HR ‘Game Changer’ has a Higher Purpose for Hungary

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Marianna Sárközy

Melanie Seymour talks about the HR challenges of building an operation from scratch, recruiting from the Four Seasons hotel, and plugging into the Hungarian experience.

Melanie Seymour (right) receiving her BBJ Expat CEO  runners’ up certificate from editor-in-chief Robin Marshall.

For a business publication such as ours, BlackRock is always going to be a fascinating company. Whether it is as the world’s largest asset manager (with USD 5.98 trillion in assets under management as of December 2018), or because of the more than 500 people it employs in its pioneering Budapest hub. But what makes it really interesting is the concept developed here for bring Hungarian emigres back home.

BlackRock Budapest boss Melanie Seymour, a runner-up in this year’s Expat CEO of the Year awards, says the latter comes from a determination to give something back, and to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I am very competitive,” she tells the Budapest Business Journal in an exclusive interview.

“I wanted my next role to really be something I could look to as having impact,” she recalls.

“There is a whole piece through BlackRock that is about so much more than purpose, that it isn’t just that we’re a big financial services company. What is our purpose in the business world, in the world more generally, and how are we demonstrating that? Coming to Hungary, there was always this element that this can’t be about BlackRock using the country, if you like, as a conduit for its next stage of growth, but what do we give back and what do we do to help Hungary?”

As she prepared for taking on the role, she realized she already mentored three Hungarian women in the United Kingdom. “So I started talking to Hungarians I knew in London, and initially it was purely for me to understand Hungary more and start to delve into the culture.”

Within a few weeks she began to notice there was a common theme that came through. Hungarians seemed to love traveling, had built some great experiences, but the ultimate aim was to go back to Hungary. What was remarkable, she says, was that this was as true of young students as it was those in their 50s.

Career Opportunities

So she started to explore why people didn’t simply go back; Hungary, after all, is not so far away.

“Again, the theme that came through was all around having a career opportunity that matched what they could have abroad. This wasn’t about salaries; it was, we have had a great education, we’re intelligent, ambitious people and when we look at Hungary, we can’t see that we can achieve those ambitions.”

Career opportunities and proper utilization of skills and knowledge were the key, Seymour said. Obviously, Hungarians want to earn a good wage, but it wasn’t the driving consideration. “There’s a big quality of life piece to it as well.”

That career versus home equation became stretched by trigger points: starting a family, ageing parents, friends beginning to go back.

“There were these very human events and you could see there was this real quandary; there was this life event that was happening that means I really wish I could go home, but also I have a professional life and I have to compromise on my professional ambitions if I make that personal decision to go back.”

Seymour has built up the BlackRock operation from scratch. She had started coming out to Budapest from early November 2016, but by the New Year, the move was permanent.

“I arrived on January 3 [2017] with a laptop and BlackRock business cards. We had no office, I had no home; I lived and worked in the Four Seasons. So it really was a startup, but it wasn’t too shabby,” she says with a laugh.

“The first two people we employed, both Hungarians, actually had their interviews on the sofa in the foyer of the Four Seasons.”

Those first employees started on March 1, 2017. Today the staff payroll numbers 510, and it is projected to rise to around 650 by yearend. There is space in BlackRock’s purpose built offices in the GTC White House in District XIII for 850.

“We look at allocation strategies all the time, but the plan is that is where we will get to.”

Pioneering Approach

The Budapest office is described as a technology and innovation hub, a pioneering concept that aims to bring innovative thought processes to just about everything BlackRock does. But one challenge Seymour and her HR director faced was explaining what BlackRock did in the first place, and then encouraging people to apply for roles. It forced them to look again at how job positions are described and find a new approach, something that is being taken up across the company.

The team built relatively quickly, especially once a certain critical mass had been achieved and word of mouth began to spread, but even before then Seymour says she was worried she might be missing out on a talent pool.

Recalling her earlier conversations with Hungarians in London, she challenged BlackRock to put on an event in London, with the help of the Hungarian Embassy, reaching out to Hungarians expats. Held in January 2017, before there were any real positions to offer, it exceeded all expectations in attracting 120 people. A seed had been planted.

“Once I was here and started embedding myself more in the business environment and then really understanding some of the bigger challenges around talent – and going back to that higher purpose of how do you help Hungary? – you really could see that ‘Do you know what, this could be a game changer’.”

Talking to the likes of AmCham and the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, she began to understand this could, and should, be bigger. “If we made this just about BlackRock, that’s not really solving the problem, so why not get other companies involved.”

Initially, a joint event was organized in London with Morgan Stanley and Citi. That, too, was oversubscribed. And so it began to snowball. If it worked in London, why not in other cities with big Hungarian populations such as Frankfurt and Munich? Events were held, and were not just oversubscribed, people were travelling long distances to attend them. Seymour says BlackRock had found its higher purpose in Hungary.

In November of last year, the experiment hopped across the pond, after the Hungarian consulate in New York contacted Seymour to say there was interest from Hungarians there too. Even Hungarians who had lived 20 years in the Big Apple, and loved their time there, were looking for a career that could bring them back.

Life of its Own

Other companies are now doing their own events. BP, ExxonMobil and Jaguar Land Rover recently held one in London. Seymour says she is delighted.

“This was never ‘mine’, but it really can’t be mine now. I haven’t the bandwidth to keep organizing it. One of the things that was sad for me was that, when you get that 100-odd people, there will always be many who aren’t the right fit for the roles we offer. And when they are not right for us, they might not be right for other financial firms either, but they are really good Hungarians who should be coming back home.”

That other industries are offering careers that can tempt Hungarians back is a big tick in the box for making a difference, Seymour says, and not only professionally.

“So many people told me that trying to help bring back Hungarians was a stupid idea because Hungarians just don’t want to come back. On a personal level, as I am so competitive, I have to say it’s great that a lot of those people that told me not to do it are now doing it themselves.”

BlackRock alone has employed 54 expat Hungarians as a result of these events, but the work does not stop there.

Some returnees have been gone a long time, long enough that how you navigate the bureaucracy of the Hungarian system has completely changed. Working with an organization called Hazaköltöztünk (“We Moved Back Home”), it has organized orientation events and networking opportunities for what it calls “InPats”, people who “lived and worked abroad, then decided to return back to Hungary”.

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