjelopoljac, „Franc Leskošek uništio Radmila, ali nije uspeo i Pribojski FAP“, Svedok, no. 1020, http://www.svedok.rs/index.asp?show=81411

[7] Neven Anđelić, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 54-66.

[6] Mujo Bjelopoljac, „Franc Leskošek uništio Radmila, ali nije uspeo i Pribojski FAP“, Svedok, no. 1020, http://www.svedok.rs/index.asp?show=81411

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s