Thomas Narbeshuber, CEO of BASF Hungária Kft. and BASF’s head of country clusters Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and South East Europe, talks to the Budapest Business Journal about being a two-time nominee of the Expat CEO of the Year title, what travel has taught him, and rising to the challenge of the labor crisis.
BBJ: You have just become a two-time nominee of the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year awards. What does such recognition mean to you?
Thomas Narbeshuber: It is always a great recognition being nominated for such a prestigious award, not only for me personally, but also for BASF. During the five years that I have spent here so far, I have done my best to become a useful member of the business community, so it must have certainly contributed to my two nominations. The expat community functions as a sort of bridge between Hungary and the rest of the world. I find it important to maintain an active dialogue between the expat and the local CEO communities, as a country’s economy can be best developed by the proper combination of local knowledge and international experience. We wished to further enhance this dialogue with the local business community when I initiated the founding of the Debrecen section of DWC (a German-Hungarian Business Club), where popular events are organized to give an opportunity for the senior executives of Hungarian and German companies to meet and talk about the most important topics nowadays: economic development, innovation, digital transformation, the labor shortage and sustainability.
BBJ: How would you describe your management style?
TN: I think I am a very approachable manager based on my personality. I like to be involved in brainstorming sessions with my colleagues; what I enjoy most is the creative process. BASF has a highly innovative and inspiring community that I really appreciate. The ongoing internal dialogue, the desire to make a difference and our adaptability drive BASF forward globally and in Hungary as well. This is the reason why I strive to devote time and energy to the development of people. I firmly believe in leading by example and an open feedback culture. I am committed to honest, open and objective freedom of expression, and we endeavor to create all possible platforms for this purpose.
BBJ: You were born in Vienna. Is it easy for an Austrian to adapt to life in Hungary?
TN: For historical reasons, the two nations are very close to each other from a sociocultural perspective; however, it was not the main reason that made my adaptation relatively easy. Since I was a university student, I have had the possibility to get to know several foreign cultures, as we have lived with my family in many countries from France to China. I am particularly interested in gaining new impacts: I am curious to see how locals interact, both in people’s private lives and in the business domain. Diversity comes with flexibility; the more stimuli you receive, and the more people from different walks of life you meet, the easier it becomes to understand other people’s way of thinking. This is a very useful tool in business or networking situations. And, as a result of this, we can have an even stronger understanding of our customers and we will be able to develop tailor-made solutions for them. To adapt more, I have started learning Hungarian recently. I really enjoy it, and as far as I can see, my colleagues really appreciate when I speak to them in Hungarian.
BBJ: BASF is the largest chemical producer in the world. How long has it been active in Hungary, and what do its activities here entail? How much has been invested, and how many jobs created?
TN: BASF’s history in Hungary goes back to 1986, when BASF Poliuretán Hungária Kft. was founded in Solymár (15 km northwest of central Budapest), where polyurethane systems were produced. Today our office in Budapest serves as a hub for the Central and South Eastern Europe and is in charge of the operations of 16 countries, from Austria to Greece. In Hungary, our consolidated turnover amounts to approximately HUF 75 billion; in the region we generate more than EUR 2 bln.
BBJ: How was 2018 for BASF in Hungary?
TN: 2018 was a good year again, albeit with a somewhat lower growth (5%) than in the past. BASF has also come up with a new global strategy, which is very promising and now being implemented in the countries. Therefore, we look to the future with optimism.
BBJ: What can you tell us about the company’s future plans in Hungary?
TN: We focus heavily on innovation, keep an eye on startup communities and constantly seek new opportunities for cooperation. Of course, our existing partnerships are just as important, therefore, we put even more focus on our customers. We keep looking for new ways to serve them in a more digitalized, more customized manner. In addition to customer focus, innovation management and digitalization, sustainability is the fourth area that is given special attention, not only globally or where production is running, but in every country and in every process.
BBJ: By now, everyone accepts that the labor crisis affects all sectors, and is a region-wide phenomenon. How does BASF combat it in Hungary?
TN: One of the chief assets of BASF is its highly qualified and motivated employee community. For this reason, we provide continuous training opportunities to our employees and support their personal development. To help the community in an early stage we are running educational initiatives such as TechCsajok, KidsLab and Chemgeneration in the Agora Science Center in Debrecen. In order to foster the general legal employment frameworks, we recently joined the “Work and Family Balance” initiative launched by EMMI (the Ministry of Human Capacities) and DUIHK (German-Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce).