Tales from the East: Expats find their niche

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Expats find their niche after the collapse of communism

As others have done before them, some young Americans leave the country in pursuit of wealth, happiness and maybe a little fame. One destination, open to them since the fall of communism, is Eastern Europe.

Advertising Age keeps bumping into young Americans who have not only "been there" but who have made a difference. These expatriates in marketing, media and advertising--from publisher to account manager--have one thing in common: All have opportunities that would not have been afforded them at their age in the States.

Chris Mattheisen

BUDAPEST--Chris Mattheisen is one of the few American expats that could actually make it as a street musician.

But he didn't leave his esoteric job as an economist with the Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates in London to hang out in Central Europe.

In fact, it's only when he's moonlighting as a country and blues singer in Budapest clubs that he turns off his most powerful marketing tool--his mobile phone.

As director of marketing and sales for Westel 900, the 34-year-old keeps mobile phone sales humming along for American-based U S West International's Hungarian joint venture. Westel's employees were "fielding bets" that the company would attract about 1,500 subscribers in its first month of operation.

Instead, 4,000 customers signed up that first month. And just a little over a year since its launch, the company has more than 100,000 subscribers. In fact, Hungary racks up more minutes of mobile phone usage than all other Western European countries, with about four times the usage rate of the U.K. and Germany.

Westel's decision that Hungary would be one of the first countries where it would introduce the European-wide mobile telephone system was a lucky roll of the dice. Mr. Mattheisen made an even bigger gamble in leaving his secure, although staid, economist's job in London to start a consulting business in Hungary in 1989. "I didn't know what the definition of success was going to be" in the uncertain environment of Central Europe, he said.

Mr. Mattheisen and partner Steve Kopits were "two guys with computers" who spoke Hungarian. (Mr. Kopits learned the language from his immigrant Hungarian parents. Mr. Mattheisen studied Hungarian while working on an international affairs and economics graduate degree at Columbia.) Since they arrived in Hungary before the powerhouse consulting conglomerates, the two landed consulting projects with Budapest City Hall, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and Westel 450--U S West's first mobile phone joint venture in Hungary.

Westel 450 just happened to be bidding on the 900-megahertz global systems mobile communications tender when Mr. Mattheisen was working on a consulting project for them. The consortium that owned Westel 450 won one of the two GSM licenses and offered him a marketing job. Mr. Mattheisen accepted since the consulting company he co-founded was moving into more financial work--Mr. Kopits' forte.

The former economist had become a marketing expert through his consulting work and writing a book for the Economist Group on brand marketing in Hungary.

Westel 900 was a chance to put his theories into practice. "We had to start the whole thing from nothing," he said.

When the U S West-appointed marketing director moved on, Mr. Mattheisen was promoted to the job. As a consultant, Mr. Mattheisen always told clients, "Don't put the foreigner in a marketing position." Now he's breaking his own advice. But after five years in Budapest and mastering Hungarian, the marketing director has more insight than most foreigners into Hungarian culture.

When it's time to move back home, the pioneering expat doesn't know what to expect in the job market. He plans to stay in the booming mobile telecommunications industry, though. "I'm trying to build up some expertise here in doing new and revolutionary things," he said.

Kehrt Reyher

WARSAW--Fifteen years in the "meat grinder of middle management" for big U.S. publishing companies was enough for Kehrt Reyher.

Mr. Reyher was assistant business editor for Gannett's The Detroit News, and previous to that worked at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. But now that he's been smitten by the allure of running a publication his way, Mr. Reyher, 40, can't imagine going back--and probably won't.

His company, VFP Communications, publishes the successful monthly trade journal Media Polska. The Warsaw-based niche publication is Poland's first advertising industry magazine, seeking to educate and provide information to the country's up-and-coming young media and advertising professionals.

The Polish-language publication covers all sectors of the industry--advertising, marketing, media and graphic arts. Started in December 1993, Media Polska now has a press run of about 5,000. The newest addition to the magazine is sector supplements, which might later spin off into separate publications. So far VFP has published supplements on radio and outdoor advertising, and is preparing two more on photography and color magazines.

The magazine's staff of five full-time employees is composed mostly of journalism and law students. Mr. Reyher didn't even consider looking for experienced Polish journalists, who, he said, instead of reporting "shoot from the hip" and "preach" to their readers.

The start-up hasn't been easy. But Poland "has been absolutely fascinating" for Mr. Reyher. He visited with his Polish wife right after the political change-over and was captivated by her homeland. They returned to Poland to live three years ago. Initially, the seasoned journalist came over to consult on a Polish-American Enterprise Fund project to start a daily newspaper, on which Gannett had options.

When the project flopped, Mr. Reyher ventured out on his own.

Media Polska literally launched off Mr. Reyher's dining room table. It broke even with the first issue. Advertising sold easily. And calling in a few favors helped.

"I can't imagine what I would do if I went back [to the U.S.]," he said.

Martin Shenar
Antonin Herbeck

PRAGUE--Before the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Antonin Herbeck and Martin Shenar never thought they would return to their native Prague.

More than a dozen years after each relocated to the U.S., Mr. Herbeck was working for Fairchild Publications' top trade magazines, like Harper's Bazaar. Mr. Shenar graduated from New York University with a degree in international business, then moved on to Chase Manhattan Corp.'s brokerage division.

Armed with American passports and talent, they climbed the ladder of success in New York--until the wall came down in Berlin. By 1993, they had decided to trade in their Tribeca loft for Prague's baroque Old Town, said Mr. Shenar, 31, who in 1995 is one of the youngest and most successful publishers in Elle's stable of international editions.

