Tales from the East, Part 2

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Annie Varanese

PRAGUE--Annie Varanese started working at Saatchi & Saatchi Prague during the summer of 1993--as a secretary. Almost two years later to the day, the 25-year-old was appointed account supervisor for Procter & Gamble health & beauty brands and Tchibo coffee.

Her move from administrative work to accounts came with managing director Rebecca Jay's arrival in Prague. "I could see she was restless answering phones and saw real potential in her," Ms. Jay said. "And she's been a wonderful account supervisor."

Ms. Varanese, an outdoorsy Maine native, came to Prague to visit a brother at White & Case, a law firm, after graduating from Colby College three years ago. "It was my mother's suggestion, really," she said. Her brother has moved on to Kazakhstan but Ms. Varanese stayed in Prague.

Her job at Saatchi is "a little of everything," just the way she likes it. "It's such a fun place to work and it's beneficial to me career-wise. A friend in the States did a six-month unpaid internship at a Boston ad agency and still didn't get a job. But I'm pretty confident that I could get a job in the States in advertising after my experience here," she said. "That's one of the plusses of working on Procter & Gamble. The company works pretty much the same way all over the world."

Ms. Varanese is not planning on staying in Prague. "If I'm not learning, it will be time for me to move on," she said.

Where would she go next?

"Australia!"

Melinda Ewing

PRAGUE--Melinda Ewing, an animated 29-year-old Georgian, said she "fell into staying in Prague. I worked for real estate developers writing proposals in Prague and Budapest, then ended up doing PR in the Palace Hotel in downtown Prague."

She now runs her own publicity and public relations firm, Ewing & Associates, and has worked for major clients such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Rank Xerox, the U.S. embassy, Estee Lauder and MCI.

"I'll stay here as long as I can keep my clients. But the business is growing now. By the end of the year, I'll have 10 people."

Ms. Ewing's background is in journalism and PR. She was a broadcast reporter for PBS in Savannah, Ga., then moved to Washington to assist the American Medical Association with public relations.

Ms. Ewing is enthusiastic about her decision to stay in Prague. "It only takes a small amount of cash to start a business here. You need an office, a computer and a secretary. That's it. But in the U.S., I wouldn't have had the money or the gumption to do this," she said over coffee in Prague's newest hot spot, the tapas bar at La Provence. "And my quality of life here is tenfold. I travel, eat out, I have a great apartment. Life here is exciting and stimulating."

Andrew Bain

KIEV--From business school to media magnate in three years, 31-year-old Andrew Bain has become a business force to reckon with in newly independent Ukraine.

"By world standards, we're not much to blow your nose at," he said. But in Ukraine, Mr. Bain's company, Perekhid Media Group, is the big time.

As Perekhid president and majority owner, the Colorado native runs a Kiev-based full-service multimedia advertising agency. The company works in at least six areas including TV; radio; a weekly entertainment newspaper; media buying; market research; and the national pro-hockey team. Perekhid is also working with a fledgling modeling agency.

The company has grown from one full-time employee when it was incorporated in November 1992 to a current staff of 100 (plus 30 hockey players). Perekhid, which means "passage" or "crosswalk" in Ukrainian, began on start-up capital of less than $30,000. The privately held company now is worth "multimillions" Mr. Bain said. Mr. Bain and his three partners recently scored several major industry coups by buying blocks of important TV airtime.

"We have exclusive rights with different producers," said Perekhid General Manager Sergiy Staritsky.

Perekhid already holds national TV distribution rights for two international news programs, several sitcoms and soap operas including "Santa Barbara."

Although he wrote his MBA thesis at the University of Michigan on investment opportunities in Ukraine, the Yale-educated classic languages student didn't come to Kiev until first ruling out other parts of Eastern Europe.

"Budapest and Prague were pretty much tapped by the Germans and everybody else," he said. "I was looking for a market that was not yet tapped."

