Editorial: Expat CEO Award Comes of Age

Analysis

It might sound odd to say for an event that has just celebrated its ninth anniversary, but I came away from our annual Expat CEO of the Year awards gala on March 24 with the powerful feeling that it has come of age.

That was partly down to the audience on the night, who apparently turned up in the mood to celebrate success, network, and, let’s be honest, party. We had about 220 people in the Grand Ballroom of the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, a record for us and pretty close to being as many as you can comfortably accommodate in that space around tables. From my perspective on the stage, there was a great energy coming up from the floor.

But the actual coming of age moment for me was the revelation of the winner’s name, wonderfully handled, I thought by Giacomo Pedranzini, of Kometa, last year’s title winner. That’s not to take anything away from Andreas Szakácsi of Claas Hungária, or Matt Zeller of Novartis. As I said on the night, either one would have been a worthy winner, and I look forward to including more about their personal stories on the pages of this publication in upcoming issues.

It wasn’t even that Veronika Spanarova is a mother and a woman, balancing childbirth, raising a family and building a career. She is, after all, the third female winner, after Melanie Seymour of Blackrock and Taira-Julia Lammi of ABB Kft. It is that she is the first winner from this region. Our previous Expat CEOs of the Year have all hailed from what we might broadly call Western Europe: Spain, Germany, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Italy. It is true that one of our German winners was also half-Brazilian, but we have never had anyone from Central Europe before.

The award has never been intended to downplay the role of Hungarian CEOs. As I said from the stage, there are many outstanding Magyar business leaders, and quite a few were in the ballroom with us. We founded the award to recognize the contributions of the expat CEO community in developing Hungary’s economy and its work culture by promoting ideas like diversity and inclusivity. Now we have a Czech woman working for an American financial institution based in Budapest.

It would be ridiculous to suggest Central and Eastern Europe has arrived; apart from anything else, it is pretty hard for a geographical region to move anywhere, the shifting of continental plates aside. But the expectation prevalent in the late 1980s and 1990s that a Western brand must bring in one of its own to head a company here has well and truly been consigned to the trashcan.

By the way, I was asked at the afterparty what my favorite part of the evening is. There are many highlights, of course, not least hearing the winner’s name announced, as I am not involved in the decision, and it is as much news to me as it is to them and the rest of the audience. But my admittedly quirky answer is that my favorite part happens right at the beginning, and it is seen by next to no one other than me up on the stage. It is the moment the Corinthia team opens the doors of the ballroom in unison, the sound of the chatter and the clinking of glasses sweeps in from the foyer, and we invite you in. Nothing is known; all is to play for, and anticipation is at its height. We’ll do it all over again next year when, almost unbelievably, we present the award for the 10th time. It’s been quite the decade.

Robin Marshall

Editor-in-chief

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

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