From Bucharest to Dubrovnik, from the BBC World Service to Break Time, from the European Parliament to the marketing director of two stores in Croatia. It’s a little difficult to know where to start with the story of Mirela Rus.
Born an hour from the Romanian capital Rus has faced many forks in the road, and whether through luck or judgement she has always taken the path that lead to another adventure. And this adventure has now brought her to Dubrovnik and to the opening of her second store in Croatia. To say that Mirela is determined would be an understatement, she has a “can do” approach to life combined with a carpe diem philosophy. Along with her husband, Ionut Copoiu, they have built a family style business that is proof that hard work and belief in your abilities can go a long way. The couple opened Break Time in Split in 2015 and have just forged into Dubrovnik with their second store.
Break Time offers bracelets, necklaces and key-chains which are all are personally handmade her husband using original yachting rope and nautical-inspired shackles and anchors. Now this might not seem so unusual if Ionut was a fashion designer or even a fisherman, but no, his background is construction. "For me, Dubrovnik has always been a magical place and to have my handcrafted products present here is an honour and a dream come true", said Mirela.
Chapter One of your Croatian adventure seemed to start with misfortune, but from this an opportunity arose that you have grabbed with both hands.
Yes, my husband had a construction company in Romania, this is his professional background. We both fell in love with a region of Split; we bought some land near to a small fishing village and planned to construct apartments. However we had problems with the bureaucracy and paperwork putting the whole project on hold. In the meantime another quite different opportunity presented itself, one that would surprise us both. I used to work for the BBC World Service in Romania and then in PR, I also worked in the European Union as communications manager for one of the Romanian MEPs.
Your husband has a hidden talent that you have turned into a successful business
He has always enjoyed making things with rope; it could be some kind of stress relief to forget the pressures of the hectic construction industry. Back in Romania we would give them to friends as presents but we were always being told that we should sell them, not something that had really ever crossed our minds before. His designs of necklaces, key-rings and bracelets became more intricate and more demanding, so I helped him source better quality ropes and some accessories.
When was the light bulb moment when you realised that you could turn this hobby into a business?
It all started when friends, and even friends of friends, in Romania kept asking him to make more, you could say that this was the beginning of the light bulb moment. But the real step came when we were in Split. We were sitting on the Riva and came up with the idea to take one of the Christmas houses on the Riva were we could sell his products. We went to see the Tourist Board in Split to try and rent a house but unfortunately they had already rented all the houses. I was upset. I knew that this would have been a good chance. And then I said “Ok, if I can’t have a Christmas house I want my own shop.” My husband agreed but said that we should take it slow and maybe open one next year. Of course as soon as I got home I started checking out possibilities online and phoned an agency that evening, the next day we had found a shop that we both liked, and within a few days had rented the space.
You worked as a journalist and in PR and your husband in construction, had you ever worked in retail before?
No, not at all, we were both complete novices. I remember my husband asking me “Are you sure you can operate a store?” I think I answered something like “Well other people are doing it, so I sure I can learn.” It was a sharp learning process. We bought some furniture to decorate the store in Split in a shop, adapted it a little and bingo we had a shop. If you put your mind to it there is nothing you can’t do, and don’t forget neither of us speaks Croatian.
How would you compare running a business in Croatia to what you are used to in Romania?
Coming from a country that is really corrupt, like Romania is, actually helped us in the whole process in Croatia. When you come from a corrupt country you expect that the same corruption would be normal here, we were wrong. We were told by many of the locals in Split that we would not be able to do anything, that we would have to bribe people and that we would get lost in the administrative system. None of these warnings came true. It seems funny when I look back now, but when we went to our first meeting with a city official we went carrying a bag with wine, chocolate and an envelope with some money inside it. We had basically prepared ourselves “Romanian Style.” We sat and watched as the lady signed and stamped all the papers, then we looked at each other as if to ask “when do we hand the presents to her.” Nothing happened. She presented us with the final papers, smiled and us and thanked us for opening a business in Croatia. We left, a little in shock, and stood on the street outside the offices still with the bag of “goodies” in our hands. This fair process has continued throughout our business life in Croatia.
You opened your first shop in Split in 2015, why did you decide that Dubrovnik should be the next step?
Because I think I am addicted to the Croatian coastline, I really don’t want to move away from the coast, otherwise Zagreb would have been the obvious next choice. Not only are our products connected to the sea but also because I feel like I belong to the coastline. Dubrovnik for us was always a mythical place, a city that we were interested in but had almost resigned ourselves to the fact that we would never open a store here. The main reason is it is just so hard to find the right premises, nothing is ever available. We had turned our attention to other parts of Croatia and were actually planning to find a store in Istria. The night before we left for Istria I opened a website and saw an advert for a shop space in Dubrovnik, maybe this was destiny, Dubrovnik is our destiny.
Who tend to be the clientele of your stores, are tourists the number one market?
To be honest, and I am speaking about Split where we have more experience, we expected that tourists would be our biggest customers. However that isn’t really the case, we have a steady stream of locals who are our loyal customers, and that is terrific. In fact almost half of our customers tend to be locals. And we don’t have a specific age group that buy our products, we seem to have found a product that is interesting to all ages, and both men and women.
And even though you have expanded your husband still makes all the necklaces, bracelets and key-chains?
Yes, he is busy. He works like crazy, but he loves it. He has ideas every day and I need to calm him down at times. He has lots of patience.
Are there any plans in the future to expand or are two stores enough?
Maybe we will open another store in Istria next year, but then we would need to hire other people to help make the products. I am not sure. We try not to make too many plans because plans can change in a minute. I think that part of our success comes from the fact we don’t make too many plans and we are flexible and try to adapt to the situation around us. If somebody had told me three years ago that I would be selling bracelets in Dubrovnik that my husband had made I would have thought they were high, but we are living proof that anything is possible if you just believe.
Text - Mark Thomas
Photos - Ivana Smilovic