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As euro zone struggles, these companies buck the downturn

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For many euro zone companies, investing in expensive new machinery at the height of the financial crisis would have been impossible, if not disastrous. But for Helen Gray de Castro, in charge of Portuguese tissue manufacturing firm Fapajal, a new paper machine in 2009 at the company's mill has coincided with a tripling in revenues.

Established in 1755 after the great Lisbon earthquake of the same year, the monks of St. Vincent moved to Fapajal's present site and began producing the tissue paper that is still manufactured to this day. Despite the hardship of recent years, with little liquidity and competitors falling by the wayside, Gray de Castro says Fapajal has managed to keep its head above the parapet.

"We have managed to roll down our debt," she told CNBC. "We have been very careful, have never paid out any dividends and taken no cash out of the company."

(Read More: Spain emerges from 2-year recession)

Across the 17-country euro zone, companies have been struggling through a tough period of recession and austerity, where government cutbacks imposed to bring down debt levels have held back growth and led to an increase in unemployment. But examples of companies surviving the downturn can be found across Europe.

Fapajal, which completed just under 30 million euros in sales this year, gains higher margin from its domestic market but has found steady demand next door in Spain, with 80 percent of its exports finding their way to the struggling nation. Gray de Castro's advice for other firms is to keep it simple.

"It's nothing magic or particularly creative," she said. "Control your costs, get exposed to the areas of business that are stable and bring down debt."

"Be very careful about what's important. Treat your clients well so they keep coming back," she added. "We try to treat our customers very very well, if they sneeze we are right there ready with a tissue!"

(Read More: Slip of the finger adds $14 billion to Spain debt)

Prolonged unemployment

Economic data for the euro zone shows deep scars from the financial crash, which was shortly followed by a grueling sovereign debt crisis that embroiled nations like Greece, Spain and Portugal. Figures show a contraction in manufacturing that has only finally reversed this year. The recovery is still "modest and fragile" according to research firm Markit that provide the data.

Euro zone unemployment will remain near its record high of around 12.2 percent for the next two years, according to the European Commission's Autumn statement on Tuesday. In Spain, the registered jobless is expected to stay above 25 percent. The country may have emerged from recession, posting a 0.1 percent monthly uptick in GDP (growth domestic product) last week, but youth unemployment remains above 50 percent.

In order to survive Spanish firms have had to add flexibility to their workforce. Mandarin Media, a production company based in Barcelona but with clients across the world, told CNBC that it's this strategy that gives it the freedom to accommodate any size of production and to scale the company size and services to the pending volume of work and client needs.

"We have tripled the revenues since 2008," Carolin Akhtari, the managing director told CNBC. "During the last five years Mandarin Media gained more clients from new markets such as Asia, South America and Brazil and we had been able to extend our services European wide."

It's advice for other firms, she told CNBC, was choosing the right time to restructure and rescale a company while adapting constantly to progressing and changing markets.

(Read More: After Bill Gates, is Spain back in fashion?)

"Think big but grow healthy!" she said. "A company needs a strategy, needs to dream and needs to grow and needs to think ahead of today, but grow healthy and step by step."

Spain's exit from recession driven by exports

Global ambitions

If a more cautious approach works for Mandarin Media, then it certainly isn't a one size-fits-all. ABG Patentes has nearly doubled the amount of employees since 2008 and increased its turnover by over 70 percent and its profits by 105 percent.

ABG Patentes Madrid-based professional services firm helping clients protect important technological innovations and enforcing their intellectual property rights. A surge in research and development by Spanish companies and institutions, with innovation seen as one of the ways out of the economic crisis, has meant steady work.

"The advice to other companies is to quickly adapt to the new global situation, focus on what they do best, define and develop innovative product and services, and have the ambition to deliver them to the global marketplace, not just Spain," Francisco Bernardo Noriega, partner at ABG Patentes told CNBC.

(Read More: Why hopes of Spain's recovery may be 'far too optimistic')

Even some blue-chips have fared well according to Antonio Lopez, an equity analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, despite the IBEX 35 being 40 percent off the peak it hit exactly six years ago. Lopez likes telecoms company Jazztel, a domestic-facing company that has double-digit subscriber growth in the last few years with a successful value proposition to customers.

Viscofan - which makes the casing for sausages - is another pick. It's international exposure, "oligopolistic" sector positioning and an uptrend in prices makes it attractive, Lopez told CNBC.

Oil services company Tecnicas Reunidas, construction company OHL and glass container maker Vidrala are other notable stocks, according to Lopez.

Antonio Lopez and Exane BNP Paribas have no holdings in the above stocks. Clients of Exane BNP Paribas may have holdings in the above stocks.

By's Matt Clinch. Follow him on Twitter