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Veronika Spanarova Triumphs at 2023 Expat CEO of the Year Gala

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Veronika Spanarova and Giacomo Pedranzini.

Photo by Marianna Sárközy

Citi’s Veronika Spanarova won the Expat CEO of the Year title at the Budapest Business Journal’s annual awards gala, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Corinthia Hotel Budapest on March 24.

The exclusive, invitation-only black-tie event was held for the ninth time. A prestigious crowd of business leaders, their other halves, diplomats, and decision-makers gathered at the hotel to witness the award ceremony.

The BBJ Expat CEO Award is given to the foreign business head working and living in Hungary who is considered to have contributed most to the development of the Hungarian economy and its international recognition in the previous year. The first gala was held in 2015.

“The BBJ is Hungary’s only English-language economic bi-weekly and has always played an important role in providing information for expat CEOs working and living in Hungary. That is why we decided to found an award to recognize their efforts annually,” said Balázs Román, the CEO of the Budapest Business Journal.

The Expat CEO of the Year is picked by a professional jury of five just 30 minutes before the gala starts. The professional expertise of the independent jury members underpins the high quality of the award.

Expert Jury

The panel this year consisted of Írisz Lippai-Nagy, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary, who has been involved since the beginning, István Joó, CEO of the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, the official event partner for the award, German-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry president András Sávos and BBJ CEO Balázs Román. The previous year’s title winner took the fifth seat on the jury, meaning Giacomo Pedranzini, the head of Kometa 99 Zrt., had a voice in picking his successor.

The gala now represents one of the most important events of the year for expat company heads in the country. Attendees had the opportunity to have their photos taken at the registration point before walking up the hotel’s imposing main staircase, where they were greeted with welcome drinks and a variety of gourmet hors d’oeuvres. There was also a chance to look over an exquisite luxury car courtesy of Mercedes, one of the gala’s many sponsors.

Just as the clock struck eight, the audience was invited into Corinthia’s richly decorated Grand Ballroom by the evening’s long-time host, Budapest Business Journal editor-in-chief Robin Marshall.

“If this is your first time with us, I commend you for your good taste in choice of event, for this is the premier platform for this remarkable community of Expat CEOs, their partners, members of the diplomatic corps, and key players with the government,” Marshall told the guests.

“Why Expat? Well, when we launched this award, there was plenty of recognition for Hungarian CEOs, many of whom are exceptional and fully deserving of those awards, and some of whom are in this room tonight, but there was nothing for the community of expat leaders. We wanted to fix that. And that word ‘community’ is essential here, for those of us who are expats in Hungary don’t just do business here; we also live here. Whether you are a newbie or a return guest, you are welcome,” Marshall explained.

István Joó, CEO of Hipa.

Expat Investors

While the guests dug into their cold appetizers, the evening’s host introduced István Joó, the CEO of Hipa, noting that the agency has supported the award and the gala ever since the first plans were drawn up nearly a decade ago.

Joó highlighted the importance of the expat community in keeping Hungary’s economy thriving, noting: “Hipa’s role is more important than ever to keep foreign investors’ trust. While we strive to attract new projects, we work tirelessly to implement previously announced investments as well. We continue to count on the expat executive community to turn FDI deals into operating ventures and professionally run already functioning projects. Feel free to spread the word about what a great investment destination Hungary is.”

Shortly after the Hipa CEO’s speech, warm appetizers were served, including vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free dishes for those with special dietary needs. The guests also took part in an interactive quiz with questions related to Hungary’s history, culture, and business life.

This year, the Budapest Business Journal introduced a new prize, the Community Award, presented for the first time at the Expat CEO of the Year Gala. The award recognizes a company leader or head of a foundation or business organization for their efforts in diversity, inclusivity, disability, or sustainability.

Marshall noted that “the very first winner of the BBJ Community Award was shortlisted as Diversity Champion of the Year by the London-based European Diversity Awards in 2022, becoming the first nominee from Hungary. She was ranked among the top five CEOs in Hungary based on LinkedIn engagement rate in 2022. Forbes Hungary has ranked her among the most influential women in business since 2020. She was among the first to receive the ‘Leading Woman for a Sustainable Future’ award from the Hungarian Business Council for Sustainable Development in 2017.”

Andrea Solti Istenes and Robin Marshall.

Debut Winner

The first-ever Community Award went to Andrea Solti Istenes, president of the Hungarian Business Leaders’ Forum and country chair of Shell Hungary.

Brought to the stage by Marshall, Solti Istenes told the audience, "Communities are stronger when they have the same values and they have the same purpose.”

