It's coming to the end of the study trip to Budapest with the part-time Henley MBA group. It's been a very good programme of visits, presentations, activities and stories. Knowing the environment for so long (I do not say 'so well'), it is also interesting for me to reflect on what has changed and what has remained the same.
Of course, a lot of what I now see and experience in Budapest is another world when compared to the city I met first as a much younger man getting off the train from Vienna in March 1987. It was a place that seemed held back, where the wait for a phone line was sometimes measured in decades, the wait for a new car meant that your old car might be worth more that the one you had ordered, and when you went shopping, if you saw certain items, you bought them up! It was a place where superficial life was regulated by a system no-one trusted and no-one challenged, and life went on in a very European way underground. People relied on others to spread the word of the latest club or the location of the shop just opened that sold the goods just imported.
Now it is all very different. A regular European city, a little worn still, but just like its old self also.
We divided the week into time spent on visits to companies and organisations and time spent getting a broader perspective on life in Hungary (eating, drinking mainly, but also some culture). We began at the Central European University with an outstanding run-through of Hungarian history from Istvan Nagy. I remember meeting Istvan when he joined the MBA program in Budapest in 1993. A native of Transylvania, he now holds Hungarian citizenship and works as a top management consultant. I think we have grown grey around the temples together.
Among the companies we went to were an IBM HR shared service center, Videoton, a Hungarian-owned holding company for businesses in CEM and automotive parts, and Visteon, the struggling US automotive parts supplier. We also were guests at the Regional Environment Center (REC), which none of us could quite work out what it did. Finally, there was a small and rapidly growing contact center business called Photel, now part of Teleperformance. Photel was started by an old friend, Zsolt Lakatos, and managed by another, Odett Horvath. With the group packed into their one, small meeting room Odett gave an energetic presentation that outshone all others that week and won the hardened Henley MBAs! The other highlight of the week was, for me, the classical music concert at the magnificent (brand new) Palace of Arts building.
I do not feel the kind of nostalgia for Hungary that would call me back there. Mine is the kind that allows me to have many fond (and occasionally not so fond) memories that I like to relive when visiting. Seeing how much has changed, and knowing that I was one of the few western Europeans who lived there before all those changes, is enough.