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Some Romanian journalists had radical approaches to doing business. A nasty chap named Radu wrote negative articles about our company and demanded we advertise in his journals or else he would escalate his derogatory comments. This extortion approach was more commonplace than you might think. Al, who was our CEO, decided to visit him and told him that if he continued, we would never advertise with his weeklies. If he wanted our business, he’d have to learn more about Connex and visit us to see what we had done well.  He did as advised and we subsequently (though reluctantly) placed paid ads in his newspapers, as his paper was read nationwide.

We were adapting alongside a country that was still very much recovering from the communist regime, which led many people to have an “everyone out for themselves” mentality. We needed to prove that we were a strong company and helping us succeed would be of greater benefit to them than destroying us.  But while in some ways we were able to get on the same page, we did not always align.  In one case, someone wanted our advertising so badly that they sent a call girl to Al’s office as thanks! It was not the sort of office “gift” we were used to. And little did they know his girlfriend was the VP Marketing (me) and so they really messed up big time. They never got our business.

At another event, Al was given a business card by an older Romanian, identifying him as a government minister. So, Al acknowledged this man’s role as a government official. The chap looked confused and then said, “Sorry, here’s my other card to do with the magazines I own, if you could advertise with me.”

In the past decade, we have all heard a lot about the need for separation of business and government affairs for those in public service. But in Romania, it was a time of new opportunities and most prominent figures dabbled at various businesses. The lines between the corporate world and the bureaucracy were very blurred. We did not blame them, but it made it more difficult to distinguish who was truly representing the government versus themselves. During his presidency, Trump did very much remind me of the type of leader who would love this sort of environment, governments often referred to as “banana republics”.

Like all Europeans, Romanians are passionate about their football (soccer) teams. Of course, one of our Romanian shareholders, the same one who owned Flora Hotel, also owned a football team called Rapid and before you could say ‘penalty kick’ we became their official sponsor. The team was good and with our extra funding, we won the Romania Cup in our second year.

The matches were wild. We needed police escorts to get in and out of the stadium, and that was at our home field! When we won the Cup, pandemonium erupted. We were escorted down to the field for the presentation and it felt like 20,000 fans had descended with us. It was downright frightening, but at the same time exhilarating, as we won a major event as the primary sponsor. Of course, we soon realized that after the big win our local shareholder sold his best players for cash to Italian clubs. Hence, our winning ways and favorable publicity were short lived.

Without any real say or influence with the team, our next major task became extracting ourselves from this sponsorship, which fell under my portfolio. It was a difficult process and ended with him telling Al “that Karla, she’s a tough one”. I always preferred watching tennis anyway, so tennis was where we directed our energies.

We’d met two Romanian tennis legends, Ion Tiriac and Ilie Năstase, courtesy of my events team. By this time, Tiriac was a phenomenally successful businessman and even owned a bank. Năstase had recently unsuccessfully run for mayor of Bucharest. There was a sanctioned ATP event (the top-tier of tennis globally) in Romania and we became the prime sponsor and these gentlemen were quite supportive. At the launch party, Ilie showed up with a black eye, which confirmed to me that he had not lost any of his bad boy persona or his famous temper! The event was hugely successful, and we got a lot of great press.

Romanians are famous for their blown glass art, so we commissioned trophies made of green glass, as this was our Connex corporate color. To say that our trophies were unique is an understatement. What we presented was not a traditional blown glass vase, but something that looked more like a long, intertwined intestine, yet artsy! Art is truly in the eye of the beholder. The ATP did not return the next year, but I assure you that it was not because of us (or the trophies). Romania just did not fit into the ATP calendar for 1999.

