INTERVIEW WITH ANCA VLAD
What made you opt for the Faculty of exterior commerce?
I wanted to travel as much as possible. And the only college offering this chance was the Faculty of exterior commerce. It was the elite from ASE, we had courses of international economy doctrines, so I was aware of the international economy thinking. In addition, I left the faculty knowing three foreign languages. English, French and Spanish. Not being married, I could not work external trade from the start, because single persons could not travel. This is how I ended up in a furniture factory, at the export department. I think that even before the Revolution, those that wanted to build something, could do so. For example: I spoke Spanish very well so every summer I took a few weeks of holiday and was touring the country with the manufacturers from Havana Club. They held cocktail making courses in all bars from Romania. I was a translator, an organizer and jury member for the contests they had.
How did you go from furniture to pharmaceuticals?
Even since college I started working as a translator. I was specialized on medical translations. The company SmithKline Beecham wanted me to represent them in Romania. I had to organize conferences in the country, and present their pharmaceutical products. A drug I introduced and has since been the most popular drug for respiratory infections: Augmentin.
How did you live before the Revolution?
I did not have a bad life. I had money because I worked a lot. I had a pretty good salary, the equivalent of 300 dollars per month, I was tutoring, translating, I collaborated to various actions. As such, aside from the 300 dollars, I was making another 300.
Where were you during the Revolution?
In Bucharest. During the Revolution I was in a very special situation, I was going to get married on December 25 1989. I was very busy planning the wedding. Nevertheless I felt a terrible tension in the air. I heard what happened in Timisoara.
And did you have the wedding after all?
Yes. On December 25th. We were scheduled in the Amzei church, and there was combat there. We stepped on bullets.
The honeymoon coincided with the first month of freedom for the Romanians.
Yes, and the company law was passed in May 1990. That is when I could open my own company. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to be able to do something on my own. I left the state sector, which was collapsed anyway. Everybody was leaving. At the state I was paying 80% taxes. Thus, I received a salary of 1800 and only getting 300 dollars. And thus I thought that if I work on my own, I can save up the tax.
How did you get the idea to start a consultancy company? Nobody knew in 1990, what consultancy meant.
At the Registry of Commerce there was no other company for marketing consulting and people there were asking me “how do you write that”? You see, the communist education gave me the terms. I knew the terms.
What did it mean to consult back then?
Same thing it means today. We were reading the dictionary.
Give us an example of your work.
I did not have the money for import-export or distribution, I only had my mind. For example: For a long time I was handling veterinary products. I had to identify the need. What needs do we have? Let’s see, how many horses do we have, how many pigs, how many cattle? And this is how consulting starts. Then you go by regions. What diseases do these animals have? Well, the pigs from Timisoara have diarrhea. Good, we handle the pigs diarrhea. That is what consultancy is: Information that you gather, you monitor and you process, converting them in a business plan.
For this you need people to gather the information, right?
I had no employees. I went by myself, all day, from Timisoara to Tulcea, from Tulcea to Iasi. I worked non-stop.
Even during Ceausescu’s era animals got sick. How did they solve that then? I ask because a lot of business men coming from external trading, where they worked with the foreign countries, and developed businesses after the Revolution, were accused of using the knowledge they gathered from the state system, the connections, information, to use them for their own interest after the Revolution. How do you comment?
Knowledge you give and you receive. Information is free.
It is the perspective of the common man: That there were some people that contributed to the dissolution of the state after the Revolution, due to personal interest, to get rich. This is how they see it from the street. Rich people are not well seen.
This is very sad, because it discourages people from becoming rich. After the Revolution there was total chaos in the state institutions. The company directors were also party members. When the Communist Party was outlawed, they started looking for work elsewhere. This is what contributed to the dissolution of the state. Those years, 1991 and 1992 with 200% inflation.
You said you did not have money when you started the consultancy company.
True, I had none. For one year I provided consultancy. After one year, the sympathy of the foreigners toward Romania was so large that I started getting goods without money … I could pay after one year, from large British companies.
And was that just sympathy?
And interest: The interest to make money, a profit. But they trusted me. My customers, for which I was providing consultancy, asked me to start trading, and they will support me, because had no one else to work with in Romania.
But why did they trust you, Anca Vlad, more than the state owned pharmacy network, with which they traded until then.
I was someone you could talk to. I was educated, I was already specialized in that field. And I was young.
And this is why they gave you a truck of drugs?
They started with one and then there were more. Yes, the first drugs truck I received was contracted by the state, and then refused, because they had no more money to pay for it. Then the partners told me “Anca you have to help us. We manufactured these drugs with labels in Romanian. You must sell!”. I was lucky there were already some private pharmacies as clients. My first clients were the pharmacy 3F, from Piata Amzei, and some pharmacies from Brasov, from Fagaras. I sold piece by piece.