She added that this award would encourage her and the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum to do more for the communities.

“Values like diversity, equity and inclusion, ethical business practices, and sustainability are very important for me personally, and my experience is that sharing those values makes us stronger, and we can have a greater impact on society and business,” she said.

After the guests had finished the gala dinner’s main course, Marshall introduced this year’s nominees for the top award: Veronika Spanarova, managing director and country head Hungary at Citi; Andreas Szakácsi, Claas Hungária’s managing director; and Novartis Hungary country president Matt Zeller.

Marshall also paid tribute to the previous title holders, noting that last year saw the first Italian winner of the award, Giacomo Pedranzini, the CEO of Kometa 99 Zrt. After a COVID-induced delay to the gala of 18 months, Erik Slooten, CEO of Deutsche Telekom IT Solutions Hungary, was the 2021 Expat CEO of the year. His immediate predecessor, albeit one named in January 2020, was BlackRock’s Melanie Seymour. Taira-Julia Lammi, CEO of ABB Hungary Kft., won the award in 2019, while in 2018, the title went to Marc de Bastos Eckstein, CEO of Thyssenkrupp Components Technology Hungary Kft. In 2017, it was Jörg Bauer, then of GE Hungary; in 2016, it was Jost Ernst Lammers of Budapest Airport Zrt., and the inaugural award was presented in 2015 to Javier González Pareja of Bosch Magyarország.

Be Proud

Called to the stage after the screening of three videos showcasing each of the shortlisted 2023 candidates, last year’s winner Giacomo Pedranzini brought with him an envelope containing the winner’s name. He noted how this year’s shortlisted candidates came from three companies with different backgrounds and how the candidates themselves had different origins, and all had their own stories of success.

“In the meantime, the past year also brought significant changes to my life, as I acquired Hungarian citizenship,” last year’s Expat CEO of the Year noted, prompting the audience to spontaneous applause. He shared that not to boast, he said, but because he had a vested interest in seeing Hungary do well.

“My message to you is do not care too much about the name that comes out of the envelope, [….] be proud of what you have done until now, and be focused on what you can do in the future,” he addressed the three shortlisted candidates, before sharing personal stories about the three industries the nominees work in.

Excitement reached its highest point of the evening as he opened the envelope, revealing the name of the ninth Expat CEO of the Year.

Amid a flurry of applause, Veronika Spanarova made her way to the stage to accept the award.

“I am extremely humbled and honored to receive this award. Citi was the first to open among the Central European countries in 1985, and it is one of the largest operations in the wider Europe and EMEA region. So, I have been very fortunate to be part of the continuous growth of the investments we made into technology, into R&D, into innovation, and also to be part of the success of our clients, many of whom are foreign investors,” Spanarova noted.

Team Recognition

“Every award is a recognition of a team. I believe that nobody can achieve anything just by themselves without the support of the network and the people around them. We have been able to be successful here thanks to the open economy and welcoming business environment, our clients, and the great people and the team we are working with here,” she explained.

“So, I would like to say thank you. I would like to say thank you to our public sector partners, to Hipa, the American Chamber of Commerce, business associations, the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum, and the Budapest Business Journal. I would like to say thank you also to our clients,” Spanarova said.

Before the gala’s official program ended, Marshall just had time to introduce a very special guest who went on to entertain the evening’s guests with a breathtaking performance.

“Sadly, by the time people were foolish enough to give me a microphone and allow me to introduce celebrities, Frank Sinatra was already dead. But tonight, I do get to do the next best thing, and that is introduce someone who has sung with Ol’ Blue Eyes,” Marshall said.

He then introduced legendary Hungarian pianist and singer Károly Nyári, noting that the artist appeared with performers such as Chaka Khan, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Robbie Williams as well as Sinatra. For the night’s concert, he was accompanied by his daughter Aliz, also a singer, who made it to the finals of X-Factor’s Hungarian edition.

The gala continued into the night, with ample networking opportunities for the guests in the foyer (always one of the highlights of the evening, the CEOs say), who continued to enjoy the hospitality of Corinthia, sampling mouth-watering desserts and drinks served in the hotel’s Valetta bar until well past midnight while listening to tunes played by the Nyáris.

The Evening’s Partners

The event was sponsored by Penny, PwC, Mercedes, Citi, Legrand, Continental, Phoenix Pharma, Heineken, UniCredit, and Taylor Wessing. Hipa was again the ceremony’s official event partner.

Prime Time Communications was responsible for the gala’s organization, Special Effects International provided technical support, while Sharity, chocoME, and Rent IT also contributed to the gala’s success.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 11, 2023.

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