- Programme: Senior Executive Programme
- Nationality: Hungarian
- Job Post-programme: Deputy Chief Executive at Lufthansa Technik Budapest Ltd
The flight from socialism to capitalism
After starting out as an aircraft engineer, Sandor Szomora’s personal flight path has taken him from socialist-state-owned enterprise to high-growth multinational. He’s been fuelled by resilience – a word he says he discovered at London Business School.
As a boy growing up in Hungary when it was part of the Soviet bloc, Sandor Szomora was fascinated by the aircraft at the military base in his hometown of Szolnok.
It seemed a natural choice for him to study aircraft engineering and he found himself in Kiev at the biggest civil aviation university of the former Soviet Union. It was here, in 1976, that the 18-year-old Szomora’s eyes were opened to different cultures. Students came from some 53 different countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to learn about Soviet-made aircraft. And Szomora loved it.
“I liked this colourful world,” he says. “It became very natural to me that people were different and cultures were different. I think it’s part of my personality to be open and open to the world.”
Openness and curiosity are characteristics that have helped him navigate the changing world around him – particularly as the Soviet Union collapsed and he had to make the transition from socialist Hungary to the globalised world of today. To these traits he’s added resilience – a word he says he first heard in 2004 from a lecturer on the Senior Executive Programme (SEP) at London Business School (LBS) – a place that must have felt very remote when Szomora was growing up behind the Iron Curtain.
Long before that Szomora started to work for Malév, the now defunct Hungarian flag carrier airline, as an engineer in its aircraft maintenance business. It was 1982 and 1,000 employees overhauled planes in four hangars. Szomora, who also had a business diploma, took on other roles in the organisation including sales and public relations.
With the end of the Cold War the aircraft maintenance business was too big for the relatively small airline to manage. In 1992 a partner was found in Lockheed Martin and Szomora was one of only two Hungarian managers paired with the six American managers.
He relished the American impetus and enjoyed working with people who were open-minded and seemingly at home anywhere. He remembers the first boss of the joint venture was a member of the technical team behind the American U-2 spy planes before becoming an experienced figure in the aviation industry.
But in 1998 Lockheed Martin pulled out of the joint venture and Szomora, who was the director of marketing and business development, was left in a difficult situation as CEO of a business in crisis.
“We had nearly 1,000 employees in a low margin business with a shrinking market and I felt responsible to do something to build a future and not just give up,” he says.
For two years he looked for a solution until a lucky encounter at an industry conference in Ireland provided a breakthrough. He met an executive from Lufthansa Technik, the global aircraft maintenance company: “I told him that we were looking to find a good partner and he said they were looking to expand into new locations. We started to talk, exchange information, visit each other, and it was perfect timing. Sometimes in business you need luck.”
Lufthansa Technik Budapest has just celebrated its 15th anniversary and Szomora is Deputy CEO. He remembers the start-up years as an exciting if complex time, bringing together government and business players. Today the Budapest operation has 370 employees, can maintain seven aircraft in parallel and is looking to build more hangars. And Szomora enjoys being part of the Lufthansa Technik Group, which has some 26,000 employees worldwide and is continually looking to grow.
“Airlines and leasing companies are ordering aircraft and aircraft manufacturers can’t build them fast enough, so maintenance is key. That’s why our strategy is growth. Two years ago we set a target of ’585 – we were a €5 billion (£4.31 billion) company and we want to grow to €8 billion (£6.89 billion) in five years. That’s a big percentage growth and we are pretty much on track.”
To meet targets like that Lufthansa Technik knows innovation is vital and that was a key reason why it supported Szomora on the SEP at LBS in 2004. The programme was another cultural immersion for Szomora – although in very different circumstances to his aircraft engineering course. He remembers participants from Australia, Finland, Nigeria, Libya, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the UK who came from a range of industries including banking, oil, insurance and telecoms.
“For executives it’s great to leave your comfort zone and talk and learn about other businesses,” says Szomora. “For Lufthansa it fits into their strategy to develop managers. Even since 2004 it has become a really multinational company and we need people who are able to cope with different cultures and look outside their own industry.”
For Szomora it was also a welcome top-up of his interest in leadership skills and his pursuit of lifelong learning – something he says has always been a hobby of his and also a family business. (His wife Eva and daughter Virag run Gordon Publishing and Training Magyarorszag, publishing Hungarian translations of the books of the late American clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Gordon – a pioneer of active listening communication skills – and offering related training programmes for business people, leaders and parents.)
Meanwhile Szomora says he has always understood the importance of flexibility and openness to change, but at LBS he learned that success needs something else: “In business it’s not enough; you have to go beyond this to be resilient and willing to embrace new challenges.”