So how did this young American--without Slavic language skills or cultural training--create a profitable advertising agency in a business environment plagued by the political and economic risk typical to post-Soviet markets? By seeking adventure, working hard and cultivating local contacts. Mr. Bain agrees with other Western business people who believe finding a solid local partner is essential to success here. And like other Western entrepreneurs in the former Soviet Union, Mr. Bain is self-motivating and independent.

"I thought working in a corporate bureaucracy would be just so stifling and so dull," he said. "The worst that could happen is that you fail. Better to have tried and failed than to sit around a corporate bureaucracy mulling your life away."

Mr. Bain said his military background--he's a former U.S. Marine--was key to his ability to cope with such a centralized system whose personal impact often makes little sense unless analyzed from the bigger picture. This ability seems to have helped him understand Ukraine and adapt "perhaps dangerously well" to the local culture, both in social and business life. Mr. Bain says most of his free time is spent with Ukrainians rather than the growing expatriate community.

Michael Simon

BUDAPEST--Michael Simon is betting his company, EPS Hungary Kft., on the premise that information software is the innovative product of the near future.

But his was a far from informed decision when he accepted blind placement in a Hungarian company by MBA Enterprise Corps, a volunteer organization that sends MBA graduates to the world's emerging markets as consultants.

Plans were for the electronic engineer-cum-MBA to be in Budapest for exactly "11 months and 30 days," then head back to Chicago for a consulting job. But since Mr. Simon's electronic publishing services company went profitable in its fourth month, the 30-year-old said, he may always have "one foot in Hungary."

EPS specializes in turning other people's data into user-friendly reference tools. Its first product, introduced in June, catalogs news articles, pictures and lists from a consortium of Hungarian information providers--including EPS minority owner New World Publishing's Budapest Business Journal.

In September, EPS took the service onto the Internet. Mr. Simon said EPS will launch another online service early next year. The company is now busy adapting the product to regional business journals worldwide. This fall Mr. Simon expects to land projects in the U.S. and the U.K.

The MBA Corps placed Mr. Simon in a promising entrepreneurial office equipment and telecommunications company that unexpectedly went bankrupt five months into the assignment. Mr. Simon worked with the division that translated Microsoft software products Word and Excel into Hungarian. When the parent company's creditors moved in, the division was spun off into a company dubbed Ablaksoft (Hungarian for Window-soft), which Mr. Simon was asked to head.

Staying meant signing up for a two-year project to develop the Scala accounting system for Windows for international release.

On Dec. 31, 1994, Mr. Simon left Ablaksoft and founded EPS.

Judith Evers

BUDAPEST--Sometimes it takes dancing on a conference room table to get your point across, as New Jersey native Judith Evers demonstrated when she was an account exec on Coca-Cola at McCann-Erickson Budapest.

The young Hungarian account group didn't understand what Coke was about, said Ms. Evers. So when she started working on the account in 1992, she did everything from dancing on tables to blaring Bon Jovi in the office to create excitement and make the point that "Coke is fun; Coke is crazy; Coke is young."

Now working on the client side with Virginia-based telecommunications company Global TeleSystems, Ms. Evers, now 30, is a shade more subtle. But as GTS marketing manager for Central Europe, she's still pushing Central Europeans to "think outside the box" and "dare to do something different" when marketing everything from pagers to satellite and data communication services.

Ms. Evers came to Budapest to discover the roots of her Hungarian-born parents. But the Yale graduate never intended a simply cultural experience. She was placed with McCann-Erickson Budapest through MBA Enterprise Corps. The volunteer organization represents a consortium of graduate business schools, placing MBAs in emerging markets such as Eastern Europe, Russia and China.

After two months, she was promoted to account exec. Within eight months, she was named group account director working on Coca-Cola, Eskimo ice cream and local mobile telephone company Pannon GSM--a position that would haven taken 10 to 12 years to attain in the West. She joined GTS in late 1994.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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