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Once we were launched and had our company’s phones into the hands of a large portion of the country, there was still no slowing down for us at Connex. We were always trying to think of new ways to market ourselves and expand our offerings in Romania. We saw all of the potential of moving into this country in transition, where people were craving anything coming in from the West.

After we had crossed the country with our cell phone launches, we rolled out product and service-specific sub-brands as we expanded our business. While MyX, which I talked about last week, was the most out there and ambitious, it was not the only major project we were working on. We had so many amazing projects, looking back I am impressed we did it all in just three years! I want to document a few of them, as I am very proud of what our sales and marketing team did in terms of innovation, creativity, and just accomplishing ambitious goals and often exceeding them!

CONNEX GO!

The first of these was our prepaid service CONNEX GO! (something that had not even been introduced in North America at the time). It is a product that needs no personal information but you can buy minutes to put on it. They became popular throughout the world in the early 2000s and now are mostly known as “burner phones”.

As expected it was used by criminals to run their businesses, which was something we could not avoid. We used to get many police surveillance warrants on a customer and we had to be really careful about which we agreed to follow through on. This was because at that time in Romania it was easy to bribe members of the police department to get a warrant that could be used for anything from divorce disputes to listening to someone in the government to understand their positioning.

To better manage the complicated nature of this we hired an employee who was the liaison with the police and would double check each request. Fifty percent of the requests did not pass our requirements. It must have driven the government crazy that they could not wiretap mobile phones as easily as they could landlines. But that did not stop them from constantly trying to trap into our office phones.  Because of this, we had our offices and phones sweeped for surveillance equipment every few months. I’m not sure why they cared about us, as nothing interesting to them was going on, but I think it was a habit for them to listen to foreigners.

CONNEX MOBILE

We also had a Connex RV outfitted for the events team to travel countrywide to promote our expanding services. This was a lot of fun for small communities that were so far behind in modernization to touch and feel the phones and even make a free one-time phone call. This was amazing for them. Quite often they had no one to make a free first-time call too, so they called our customer care team instead. It was inspiring to see such excitement and to know that we were bringing about positive change. It was maybe six months later these small communities started to become our customers. Sometimes a community would just get one phone and subscription between all of them.

CONNEX COOKIE

We even launched a Connex Cookie with Ana Baking Co. (a large chain) in Bucharest. This was thanks to their parent company, Ana Electronics, being one of our shareholders. And many Romanians had never tried a chocolate chip cookie before!

How did this come about? Anyone that knows me knows I love cookies and one of my favorites is chocolate chip. But no one had ever heard of it in Romania. So, one day, Al and I got busy making some for our board meeting so members could taste something from our country. It was not quite the same, as some of the ingredients were different. The flour, butter, and chocolate all had different tastes to them. But. nevertheless, we preserved and cookies were offered at the meeting.

As a joke I said we should sell a Connex cookie from Ana Bakery! And the rest was history. We did not profit from the cookie but we kept a shareholder happy and introduced chocolate chip cookies to a country.

CONNEXLAND

With our CONNEXLAND Loyalty Program, we were able to see the impact of being the first to bring initiatives like this into Romania. The program allowed our customers to accumulate points based on usage and redeem them with numerous affiliate companies. With the vision of our marketing director, we launched a marketing campaign with it that the media would never forget.

Without explaining why, we invited the country’s top journalists onto a plane to fly above Bucharest and to a press conference at the brand new airport that had not yet opened to the public. The marketing director then addressed the media passengers while in flight! The experience was unbelievable and the excitement was electric! For most of the journalists, this was their first ever flight.

Imagine if this happened in any North American airport? Well, it wouldn’t. I doubt it would happen anywhere ever again.

X-NET

X-Net, our mobile internet service, was another enormous venture. Romania’s landline phone system was limited and spotty at best. Internet users had to rely on ingenious people who figured out how to set up servers in their garages and provided fragmented and unreliable local dial-up solutions. Personal computers were hardly the norm. Yet cell phone availability was growing rapidly. Connex decided to launch a dial-up internet service Romanians could access via their mobiles. It was something not yet done in Canada.

The marketing campaign was one of the most unique of my career. The premise was that aliens were bringing the power of the internet to Romania via X-Net Internet Services.  Our teaser TV campaign electrified Romania. It aired over the two weeks just prior to the official launch. It started with just a short five-second commercial of an alien gesturing in the background of TV static into the Connex branding.

We wanted the viewer to come away vaguely confused about what they just saw. Concurrently, the events team sent people to the nine largest cities in Romania. In each city, they burned a crop circle in the grass of one major gathering place (a square or park) and painted strange hieroglyphic writing on adjacent buildings. The major media outlets started reporting on the crop circles and strange writings. Soon, things took a turn and we found ourselves overwhelmed with some serious media reports pertaining to alien landings in Romania!

