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She Proved “Made in Bulgaria” Is a Stamp of Quality

Genoveva Christova is in the business of proving things. Proving that a girl can go far in sports. That she can remake herself when her original plan does not bear fruit. That a girl from a poor Varna neighborhood can become a top executive in a company with clients all over the world. That entrepreneurship isn’t just a boys’ sport. That a woman can do spectacularly in a male-dominated industry. That “Made in Bulgaria” can be a sought-after label.

Genoveva has never had any doubt that she would succeed. Driven and passionate, she has ticked off many boxes on her to-achieve list so far: She is a two-time state champion in sprint. As she saw her future in sports, she went to a sports high school, but the early 1990s weren’t a good time to be anything in Bulgaria, let alone a woman in sports, so she changed course. The legacy of sports in her life was a strengthened drive to succeed and an ability to work with different people. Add to that a degree in international political relations and working knowledge of several languages, and Genoveva was ready to take on the challenge of consulting Bulgarian companies interested in selling abroad or securing EU pre-accession funding in the early 2000s.

At about that time, she met her future business partner and close friend Anelia Kassabova with whom she would found what is now Ligna Group. Initially, they worked together in the Bulgarian Chamber of the Woodworking and Furniture Industry; Anelia was the chamber’s marketing manager, Genoveva, its executive director. Their jobs involved taking Bulgarian furniture makers to European furniture expos in hopes of catching the eye of an interested buyer. At the time, that meant packing 40-plus people in a passenger bus and driving two-to-three thousand miles to wherever the next expo was taking place; helping manufacturers set up booths and present their work; and making contacts with other producers and potential clients. The manufacturers’ small production capacities and the “Made in Bulgaria” label didn’t work in their favor, and the Bulgarian groups weren’t taken very seriously.

Genoveva’s attempt to prove that Bulgarians aren’t pushovers was what turned her life around—and what helped Ligna take off in a big way. The Bulgarian group they were taking to the International Furniture and Interiors Fair in Cologne in 2005 arrived at their hotel late in the evening, exhausted after the 30-hour bus ride from Sofia, only to find the hotel was overbooked and they couldn’t be accommodated. A couple of hours later, they were put up in a different, inferior hotel, 30 miles outside Cologne.

Genoveva believed her clients deserved better than the bottle of cheap bubbly each passenger got from the hotel management in recompense. She wrote to B&B’s headquarters (B&B Hotels are a large hotel chain based in France with branches all over Europe), not really expecting an answer. A response did come. Not only that, but her complaint had more far-reaching consequences than she’d expected: an investigation by B&B had revealed double bookkeeping and other illicit practices by the Cologne hotel manager, who was fired. The new manager, whom Genoveva and Anelia met on their next trip to Cologne, in 2006, not only treated the Bulgarian group in a more professional manner but also told them that B&B was remodeling two of its hotels in Germany, in Frankfurt and in Munich, and encouraged them to submit a tender.

Genoveva and Anelia knew their moment had come. Submitting a tender in this case meant coming up with a room design, producing the furniture, and building the room for the client to see. They were up against established competitors from Poland and Germany. Moreover, Ligna does not have its own production facilities, so getting the right furniture makers on board would be crucial. Most manufacturers they contacted dismissed them right away, laughing off the idea that anyone would even pay attention to a Bulgarian proposal and refusing to risk money and time on such a far-fetched venture. Five producers agreed to back them though, and after several hectic weeks creating space-optimizing designs, making tables, beds, and closets, and shipping everything to Germany, Genoveva and Anelia were sitting in front of a six-figure contract, their hearts pounding, elated that they had finally made it. 

Today, if you are staying at the Marriott in London, you will be sleeping on a Bulgarian bed and drinking your coffee at tables crafted by one of Ligna’s suppliers in Ruse, Silistra, Dobrich, Bansko, Blagoevgrad, Lovech, and Troyan. Ligna’s hotel portfolio includes 160 hotels all over Europe, with major hotel chains such as Marriott, Ritz, Accor, and Hilton having trusted the company with their furnishing needs. Toyota showrooms in France now sport Bulgarian furniture, and so do Citroen’s. And if you are in France and want to mail a letter the traditional way, from a post office, you’d be sticking your stamps on Bulgarian-made counters.

Ligna works with 30 suppliers all over Bulgaria (the original five manufacturers who had believed in them when they were just starting out are now preferred suppliers), giving steady employment to at least 2,500 people in regions where work is hard to come by. “A worker in Ruse once told us, ‘Thanks to you I can go home and tell my kids their dad makes furniture for Toyota.’ It makes me proud to be doing what I do,” Genoveva says.

Ligna is on an upward trajectory, constantly looking to expand its client portfolio and product line. Genoveva and Anelia recently added a designer department to the company, and shortly thereafter a design of theirs, Winebox by Ligna, was bought by an Italian company. “Selling Winebox in the world’s design capital surpassed our wildest dreams,” Genoveva says.

Successes like these fuel Genoveva’s ambitions further. (In fact, Genoveva admits, she has so many plans and ideas that the sheer volume would probably crush her if it weren’t for her business partner Anelia’s more grounded, cool-headed personality.) One of the works in progress is Ligna Creative Space—which she hopes will become a home to Sofia’s creative industry and foment partnerships between businesses in the industry. Her larger goal is to prove that there is opportunity in Bulgaria, but only if Bulgarians overcome their lone-wolf mentality and start working together. “I really believe in what’s written above the entrance to the Bulgarian parliament, Unity makes strength. Our best hope for success is learning to work together,” Genoveva says.

Genoveva’s personal projects include ensuring other girls make it where she didn’t—sports. She has invested time and money in Varna Women’s Football Club, hoping to encourage more girls to take up the sport and prove that girls can also excel at “the beautiful game.” She has also become “an inspired music producer,” as she puts it, supporting the career of a talented young singer from her old Varna neighborhood.

If Genoveva’s track record in proving things are possible is anything to judge by, women’s football in Bulgaria has bright prospects.

Genoveva joined the RE:TURN initiative on its West Coast tour in March 2019. As a panelist in the Seattle event, she told Bulgarians in the audience about her experience building Ligna from scratch and her plans for the future. She assured them: “Bulgaria is a great place to live. We just have to believe in ourselves.”

Photos by Dobrin Kashavelov 

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