Since my early teens, I had dreamed about becoming an entrepreneur. When I was twelve, I spotted an arbitrage opportunity and bought generic PEZ candy at a kiosk near my school at bulk, and sold it at a 200% mark-up to fellow pupils during recess.
At thirteen, I bought a bunch of Yugoslav-made vinyl LPs during an Adriatic holiday and resold it to friends making a killing. In my late teens, I was planning to open a hamburger stand or a fried bread booth. At nineteen, my friends and I bought toothbrushes and toothpaste from Poland to re-sell them to Budapest drugstores and then reinvested our earnings into a small-time computer parts “importation” operation between Vienna and Budapest.
There were failed ventures too, including being stopped at customs trying to check in a suitcase-full of roll-on deodorants en route to Vietnam… to the horror of my unsuspecting dad, then a top heart specialists in Hungary, looking on.
On another occasion, boxes of Cuban cigars smuggled in from a vacation in Havana found no buyers in West Berlin… but it provided fodder for a great story and dry Cohiba-puffs with friends for the next quarter century.
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall crumbled, I designed a modified version of the board game Monopoly, named “Communopoly”, where players were exposed to the confiscation of their property and made losses at every turn of the dice. The last player staying afloat won. I was going to make a killing selling it in underpasses before the Christmas holidays… But a scholarship from the Dutch government frustrated my nascent entrepreneurial plans.
The scholarship lead to a job in London and another two in Budapest. For the next thirteen years, I went into the wilderness of working 9 to 5, but more often 5 to 9 jobs.
My restlessness didn't help my career much, as I kept moving from one department to the next, looking for the right opportunity for my talents. I had no patience, and soon as I learned the job (or even earlier) I moved on, failing to capitalize on my opportunities.
Nevertheless, working in accounting gave me solid grounding in finance, and banking taught me to turn my attention from the numbers of the past to the numbers of the future. At my next stint, I learned to build financial models and draft information memoranda and financial contracts.
When my bid to move back to London to work for the booming Russia Team of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development fell through, I was hired by another international bank to put together project loans.
I started to understand how to serve clients while turning a profit. ABN AMRO Bank was strong in Export Finance and I cobbled a deal together with the Hungarian Eximbank to sell city buses to the Moldova. I had other Eastern European export deals in the works, but the Russian financial crisis of 1998 intervened, closing that market.
I moved on to an unattended niche in the bank where I could stake out my own “intrapreneurial” turf: corporate bond issues. I hassled a couple of deals together with supranational borrowers who were looking to tap the “Paprika bond” market, issuing their paper in Hungarian currency.
The following year, our bank ran into trouble and a French turnaround specialist, Bernard Yoncourt was brought in to salvage the situation. I was already getting antsy in my position and was intrigued when he picked me to run his secretariat and the PR department. By that time I developed a theory that specialist banking jobs were doomed in peripheral countries, like Hungary, and the way to make a career was to move into general management. This seemed like the right type of move.
The next 12 months was a full immersion course in high-level office politics, as the old guard of the bank tried to marginalize the turnaround team and prevent the painful but necessary restructuring of the bank. McKinsey and two future Ministers of Finance (Tibor Draskovics and Csaba Laszlo) were hired to help sort out the financial mess our bank got itself into.
My first job was to befriend, wine and dine the cream of the crop of the financial journalist community before releasing news that the bank had lost over $100 million in 1999. We did an ok job and the run on the bank was averted.
A year later, I was on a week-long paternity leave with our first daughter, when the CEO summoned me to the bank for an emergency meeting. We were going to be taken over by a local competitor, ran by strong man Tibor Rejto. Our Dutch bank, in contrast, had a relatively flat and informal culture. The announced “merger” felt like the Russian occupation, for the staff of ABN AMRO Bank.
Mr. Yoncourt's days were numbered, but he managed to get me appointed as secretary of the mergers committee where I wrote all the minutes. I did my best to influence the process in favor of preserving the ABN AMRO culture, which did not endear me to Mr. Rejto. When one Friday he summoned me to his office and found me wearing chinos, he promptly ordered the decadent custom of “dress-down Fridays” abolished.
Soon after, Mr. Draskovics succeeded Mr. Yoncourt as acting CEO until the merger and rescued me from the “firing squad” and allowed me to parachute to head the bank's M&A department. It was one of the last bastions of ABN AMRO culture as the unit was operationally ran by a managing director sitting in London. I soon discovered, however, that London's business model would not survive the “new broom” and started repositioning the department to focus on local management buyouts instead of high profile cross border deals that were few and far between. We had a substantial monthly payroll to support and needed a more predictable source of cash flow.
Our team soon landed a few clients, including a mandate to mastermind the hostile takeover of a publically listed plastics manufacturer, Pannonplast, by an upstart entrepreneur, who had fancied becoming the Hungarian “King of Plastics”.
The deal was high-profile and Mr. Rejto took a personal interest in it. When it fell through, however, he promptly fired me together with my similarly “overpaid” deputy.
I was 35 years old and ran out of excuses for not starting my own business. The plush salary I had enjoyed was gone and my opportunity cost disappeared overnight. After a few phone calls, I realized that landing a similarly paid job was going to be a challenge which helped me handle my wife's objections to going solo.
I finally managed to “work” myself out of a job, or at least, to get fired.
Fortunately, I had three prospects in the pipeline and each of them agreed to hire me instead of the bank. I was in business within ten days. Rented an empty apartment from a friend for $100 a month, overlooking the Danube River in Budapest. A former colleague helped with setting me up with a desktop computer.
I was off to the races!!!
45 days after my departure, the greatest ever financial scandal in Hungary broke out at the bank. A rogue stockbroker, Attila Kulcsar had built a Madoff-style pyramid scheme, under the personal protection of Mr. Rejto, who was soon forced out.
Worse, Mr. Kulcsar allegedly breached the “Chinese wall” separating the M&A department and was illegally profiting from the impending takeover of Pannonplast.
In the meantime, I was on my way to closing my first M&A deal and within six months had made good on my pledge to have each former client move over to my fledgling boutique firm, including the King of Plastics.
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