Actual scientists were testing the ground and the strange writings to determine their origins. People were in the streets, worried that aliens were landing. This is when our concern mounted. We certainly did not expect such a passionate reaction, and so we made the decision to hold simultaneous press conferences around Romania to let the country know it was us, and why we did it.

Connex Postage Stamp

The Romanian Post Office at one point was one of our in-country shareholders. So, after many meetings, we convinced the Ministry of Communications to grant us a personal stamp. Our competitor was annoyed by this, as no one asked them if they wanted one. One of my key people, my assistant, came up with the idea and just made it happen while not missing a beat with her busy job. If employees are passionate about your brand and are allowed to take calculated risks with some guidance and it helps the business, then why not?

We even did a press conference at the Military Circle, which is a landmark in Bucharest, to invite the press and stamp collectors to get the first ones pressed. We were more than a telecom business, we were an iconic brand that in time could have had it all. But when I left for the Czech Republic, all the programs that gave it an edge and uniqueness were shut down a few months later.

It was heartbreaking that new management could not see we were building a brand , bigger than a mobile company, we were changing the face of Romania. So much so that the President of the country thanked us on numerous occasions for all that we were doing for Romania. He could tell how passionate the Connex employees were and how much we wanted to do more than just sell cell phones.

Solar Eclipse

One of the best parts of my job was planning events and I especially loved doing it for our employees. The locals and the expats that came were all so dedicated to our company and to making sure that we were able to succeed.

On August 11, 1999, a total solar eclipse took place and one of the best viewing spots was in Bucharest, Romania. In anticipation of this, we went all out for an event that our employees would never forget. We rented an island that accommodated our 2000 employees, held games, set up food and beverage stations throughout, and provided special eyewear for the eclipse.

It was a grand time and everyone was always amazed at what we did for our staff but they deserved it and more. When the moon began to cross in front of the sun, the temperature fell precipitously. It was downright eerie. As it got dark in what is normally the height of the day, it felt surreal. The eyewear was necessary, as the sun shone with laser focus from around the edges of the moon, and more so when it began to gradually emerge. It honestly felt like this is what it might be like if it was the end of the world! The light was blinding and we went from very cold to quite warm in a matter of minutes. The spooky effect was memorable as was the unbelievably thunderous cheering as the sun took control once more!

In Bucharest, on the evening of the solar eclipse, an outdoor concert was staged in front of the People’s Palace with Luciano Pavarotti. Seats around the stage were for VIPs and yes, fortunately, we got to sit there. But the rest of the outdoor space was free admission for Romanians to enjoy one of the greatest tenors of all time. I was lucky that my two best girlfriends from Canada were with me to celebrate the eclipse and Pavarotti together.

In Romania, I was finally able to start pouring my creativity and passion into a brand where the company supported me and I had an amazing staff along for the ride. Our sales continued to grow, as did our revenues. By the end of 10 years in business, the yearly revenue was close to a billion dollars. So, we might not have taken over the country with a clothing line, crazy new projects, and been the “VIRGIN” Richard Branson of Romania, but the new team after myself and my team left also did a stellar job and kept the employees highly engaged. I am sure they also have plenty of their own stories to tell.

~Karla xoxo

CONNEX COOKIE!

Al wearing his baker hat as we make chocolate chip cookies to sell at Ana Bakery Co. (a large chain) in Bucharest.

Many Romanians had never tried a chocolate chip cookie before so as a joke I said we should sell a Connex cookie from Ana Bakery! and the rest was history.

Marla, Ann, Al & Karla watching the Solar Eclipse on August 11th, 1999.

On August 11, 1999, a total solar eclipse took place and one of the best viewing spots was in Bucharest, Romania. We rented an island that accommodated our 2000 employees, held games, set up food and beverage stations throughout, and provided special eyewear for the eclipse.

The TAROM flight which hosted the press conference for CONNEXLAND launch in July 1998 .

With our CONNEXLAND Loyalty Program we launched a marketing campaign that the media would never forget.
 
Without explaining why, we invited the country’s top journalists onto a plane to fly above Bucharest and to a press conference at the brand-new airport that had not yet opened to the public.

CONNEX GO was our prepaid service (something that had not even been introduced in North America at the time). It is a product that needs no personal information but you can buy minutes to put on it.

Our launch event. From left to right: Cristina Hanganu, PR manager, Monica Niculescu, prepaid prod manager, Karla Stephens, VR Marketing.

Al Tolstoy at the CONNEXLAND press conference, acknowledging the participating vendors in the program, July 1998.

First day envelope with CONNEX stamp and brand logo, July 1997.

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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