In Romania, I started out as the VP of Marketing. One of our first tasks was to prepare to pitch our strategy to advertising firms to select the local creative agency we would work with on the company’s launch. I felt a sense of trepidation, as I had little experience in this specific undertaking. While I assumed that things wouldn’t be as difficult as they were in China, there were still several challenges when building a national campaign like this one in Romania. I wanted to build a brand that would be strong and inspiring on an international level and could become a brand that would make Romanians proud. But I knew I needed the right international and local talent.
I was chatting with my dad one evening and he suggested I speak with a family friend who had just retired from a senior role with an advertising agency. I called and asked her to help me for a few weeks and she immediately flew out to Bucharest as a consultant. She was amazing and over the next few years she became a key resource person who would come for a few months, then go home, only to be summoned back for another project! This started a trend of bringing in experienced people from Canada to not only help out with key business decisions and strategy, but would also act as mentors for the local team members who would eventually take on the key roles.
Within four months we were operational under the name Connex. We planned to sell the phones and plans right out of our offices. Plus, we expected to sign up multiple third-party businesses to also sell our products. This is how it is usually done in America. If you want a plan in Canada, for example, you can go and get it at a Rogers or Bell store. Or, you can go to Best Buy or Walmart, or a few smaller retailers.
On the day of launch, our then VP of Sales admitted that they had not signed up any dealers. I was surprised but it also made sense, as whenever I had asked them for the list of dealers to send customer merchandise, I had been ignored. My team was always shut out and told to mind their own business.
The relationship between Sales and Marketing eventually got so bad that the Sales VP once kicked my door open shouting obscenities at me and told me that everyone thought I was incompetent and not able to do the job. Fearful of him ruining my reputation, I did not tell anyone about it. My assistant knew and was the one who kicked him out of my office and put cardboard over the hole in the door. I should have lodged a complaint against him, but I did not want to be seen as a troublemaker. I secretly deep down believed maybe he was right and I was incompetent and deserved to be yelled at. I also immediately put up a wall around myself wondering who said these things about me. Looking back I realize his insults came from his own insecurity of himself.
So, on the big day, we had no dealers helping to spread out the customers and the VP Sales was missing in action. When we arrived at work that morning, people were lined up around the block. Some had sports bags full of money and people had been there since 6am. The day ended up being completely insane. We had people packed in from the moment we opened the doors until we closed them again. After that, we quickly realized we needed to rent a bigger space at Sala Palatului, a popular shopping district in the city just north of Old Town.
On the-sales event day during the weekend after launch, we needed all our employees to come to help. Only our key operational people stayed to take care of the business at the office. Every other employee was quickly trained on how to sign up a customer. It was a three-day sales event and the money was pouring in.
This was nothing like it had been in China or India for us. This was a real business that we had been able to create without interference and we vowed to build a company that would continue to outperform. We succeeded in this. We were consistently higher than 50% EBITDA (Earning before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization). Typically, anything above a 10% ratio here is considered successful. In simple terms, we kicked butt!
Romanians told us that it was typical for vendors to run out of goods, thus the reason for the early line ups. We almost did run out of SIM cards, an essential ID component of a cell phone! But we flew one of our executives to buy more sim cards as soon as possible. He ended up filling his suitcases up with as many as he could and it was still not enough.
Looking back, I realize how I was not always a great team player. This executive was the Head of Project Management for the whole company and so his life was making sure each department did their job. I used to joke that his job was to stalk us and was always annoyed that he would ask questions I felt operationally made little sense. His information was constantly outdated because of how fast we made things happen. If you have seen The Office, he was a lot like Angela with some aspects of Dwight. To keep him off my back, I would sometimes have my project management team ask for his update on his project management job of project managing us. The conversation would go in circles.
We had the tiger by the tail and had beaten our competitor France Telecom by launching first! People had been on a wait list for years and less than 17% of the population had even a landline. We never met any of the people from the France Telecom team, but I imagine they were working under similar conditions to ours. We knew the importance of being first in a country like Romania and simply were able to build a strong brand much faster. It was maybe our experience in China of making little to no progress that strengthened our resolve and our ability to adapt to any circumstances and that allowed us to come out on top. Or maybe we were just lucky!
Mobile phones gave instant social status to the Romanians. But, most importantly, it was a clear sign of a post-communist era and positive change. As Romanians explained, under communism, people were deprived of all status. Everyone was equally poor, equally powerless, and equally nobodies. Or so the party elite wanted them to believe. I still remember our call with our shareholders when we reached all of our near impossible goals (per our bid submission) and how shocked they were that we actually did it. We soon realized that people in our Head Office had a wager if we would deliver on the bid requirements on time. We never asked what percentage of the bets placed believed we would not succeed.
I felt so fortunate to be given such an opportunity at such a young age, especially being a woman. There were very few female executives in Romania so I also felt the added pressure to prove to other senior people in the country that having a mix of males and females in our management team was an advantage and a positive experience. After the launch, I soon realized that my secondary job, first being delivering results in sales, was ensuring the Sales and Marketing management teams and below were made up of an equal number of men and women. I am proud to say that was the case across the whole company, except in the engineering department, however the information technology team made up for it by having an all female management team for the first few years.
~ Karla xoxo
Our time in Romania!
Al and I with some of the Romanian team in our 1st year of operation.
Sala Palatului (The Palace Hall). This is the “big space” we rented for our Sales event, right after the launch day. This is the place Karla describes in her story, where thousands of people lined up to get the chance to buy a phone as soon as we launched our network. It is a typically communist building very centrally located, right behind the former royal palace.
This is an Ericsson 6480, one of the handsets we had for sale on our launch day in 1997. If I remember correctly, this was the most successful model among Romanians.
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.