Mr. Herbeck, 32, is the editorial director of Czech Elle, but he is often found behind the camera as well. "I love to photograph beautiful models. Some of my own photographs have been in Elle," he said over lunch in a small bistro in Prague's New Town. "That's why you wanted to do Elle," Mr. Shenar quipped, "so someone would publish your pictures."

Joking aside, the two have put in six- or seven-day weeks since returning to Prague in January 1994 to start Czech Elle. Mr. Shenar was then 29, Mr. Herbeck, 20, and Elle's editor, Helena-Katerina Fialova, only 23.

"The first issue came out in April of '94, 10 weeks after we arrived," Mr. Shenar explained, "and the pace hasn't slowed down much since then. But we made this happen ourselves. We didn't have to rise up through the ranks. The amount of capital needed to start a magazine here was much less than in the U.S. when we arrived, but now it's different. It would be 10 times more expensive for Vogue to enter this market today. They would be fighting us and the fact that we are established here."

Czech Elle became established through a combination of savvy marketing and historical fact. Building up from its award-winning advertising campaign slogan, "An essential part of your wardrobe," the magazine does more than report on current fashion trends and cosmetics for this market. It has reinstated the concept of upscale, exclusive marketing for women, a niche that had not existed since the days before World War II.

But Mr. Shenar and Mr. Herbeck were not thinking about the impact Elle would make on Czech women when they were discussing their future in 1993. "We were asking ourselves, `Do I want my boss' job?' " Mr. Shenar said. "But I can't imagine being an employee now. My job is not a stepping stone. It's the goal."

Kenneth Blatt

BUCHAREST--Don't ask 35-year-old Kenneth Blatt what he does for a living.

The New Jersey native will give you a rapid-fire spiel about K.U.-Inc., the company he founded four years ago, that will leave you spinning. When he says K.U.-Inc.'s tagline is "Building the communication service infrastructure of Romania and Bulgaria," he means it.

Mr. Blatt has created a network of service-related communication companies and affiliates in Romania and Bulgaria, including: Romania and Bulgaria's first full-service advertising agencies, Rom-Ku Advertising and PBI Advertising, respectively; the media buying company Universal Media Management; the Romanian editions of IDG Publications' PC World, Computerworld and Telecom Romania; the "what's happening" guide Bucuresti-What, Where, When; women's magazine Advantaje; market research firm Research Team Romania; cable TV company Cablevision of Romania; personnel service company Snelling & Snelling Romania/Bulgaria; and Romania's AT&T telecommunications equipment distributorship AmTel S.A.

Mr. Blatt calls it "one-stop shopping." Starting his first company set off a chain reaction. The attorney came to Bucharest on a project to help raise hard currency for the Bucharest bus company, which meant a foray into selling transit advertising. Advertiser R.J. Reynolds needed a Romanian advertising agency, and agency Rom-Ku was born. The client needed market research, so the market research company was started. The new companies needed employees, so K.U.-Inc. linked up with Snelling. And so on.

The untimely death of his father convinced the young attorney that "life is short and the world consists of more than New York, New Jersey and an island called Florida." A friend invited him to Romania in late 1990 to negotiate a letter of intent for exclusivity in casino gaming at the Black Sea. Doing business in Eastern Europe was harder than he expected. One of the first things he learned was that a business contract's weight in Romania was worth "the weight of the paper it was written on."

"For three years, I absolutely didn't come up for air," said the emerging East European media magnate. Entertainment consisted of movies on flights to and from New York. He keeps going on the "excitement of being able to create businesses and motivate people."

Anthony Hemstad

PRAGUE--Anthony Hemstad, 31, started his own public relations firm in Prague two years ago. Today, Eklektik Communications is the largest independent public relations/public affairs firm in the Czech Republic, and it ranks among the country's top four firms overall. On Sept. 4, Eklektik opened in Bratislava, and Mr. Hemstad is keeping an eye on other Central European countries as well.

From Seattle, Mr. Hemstad thought his future lay in the Far East, not Eastern Europe. He has an M.A. and B.A. in Asian studies and traveled extensively in Asia, even doing fieldwork in Sri Lanka's war zone. He then tackled another "war zone"--Washington--where he worked for several Republican senators from 1987 to 1990.

"I worked on the Bush campaign in '88. I was trying to get a relatively high-level appointment from that, but I had gone as high as I could go in D.C. for my age and experience. I was competing against people who were 20 years older than I was. They said, `Go out and get older, get more experience and get more education.' That's what I've done in Central Europe," he said.

He was studying in London when he was offered a job teaching politics at the Anglo-American College in Prague. In Prague, he found that "there are market niches here that should be seen as gaping holes. In 1992, PR was one of those."

In Washington, he was relatively inexperienced, but to multinationals expanding in Central Europe, his background was perfect. Mr. Hemstad hired his best students and went to work for clients such as SmithKline Beecham, Upjohn, MCI, Procter & Gamble, IDV/Grand Metropolitan and Hiram Walker.

Last year, Czech-Australian Pavel Kucera joined the agency as managing partner, and the two now have 17 employees servicing 12 clients. "Today, we're beating the big boys. The last three times that we know we pitched against Burson-Marsteller, we won," Mr. Hemstad said proudly.

But he pointed out that Central Europe is an increasingly competitive market and PR is more established now than it was two years ago. "We work six or seven days a week until late at night. It isn't easy doing business here. We have to hunt for our supper like entrepreneurs everywhere," he added.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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