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Sowing Seeds of Success in Times of Adversity

For multi-lingual leader Charles Wassen, finishing as a runner-up in the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year awards in January was very much recognition of the success of his team. Those same colleagues have proved themselves again in many different ways since, fighting the challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A different world. Charles Wassen receives his BBJ Expat CEO of the Year runner-up certificate from editor-in-chief Robin Marshall. Photo by Marianna Sárközy.

“For sure, I play my part, but, very frankly, I think it is more recognition of the whole,” says Wassen, reflecting back on January’s gala.

The world has changed since then, of course, courtesy of coronavirus, but between those two points there was still time for Dana Hungary to win a Top Employer Hungary 2020 award, one of the first in its hometown of Győr to be won outright, rather than inherited from a parent company.

Dana has four units in Győr; all have been affected but the economic shutdown, though to varying degrees. “All were closed at some point, though our aftermarket distribution center was running more or less continuously,” Wassen says. “The three others alternated between being open and closed.”

Something Wassen has pioneered in Hungary in his six years in charge is a “One Dana” philosophy. “We are able to share resources between the plants, moving them within the campus. I think it is one of our strengths, this common approach. We have four plants but one team, and we can work on the common answers demanded by this type of situation.”

The approach is pragmatic, if nothing else. If there is a temporary shortage of staff at one plant, colleagues can be moved from another that is less busy. Its successful implementation has won the Hungarian operation recognition from the company’s international management.

Flexible Measures

But even while employing flexible measures such as these, Wassen says there is no denying the difficult environment. “We have measured at least a 25% loss, which we had to prove to receive a significant cash subsidy from the government to support reinvestment,” he explains.

To be precise, Dana has committed to an investment of HUF 428 million (EUR 1.2 mln), which has attracted non-refundable government funding of HUF 214 mln (EUR 600,000).

“This cash subsidy for Capex investments [….] ensures we are able to continue our investment plans. It means we would like to move on with our developments, focusing on Industry 4.0, automation and work safety processes. The subsidy requires we sustain the current level of workforce and it surely helps to be able to further develop the competency of our qualified engineers,” Wassen says

The CEO praises the government’s focus on trying to preserve jobs and maintain the economy, as well as protecting the general public. “Dana is significantly reducing its spending in the region. In Hungary, because we were able to receive this cash subsidy upfront, we were able to even expand some new investments.”

The company hasn’t just been receiving in recent weeks, however. A combination of funding put aside by Dana Hungary’s management team and private contributions from staff raised more than HUF 1,500,000, which went to the regional hospital in the form of masks, household appliances and IT equipment support.

Dana first came to Hungary 15 years ago drawn by cheaper labor, yes, but also by the quality of the workforce. “There were very high-level schools and universities, and the people in this region were extremely strong in engineering, with good technical knowledge, creativity and skill levels,” Wassen says.

Initially, there was a lot of support from Italy, Germany and France, but that baton has now been passed on, the CEO says, with Hungarian staff helping with training and knowledge transfer in other countries, and even taking up expat positions themselves.

The fact that the decision was taken to place a fourth plant in Hungary in 2016 is both a reflection on the past and present work and an investment in the future. “It will be a world benchmark in terms of manufacturing gears,” says Wassen. “It is not the equipment, you can put that anywhere; it is having the engineers, the technicians, the highly skilled operators to work the machines that matters.”

Suitable Candidates

For the past couple of years, until the pandemic put a halt to so many things, including falling unemployment figures, one of the most commonly expressed concerns of businesses in Hungary has been finding suitable candidates. But Wassen says that has not, to date been a problem for Dana.

“It may sound arrogant, but in the end, you have the people you deserve,” he says. The company has extremely good relations with Széchenyi István University, and works hard at maintaining that; Wassen makes sure he attends career days there, and he personally welcomes students when they come on open days.

“I want them to see that the management is engaged with them, interested in them,” he explains. Wassen says Dana has a good reputation in the region, and he suspects it also benefits from the novelty factor of having an American multinational background; most of the large engineering companies in Győr are German. “You can never have too many good people, of course, but we don’t have any problems attracting the talents we want.”

Once you have them, you need to develop them. Wassen says his philosophy is built on trust, respect and safety. “The biggest reward is to see how the team you have helped put together works and grows and develops.”

That is not to say there aren’t some elements he would change. He considers himself half French and half Dutch and speaks French, Dutch, English, German and Slovak, and is trying to come to terms with Hungarian (like many expats, he says his passive is much better than his ability to speak it).

He believes that students would benefit from deeper foreign language learning earlier, for example. He also thinks Hungarians, for all their strengths, would also benefit from being less closed in their mentality.

“The future of Hungary should be much more internationally open.” Individuals would benefit, but so would companies, from SMEs upwards, he says.

What is next for Dana in Hungary? The future clearly lies in Industry 4.0 and electrification, but more generally, Wassen believes the seeds for success are being sown now.

“Yes, this is a difficult period, but it is the same for everyone. We need to limit the costs, work together, be ready. My hope is for Győr, for the country to be among the first out of the blocks. A lot of companies will be slow to react, and that is a wonderful opportunity for us. We have to show we are ready to accept those opportunities.”

Dana Hungary Kft. is an automotive and off-highway vehicle parts manufacturer headquartered in Győr, 120 km west of Budapest. Part of the American group Dana Incorporated (which has its world HQ at Maumee, Ohio), Dana Hungary will celebrate its 15th anniversary in Hungary this year. Its main activities are producing transmissions and axles for the off-highway industry segment, coolers, heat exchangers and gear sets for the automotive industry. It also operates its European aftermarket distribution center from Győr. Its most recent investment in Hungary was a USD 71 million, 24,000 sqm greenfield facility manufacturing state-of-the-art gears.