We convinced our handset suppliers Ericsson and Nokia that certain new handset models would be sold exclusively by us for 4-5 months before the competition offered these phones. We did this in Romania and then again in the Czech Republic with great success. In Romania, we did discover a glitch that felt like it was straight out of an episode of Cops.  The suppliers would ship the units (typically 100 phones) wrapped and secured on a skid, Ericsson from Sweden and Nokia from Finland. The skids would clear Customs at the airport, be housed at their warehouse, and then our delivery folks would move them to our facilities. The skids arrived sealed and intact, but when we removed the wrappings and nylon straps, 15-20 phones were missing in several skids. The boxes were intact except for the phones.

Our finance Director realized after discussions with the suppliers, that Customs people were opening, stealing, repackaging and re-wrapping the skids. We could see that this would likely be impossible to prove. So our finance guy did the next best thing. He met the Customs Director, explained what we had found, and offered him 10-15 phones, box included, for him to sell if he could police the skids and stop the thefts. They stopped immediately! Talk about ‘out of the box thinking!’.

As senior expats in a large company flush with investment cash, Al and I were too often solicited by people to fund their personal project or business endeavor. Our Great Dane, Pushkin, was growing exceedingly large and his idea of a walk was to go down the three front steps and sit on the sidewalk. We couldn’t budge him. So, we carefully inquired about a good dog trainer and we found one. He was a local, had recently returned from Australia, and was an excellent dog whisperer. In short order Pushkin responded perfectly to all his commands. Pushkin went from being a pain to a pleasure in a matter of weeks. In fact, he became extremely outgoing and Romanians referred to our Great Dane as “Mr. Sociable.”  Sure enough, one day the dog trainer asked us if we’d fund his endeavor to form a dog training academy.  Now, in retrospect, this might have been a good project for us personally. But, as noted, we were too often ambushed about funding peoples’ projects. We said no and a good friendship was unfortunately severed.

While navigating the business world in Romania was nowhere near as difficult as it had been in China, it still came with a lot of learning along the way and unpredictability. I was becoming more confident in my own role and more excited to take on these challenges. But I still feared failure and that propelled me forward through difficult times and growing expectations. I was always afraid of being fired if I did not meet the bid commitments. My excitement co-existed with that thinking. I felt if I ever rested, I would lose it all.

I wish I could tell my younger self that it would all be okay and work out. I cried a lot of nights feeling like an imposter in my job. Only now, looking back, can I really appreciate and recognize how much I accomplished and the amazing things I got to experience in that time.

~ Karla xoxo

Our time in Romania!

Karla and Pushkin, the Great Dane. Karla and Al bought Pushkin in the summer of 1997, while visiting a weekend market. Pushkin was 2 months old, and he was sitting in the boot of a car together with a few brothers and sisters.  From the very beginning, he was quite a character. He turned out to be the smartest dog. However, he died young, in October 2003, due to cancer. This photo was taken some time in 1998, when Karla and Al were staying in a house on Pushkin Street.

Romania Football Cup 1998, when the  Rapid football team won the Cup sponsored by Connex. In the photo there are some Connex employees, but the only one I recognize is Alex Șerban, first on the right.

George Copos, the owner of Rapid football team and one of our Romanian shareholders (Ana Electronics), and Al Tolstoy, when Rapid won the Romania Cup in 1998.

George Copos and Karla when the Rapid football team won the Romania Cup in 1998.

The ATP event in September 1998. From left to right: Alex Șerban, Al Tolstoy, Nicholas Năstase (Ilie Năstase’s adopted son) and Ilie Năstase.

Ilie Nastase at the US Open in 2009, an all-time tennis legend. He attended the ATP event sponsored by Connex in September 1998.

Ion Țiriac in 2008. A tennis legend in the 60’s and 70’s and a very successful businessman later on in life. He is famous for his automobile collection.

The tennis trophy designed for the ATP event sponsored by Connex in September 1998, in green glass.

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. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
You are most powerful when you believe in yourself, let this scarf give you an extra boost of confidence and comfort.

The Healing Scarf  this talisman was inspired by our founder, Karla’s own path to healing. Let it be a shield to protect you and an emblem to empower you.

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