How do you explain that, a few months after the Revolution, the state was unable to do what it was doing before, meaning to complete a drugs import contract?
Think about what would happen if there is no senior editor at your newspaper. You get chaos? You do. The same with the country…
But we had a new government, a lot of technocrats stayed… the state was restored.
No, for years there was this horrible fighting. The state could not receive that truck full of drugs because it did not have any money. And this was a very favorable moment for me. You need to have luck and courage. I could have refused the challenge. There was a risk, because when I received that truck I had one year to pay for it. Everything had to work well, to be able to have the money to pay at the end.
But these Brits did not offer the state this one year interval in which to pay for the drugs?
No, the state did not receive this privilege. There was some mistrust, I presume. The suppliers had a moral guarantee with me and, seeing how the state changed the directors every day…
But still you had 0 dollars. Financially there was nothing you could provide as collateral, right?
True. But honor and morals are more valuable than money.
How much did you make from this business?
After I sold that truck of drugs I reached a turnover of 1,5 million dollars. A fantastic sum. Now, that I think about it, I can not believe it. I am the one that made the first commercials for cosmetic products for the television: Aquafresh with three colors, protects your teeth three times, is my slogan. I contacted the BBC. You will ask me “How?”. Somehow, I don’t know… I just, I looked for them, I found them, I wrote them and Bought two series that were very successful. I went with them to TVR and I said: I will give you these two wonderful series, but you run my Aquafresh add at the start and the end of every episode. Those series were highly successful, and Aquafresh was sold straight from the truck. One truck would hold 244,000 tubes. The shop owners would come to our warehouse from Giulesti and bought packages directly from the truck.
Why was the Aquafresh toothpaste so successful?
Because it was a toothpaste with three colors. It was wonderful when you pressed the tube to get three colors, and the television ad would tell you how each color works. It was the western seduction, in was a quality product, that did not chafe your teeth. If you were using Maxam from China, like I used for such a long time, you would appreciate in those days a three colored toothpaste. It was a small luxury afforded by the Romanians.
Didn’t you think that the pharmaceuticals industry was a hat too large for you, when you had no specialty training?
If not me, then who? This is what I said then, and this is what I say now. Yes, it is a large had, but what am I lacking to wear it?
Did you ever receive offers for a big score?
I was offered a factory. It was the years when offers were made. But I like straight deals. I don’t like “let’s do that and we’ll see”.
I recall something you said in an interview. That you bid for a drug factory from Pitesti without having the money to pay for it. This is like let’s bid and then we’ll see…
I did not know how high the auction would go. In the end it was a large sum, three million dollars, and I had three months to come up with the money.
And did you get it…
I was taking some professional improvement courses, in London. There was a theme in the communication and relating course. The theme was to ask a person something extraordinary. And I had a partner in London and I said “I should make this attempt now that I have this assignment: I should ask him to guarantee for a 3 million dollars loan”. And I went to him and I said “Peter, can you help me out, I want to buy a chain of pharmacies and I need a loan for 3 million dollar?.” „Yes“, was the answer. And this is how I got my first loan. Those that do not try can not win.
It all seems so simple in the world of the rich. You ask for three million dollars and you get it. It is incredible…
It was wonderful how much people trusted us, including investors.
There was something there that we did not understand…
Yes, the world changed a lot since then. Then you had the pioneering times of capitalism. There was a lot of creating and hope.
How do you see the cleansing of the business world by the Justice system?
It is the sign of a new phase, with more fairness, more normality.
Can you feel the wind of change?
We hope. There are still things that need solving, like implementing the health card. It was announced that it will become mandatory in April and thus each drug will be monitored. The pharmaceutical companies are upset, because some drugs for which they pay a clawback tax are not actually consumed in Romania. Probably a part of these drugs are exported, even if they were paid by the Romanian state. This problem exists, because you can not monitor if the patient that bought it swallows the pill or not, and if he is real or not.
Don’t you think there are too many pharmacies? At least in Bucharest…. they are everywhere.
You feel there are too many pharmacies because there is nothing else. Many of the food industry chains destroyed the small food trade, and the clothing, shoes, lingerie stores are all gone now, and they moved to the malls. The pharmacies, by their nature, must be in the neighborhoods, close to the people, especially close to the seniors, and this is why they seem like a lot. But I checked, and we are near the European average. Anyway, you can not open any new pharmacies in Bucharest. If you see a new pharmacy opening next to your building that is a relocation. They move from a location without traffic to one with better traffic.
Is it harder to succeed in the Romanian business environment as a woman?
Yes, of course it is more difficult. Men feel more comfortable negotiating among themselves. They have their language, their hints, their beer. And then, when interacting with a woman they become stiff and hold back. This is how it is more difficult. Even with the banks, in the beginning, in was harder to work with them as a woman compared to a man. But even banks realized that women present a lower financial risk. Manager women, especially if they are mothers, are extremely careful and attentive when making decisions.