2.0 Szeged – Introduction – Part 1
In the early nineties, I had the interesting fortune of being the CEO of a paprika and meat processing plant in southern Hungary. The circuitous route, which led me to this position is a story in itself, but suffice to say, that I was mandated by a major Hungarian bank, the firm’s main creditor, to turn the company around.
In true textbook fashion, I spent my time studying the company. This comprised mainly of countless meetings and luncheons with the top brass, major customers, and suppliers, ostensibly directed at developing a strategic plan that would lead the company into the future. This process continued for several months, during which time the old guard, were exceedingly courteous and helpful to me in answering all my questions and unhesitatingly accommodating all my requests.
Szeged, the city where the plant was located, is about a two and a half hour train ride from the capital city, Budapest, the place where I was living at the time. Each Monday morning, I would board the 6:30 train bound for Szeged, remain there for the workweek, and take the return train Friday afternoon. As this was during the winter months, every Monday morning when I departed from Budapest, it was still the dead of night. The train would take me across the southern plains of Hungary to my destination. In dawn’s first light, the mist-covered plains were dimly lit by a purplish light. By the time I reached Szeged, the sun had risen, the mist had receded; the day had begun.
Even though Hungary is a relatively small country, and the physical distance between Budapest and Szeged is not that great, the actual experience of being in Szeged is as if one were in a totally separate universe. To the outer world, Budapest was the capital of a former Russian satellite; the hub of a highly centralized socialist economy. The reality on the ground was quite different. The major cities in the various regions of the country, Szeged among them, were the real seats of power outside the capital.
Like little fiefdoms, each had their own parochial aristocracies. Lip service was paid to the administrators in Budapest, but the local brass enjoyed a relatively free hand in the management of their affairs. In the case of the Szeged plant, this meant that the local branch was very much running the show, with next to no interference from head office.
Every Monday morning I would arrive in Szeged, and proceed to the front of the station to meet the company driver who was always there to meet me and take me to the office. Akos, the driver, would greet me with the words, “I trust you had a pleasant journey, Sir.” I would reply in the affirmative, and then he would convey me in silence, to the plant.
Akos was always punctual. On this particular morning, Akos was nowhere in sight! After waiting for a few minutes, I made out on foot, taking the shorter route across the railway tracks. All the while, the feeling was growing inside me that something was off. As I was negotiating the fences and tracks, I was experiencing a general sense of dread descend upon me. A knot was tightening in the pit of my stomach, growing steadily as I approached the factory.
Finally, I arrived at the plant. The gatekeeper greeted me with a formal nod of the head, as he always did. However, this time something in his manner made me feel that he was surprised to see me.
The plant was comprised of a random scattering of buildings chaotically spread over an area of several acres. There was a small administrative building, located near the entrance to the compound, that was the nerve centre of the complex. The executive offices were on the upper floor. I proceeded to the administrative building. As I opened the entry door, I saw a huge crowd of workers, standing shoulder to shoulder, squeezed into the staircase and foyer. Immediately, a murmur started to work its way through the crowd, “Mr. Hardy is here”.