Panagiotis Rousakis, Philip Morris Bulgaria: We Are Not Just Bringing Innovation to the Market, but Positive Change and a Smoke-Free Future in Bulgaria

Panagiotis Rousakis is the new Head of Commercial Operations at Philip Morris Bulgaria. His professional experience at the company coincides with the company’s historic transformation towards a smoke-free future.

Following his previous extensive experience in sales, financial management and business development in other economic sectors, at Philip Morris Bulgaria he manages projects to develop the retail network, the customer experience and to implement the company’s strategic priorities in pursuit of the smoke-free future mission.

Smoke-free alternatives have been successfully offered on the Bulgarian market for over 6 years. What have been the biggest business challenges for the company in this period?

The process of introducing innovative products to the Bulgarian market for the first time by our company was filled with both challenges and moments of satisfaction.

One of the main challenges was to achieve a good understanding among adult smokers of the different characteristics of smoke-free alternatives compared to traditional smoking. In order to achieve this goal, we run awareness campaigns to adult consumers in which we present the scientific data on the emission reductions of our smoke-free products compared to traditional cigarettes.

During this transformational period, it is crucial that our initiatives are conducted responsibly and in full compliance with regulatory requirements so that we build trust with our customers and the public. Good regulatory knowledge and compliance, dialogue with government authorities and various stakeholders are integral to the success of our strategy.

It is crucial that we have a transparent, open and honest dialogue with adult consumers and our business partners, as well as with the scientific community, institutions and the public.

One of the major hurdles we had to overcome was convincing adult smokers who would otherwise have continued to smoke to change their deeply ingrained habits and switch to smoke-free alternatives.

Our aim was to assist them in the process of switching to smoke-free alternatives as a potentially less harmful form of tobacco use compared to conventional smoking. Our efforts have yielded good results and today we are proud that over 320,000 adult users in Bulgaria have already switched to our main smoke-free alternative.

Is it difficult to innovate in a market like Bulgaria’s, which is generally considered to be a bit more conservative?

Innovating in a market like Bulgaria does bring with it some unique challenges. But we see them as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Bulgarians are well informed and have the ability to appreciate things of value when they see and try them. The advances in Bulgarian society in recent years, combined with continued integration into Europe and the world, have created an environment in which discussions about innovation and progress are increasingly well received.

Overcoming conservative attitudes is achieved through transparent communication and strategies tailored to local conditions. It is crucial to give a clear and direct response to concerns and to highlight the real benefits of our innovations. We have found that building relationships with the community and stakeholders builds trust and mutual understanding, and contributes to the gradual acceptance of innovative alternatives. In addition, we welcome the fact that our competitors have also become involved in offering combustion-free products in the smoke-free category.

This not only confirms the transformative power of smoke-free alternatives, but also accelerates the process of making Bulgaria a smoke-free country. The collective efforts in support of this category by leading companies in the tobacco industry are contributing to faster results.

And although we face difficulties, the evolution of attitudes in Bulgaria is pushing us forward and we are moving confidently in the right direction. We are not just bringing innovation to the market – we are part of a larger movement for positive change and a smoke-free future in Bulgaria.

What are the benefits of being part of a large international company like Philip Morris International? What are the benefits for a market like Bulgaria?

Being part of a global force is an enriching experience full of extraordinary opportunities. Having access to extensive resources, experience and technology that is a stimulus for innovation and continuous improvement is crucial for us. Navigating a large and complex organization, especially amid intense business cycles, requires flexibility.

We align our strategies with both global company standards and the specifics of the Bulgarian market.

Along with the business impact and social impact, there is also a sense of personal satisfaction in seeing all employees develop together based on international standards and practices. And it’s not just about professional development – we’re talking about improving people’s skills – an important part of the bigger global picture. Our journey at Philip Morris International is really about overcoming challenges locally, celebrating triumphs and contributing to a better future for Bulgaria.

For us at Philip Morris Bulgaria, work is not just about career development, it is a shared commitment to building a smoke-free world.

Prior to your current position, you were Head of Strategy and Project Management. What does it take to produce a strong business project as part of a strategy in times like these?

For me, leading the Strategy and Project Management department was a lesson in adaptability and flexibility. Crafting a solid business strategy and executing projects in often uncertain times is a lot like navigating rough waters.

Adaptability is key – it enables the strategy to remain effective when unforeseen circumstances arise.

Data plays a central role. We need to go beyond simply collecting information, but rather analyse it in depth and extract knowledge that enables informed decision making. Customer focus is paramount to ensure that our offerings are always in line with changing market dynamics.

We are aware that a single smoke-free product cannot meet the preferences of all consumers in Bulgaria and therefore we are constantly expanding our portfolio with new smoke-free offerings for those adult smokers who are not giving up tobacco or nicotine and would otherwise continue to smoke.

For 5 years now you have witnessed the transformation of the company towards a smoke-free future. What has changed in these years?

I have witnessed a truly impressive transformation. From a digital perspective, strategic choices have been made to embrace technology, improve operational efficiency and take our customer relationships to a new level. But what is coming to the fore is the conscious shift towards developing an inclusive culture, which is now an integral part of our corporate DNA. Building a diverse and inclusive environment is a shared value across the company.

And our other core commitment is sustainability through initiatives that actively contribute to the well-being of the communities in which we operate.

There has also been a profound change for me on a personal level by joining Philip Morris Bulgaria. Thanks to the company’s culture, I have developed a better understanding of the positive impact of business in the process of building a better future for all.