You have to learn to adjust your sails

Monday, 18 March 2013, 12:00 - REsource IngatlanInfó
Csűrös Csanád
William Benkő was born in the United States and moved to Hungary around the time of the regime change. In the nineties he was involved in real estate brokerage and he was the one to launch REsource magazine in 1993, but since then he drifted away from the real estate market. We were talking with the founder of REsource, who is currently the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary.

You founded REsource magazine in 1993, at the dawn of domestic real estate time. Where did the idea come from?

I founded the newspaper, together with my brother Sándor Benkő, in 1993. We were working as real estate intermediaries in beginning of the early ‘90s and soon realized that the demand for office and warehouse space was already quite significant, however, in many cases, there were language barriers between the demand and supply. Thus, we started to think about how we could overcome the language barriers and reach the non-Hungarian speaking end-users. We planned a newspaper where we could surmount this with icons and pictograms. The letter "M", for example, stands for underground in English, as well as in Hungarian, German and Polish. The same applies for the letter "P", for parking. These icons were placed in the header and then only numbers had to be added. Based on the postal code, the computer program was able to sort out the list by district and then the offices were added to the appropriate part of the newspaper according to their various districts. The first property data we published was about ones represented by us personally or was property that had been requested by other intermediaries.

For many years, REsource was a Budapest Business Journal supplement. Was this an obvious cooperation for you?

The 4,000 copies of our first edition were published on 15 October 1993 and they were all delivered to our office. Our main problem was that we had absolutely no idea how we would distribute them: We faced this problem only when the magazines arrived. Our first idea was to hire a group of students to do delivery, but, soon, the question came back around: to where? These were commercial properties; housewives were not likely to be interested. In desperation, we called Mike Stone, one of the founders of Budapest Business Journal (BBJ), and explained our problem to him. He replied immediately that it should be a BBJ supplement and asked us to send the printed copies directly to his office. This is how our relationship started. Not long after, in order to reduce printing costs, REsource was produced from the same paper, in the same size, and by the same press as BBJ - even the pagination was taken over by BBJ.

Back then, had the first office buildings been completed already?

Yes, East-West was already there in front of Astoria, together with Budai Business Center on Kapas utca and a few offices on Vaci utca. There was office space available, but not much. The construction boom actually started afterwards.

What might you say was radically different, compared to the current office market?

Firstly, due to the scarce supply, tenants had to accept solutions that they would not normally go with today. If someone wanted to start a business and there was an empty office, then the view, the size of the windows, or location was much less important than it is today. Tenants were satisfied if they could sit down somewhere and get to work. In fact, tenants were happy if they could get a phone line. Obviously, this problem is now unimaginable.

When did you sell REsource?

In 1996: A new start-up company, Euronet, arrived to Hungary in 1996 and they asked me to help with their local operations. At first, I only worked part-time for them, but very soon I could not manage both of my jobs at the same time. At one time, I had made a promise that, if I ever sold the magazine, I would first ask Budapest Business Journal first. They would have been silly not to take the opportunity to purchase it from me.

And you really lost all your connections to the real estate market?

Yes. I worked for the following 10 years for Euronet. We established the first ATM network in Hungary and then in the neighboring countries.

As far as I know, you never returned to the real estate market?

Yes, that's correct. Now, I work with start-ups. After leaving Euronet, I worked in the various industries I thought were due for major developments ahead. Like, for example, the health industry or renewable energy. I either bought companies in these industries or helped others with their start-ups. Nowadays, I am mostly trying to create a market in the U.S. for the most serviceable new Hungarian innovations for which the Hungarian market is too small and that need the size of the U.S. market to achieve the success they deserve.

You were born in the United States, you grew up there, and then you came to Hungary in the early ‘90s. How big a shock was that for you, as you moved back just during the regime change?

I did move here in the midst of the regime change. I had absolutely no idea about the local situation and I did not know anyone. People promised to do things but often did not keep their word, resulting, typically, in no consequences on their part. I had to learn ‘living' in a way, in that I had to be flexible but, at the same time, without adopting this style. For example, when we agreed with Budapest Business Journal to add REsource to their magazine, the deal was basically sealed with a handshake. This relationship lasted for years and we never had issues. At this point, I already believed that, even if there might be moments where this kind of attitude can - and will - not prevail, reputation was the most important thing.

With your work at Euronet, you have been to every country in the region. From time to time, it is trendy to make an example out of one country from this region: Do you see any significant variation, in terms of business culture?

There is no big difference between these countries, regarding people. Outstanding performance has many factors. Firstly, whether or not the country introduced economic measures or incentive programs that encourage people to innovate. At the same time, every country has its own ‘development curve' and not every stage of this is as steep as the previous or the following one. That's why we should not make a two-years-of time frame of reference, and should, rather, just say that this is a currently much better country, because it's an ongoing competition. If you look at the U.S back in 2008, you might have said that the world was about to collapse. However, it has learnt its lesson from this crisis and installed brakes on the system, so, that what we saw in 2008 will never happen again...and life goes on. Today, the stock markets are at record highs. There are companies that have managed to grow even during the crisis. The wind changes quickly enough and one must learn how to set the sail. Turning to the state and begging it to make the wind flow from the right direction should not be the focus. This is the market's job. I truly believe in the market's ability to self-correct. There is no straightforward development; they will always zigzag. It's always been that way. We must not despair: if there is no market for my product, then it's time to wake up and figure out something else.

It seems that global interest has turned towards Asia or Latin America. Do you, personally, still believe in Central Europe? Central Europe is not nearly as interesting as it used to be 10 or 15 or even 20 years ago...

That's right; and there are many reasons for this. Firstly, some very strong company brands have been established in Southeast Asian countries, mainly in Korea. These brands can compete with the largest global companies. This was able to happen for several reasons: Firstly, they had to change their economies. Secondly, people had to believe they are able to make this happen and could maintain the miracle. When the wind started to blow from the other direction and things did not turn out as planned, many European simply lost faith. In cases like this, people get scared and they slow down. Maybe they hit it better in South East Asia, and, due to their size, they could enter into a market that was open to their products.

From then on, it became a self-perpetuating process. I strongly believe that Hungary is able to manufacture high-quality products, but they should have opportunities made available to them and they need encouragement.