Working With a ‘Rock and Roll’ Team for the Benefit of All
Erik Slooten the winner of the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year 2021 Award.
Photo by Marianna Sárközy.
We asked Erik Slooten of Deutsche Telekom IT Solutions Hungary to reflect on winning the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year 2021 Award and share his thoughts on the immediate future. Such is the life of the modern CEO that we caught up with him as he was being driven from one meeting to another.
BBJ: What went through your mind when you heard your name announced as the Top Expat CEO winner?
Erik Slooten: I did not expect to hear it at all. We were going to the event, all dressed up, just looking forward to a fancy evening. When I heard my name, I was completely overwhelmed. My co-short listees are such champions themselves, have been so visible, I automatically assumed it would be one of them.
BBJ: We heard from 2020 winner Melanie Seymour, who sat on the awards jury this year, how difficult the decision was. Why do you think the jury picked you?
ES: I cannot tell you why they did not pick one of the others, but I believe our approach to investing in local relationships is appreciated. Whether it is universities or middle schools, CSR promotions, or investing in our relationships with city halls, it is essential to our success. That has been our strategy from the very beginning. The relationship needs to be balanced for everyone. Local business investment teams, mayoral teams, rectors' teams need to see what is required from our perspective but should also see that their interests are being heard. I think that is one of the reasons we won. I say “we” because, while I am the leader, I am also fortunate with my team. It is easy to be a good CEO when you have such a “rock and roll” group working with you and keeping you honest from time to time.
BBJ: What do you think this will mean to them?
ES: I think they are very proud. They know that I stand for what we stand for, values that we have developed together, and that reflect the values and strategic objectives of the Deutsche Telekom group. That resonates very strongly. When I was nominated, and when I won, everyone was so proud, celebrating not just me but what we stand for and are trying to achieve.
BBJ: What are your expectations for the business for the remainder of this year and into 2022? Do you anticipate any further COVID-related disruptions, or is it a gradual return to “business as usual?”
ES: I do not believe “business as usual” will ever come back; I do not think what we were doing before COVID is sustainable, all that travel, flying everywhere. This is an opportunity to reset what “business as usual” should be. Economic shutdowns are not sustainable. We should be much more agile; we need to react to changing situations much faster. We need to take care of the whole economic ecosystem, like hospitality, because we need them just as much as they need us. So, we will be allowing people to stay at home more, or entirely if it is workable from a team's point of view, as we find a new normal that is completely refreshed and sustainable.
If I talk about Hungary and our business, we have benefited from the rising demand for automation and digitalization. The pandemic was a catalyst for people to jump into changes much faster. Industries that suffered during COVID, like automotive or the airlines, turned to companies like ours to benefit from smart solutions, robotics, connectivity.
In Hungary, our growth will continue, but I am worried about the labor market. It is close to capacity from the engineering perspective. We don’t have enough engineering students, and too many are leaving studies, without even completing them, to go elsewhere, so we have a brain drain as well. We used to say there would be fewer people and more valuable jobs, but we struggle to find the people capable of doing those jobs. There will have to be more collaboration between shared service and delivery centers and the local IT sector. How will we address this and be flexible enough for the good of Hungary and those who invest here?
Deutsche Telekom IT Solutions Hungary will continue to grow. We have 5,100 people now and will add hundreds of staff beyond that. The question will be how we can grow and build more capabilities, including AI and software, and pool resources. It is an old-school way of thinking that we can just throw more people at any problem, and it is not sustainable for a small labor market like Hungary.
BBJ: Are there any immediate plans to bring new services, products, or jobs to Hungary?
ES: Yes, in three main areas. In IoT, we are slowly growing. Indeed, most capacity for Europe is in Hungary, and if there is a solution that needs to be Europe-based, it will be in Hungary only.
Secondly, Cloud is exploding. We will be developing sovereign cloud products with Google, using their data centers and product technology, while we will be responsible for integration and migration. This will be a Europe-based cloud product so that EU data protection regulations will be met. We will be supporting the specialist team that works in Germany. It is very exciting because these capacities don't exist at all right now. We will be hiring the smartest brains out there and then training them in the technical engineering that will be developed as we go along. We are talking about software specialists, cloud engineers, developers, and system architects.
Thirdly, the biggest security center outside of Germany is in Hungary. These services will increase, with hundreds of jobs over time. The fact that we are bringing all these jobs here shows the belief in the group for what Hungary can deliver.
BBJ: The pandemic aside, what do you think are the most significant challenges and opportunities in doing business here?
ES: We have already talked about the tight labor market. We need to find ways to persuade lawmakers here to make it easier to employ people from outside the EU. We are not talking about skills that anybody can have; these people are unique. Hungary has to be more open to this because this labor market won't have enough capacity for what we need.
I think we also forget that Hungary has such a colorful history, which has developed a lot of rich options and experience. It is our responsibility as leaders to bring these to the rest of the world. We should work with local CEOs because we impact each other. We could help unlock the potential of Hungary in ways we do not even know yet.
BBJ: Anything else to add?
ES: I would just say never forget to say “Thank you.” We should be grateful to everyone who works with us. You can be the big boss, looking down on the world from your sixth-floor window and proud of your success, but we have nothing without the contributions of everyone else.
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 22, 2021.
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