In Eastern Europe, make way for the Yeppies
When Stepan Aser received his M.B.A. in 1997 from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Prague, Czech Republic, he worried he was too late to the East European job market to take advantage of the many opportunities that followed the collapse of communism in 1989.
“I was almost a late comer,” said Aser, 32, now the chief executive officer of J&T Bank in his native Czech Republic. “The people who took their M.B.A.s in the early '90s are doing even better than me.”
For the crop of East European young professionals who came of age during the transition from communism to free market capitalism, timing has been everything. Hundreds of local and multinational companies have entered the region’s markets since the early 1990s.
But when it came to hiring local executives and managers, foreign companies looking to expand in the region initially found a fraction of the kind of job candidates they needed: those with international experience and top-notch degrees from American and European universities. The multinationals ultimately found the talent pool they were seeking, but in a much younger generation.
As a result, many of the region’s top managers and CEOs are 35 and younger. Because of their international experience, language skills and training, these young professionals needed no re-education on the ins and outs of the free market. They did not have to unlearn business as usual, communist style, as an older generation of Central and Eastern European managers did.
The older generation was "actually useless after 1989,” said Miroslav Mendl, 28, a regional sales manager in Prague for the multinational energy firm Hilti. “They were not used to taking care of themselves. It was always the state who was responsible.”
Mendl said his firm looked to the younger generation of professionals because of their flexibility, something he attributed to coming of age as the communist regime was on its way out. The older generation was accustomed to functioning under communism, operating according to the old Soviet axiom: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
Ronald Bastyr, a Canadian of Slovak descent, returned to Slovakia in 1994 in an effort to connect with his heritage 26 years after his parents immigrated to Edmonton, Canada. Now 35, he is the Slovakia country manager of Hudson Global Resources, a small recruitment firm in Bratislava.
“I consider myself very lucky because I was at the right place at the right time,” Bastyr said.
When he arrived there in the early '90s, Bastyr seldom heard English spoken on the streets. Most companies imported their top management from Western Europe and the United States.
Many of his colleagues at small to midsize firms are his age, he says. These young professionals are reaching top management positions much earlier in their careers than their West European and American counterparts.
Christian Mandl, the 33-year-old Austrian and Belgian CEO and co-founder of budget airline SkyEurope in Bratislava, attributes his rise in great part to his location.
“I started to write a business plan [for SkyEurope] at the age of 25,” Mandl said. “If I had done this in Western Europe, I would not have been taken seriously.”
Not all young East European professionals want to find their fortune back home. Vladimira Carroll, 27, a consultant at Deloitte’s offices in lower Manhattan, is one of many Czechs who left. She said she was unlikely to return. “I never regret that I left,” she said.
If she changes her mind, she expects to be able to use her experience in the United States and her fellow alumni contacts from the University of Economics in Prague to her advantage. For now, though, Carroll has set her sights farther east, on China.
“I do have many, many friends who are managing departments back home who were hired at a very senior level,” Carroll said.
Alice Punch, the managing director of the Prague office of Korn/Ferry International, a U.S. consulting firm, said that while the trend of hiring young executives will continue for the immediate future, “We will probably not see such a quick upward movement as we have in the last 10 years.”
Richard Bejlek, 32, the owner of the market research consultancy CEE Research in Prague, agrees. Newcomers might not be able to climb the corporate ladder as fast as his generation did, he believes, and the average age of business leaders will increase as the current generation ages.
“The people who are in these positions now are getting more senior and they are getting older,” Bejlek said.