The Consul General of Hungary in Stuttgart, Mr. János Berényi
Mr. Berényi, you have received your important Consul General mandate from the Government of Hungary, in Stuttgart, which is considered to be the most important economic forth in Germany. Do you think this may be related to your former active involvement in business activities or was it only by chance?
In my opinion the reason I was considered to be the Consul General at the re-opening of the Stuttgart Consulate General in 2015, was due to my economic activities, but even more due to sports, as I was invited by Minister Péter Szijjártó. At that time, as the active CEO of GySEV (Raaberbahn or GySEV is an Austrian-Hungarian railway company based in Sopron, Hungary – editor), I was the eponym sponsor of the women’s basketball team in Sopron, which is one of the best teams in Europe by now. Based on experiences here, Minister Péter Szijjártó has also established a successful women’s basketball team in Győr, and when I became the president of the basketball association in 2007, upon my request, he also took on the presidential membership of the basketball association, so for a few years we worked together to support the Hungarian basketball.
Then, in 2013, we randomly met at the airport, where he asked me what I was doing, and I explained him that unfortunately after closing MALÉV (known as the Hungarian Airlines was the flag carrier of Hungary from 1946 until 2012 – ed.), I was assisting the liquidator’s works as the outgoing chairman of the board. Then he asked me whether I would like to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because the president position of the HITA, the Hungarian Investment and Trade Agency was vacant, and he would be happy if I accepted it. If you know the Minister, you know how decisive he is. I didn’t have much thinking time at that occasion either. Next day, I already had negotiations about the details with the chief of the cabinet, and the following day I was actually sitting in the presidential chair.
Since the regime change (the events were part of the Revolutions of 1989, known in Hungarian as the “Rendszerváltás” which means “regime change” or “system change”, the end of Communist rule in Hungary – ed.), I had been working in the railway industry as the CEO of GYSEV, and at the same time, as the Ministerial Commissioner of MÁV (Hungarian State Railways – ed.) I also led the national railways. For 10 years, I also held the position of the CEO of Hungaroring (the motorsport centre of Hungary – ed.) – so I surely had significant economic and business experience.
With Bernie Ecclestone, signing the F1 contract
You were lucky enough to work with Bernie Eccleston, the founder of Formula 1, as the Chief Executive of the Hungaroring, responsible for the Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix. Allegedly Bernie Ecclestone is not an easy business partner, what experiences do you have from these years?
I was invited to the Formula 1 world by the Antall government (József Antall, led Hungary as Prime Minister from 1990 until his death in 1993 – ed.), right after the regime change, at the end of 1990, asking me to fulfil the presidential position of the newly formulated Hungaroring Sport PLC. I was responsible for making sure that the race is kept in Hungary because the ”great master” of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone was dissatisfied with the previous organization, and he was threatening us that he would take the race away from Hungary. It is important to know that as an active CEO of GYSEV, this presidential position was, in fact, a honorary function without any salary, but at the same time with a huge challenge and responsibility. We were the only Eastern European country where Ecclestone brought this race which was a positive reputation for Hungary in approximately 200 countries, as Formula 1 has been one of the most popular and prestigious sport events in the world ever since. As much as it was possible, I had a good relationship with Ecclestone, and eventually in 1995, in London, I signed a six-year contract with him on behalf of the government, for the period of 1995-2001 ensuring that the race would be held in Hungary during this time. Due to the excellent co-operation, when Tamás Deutsch was the Sport Minister, I signed a new contract with Ecclestone in London in November 1999, ensuring that the race was going to be held in Hungary between 2001 and 2006 as well, so I think I played a significant role in keeping the race in Hungary. Fortunately, my successors were successful as well as we can still host this world-leading event today.
Mr. Berényi countersigning the F1 contract
How different is the life of a diplomat from the life of the business world? Do you expect a good diplomat nowadays to have a good business sense?
In the business world, I’ve learnt that the only way to go is if you are honest, with your partner, and in addition, you have certain knowledge about the profession. In today’s digitalized, machine-driven world, I also believe that a fair, face-to-face negotiation, a sincere look and a decent handshake, that is, mutual trust are crucial for the acceptance of each other, dealing with problems and for the better understanding of each other. I’ve brought the same to the world of diplomacy, where words are also binding. I believe in this, I act like this, and although I’m a rookie in the world of diplomacy, I feel accepted, respected, valued – in an area of Germany where family businesses and global companies (such as Daimler, Siemens, Bosch) are lined up side by side. These companies are closely connected to Hungary, providing jobs for hundreds of thousands due to their billions of investments. As the major part of the activities of the Consulate General led by me is to serve the large number of Hungarians living here, helping them with different issues, as well as the maintenance and even expansion of the large number of business relationships, I think I can make good use of my experience gained in the business world earlier.
With Peter Friedrich in 2015, who was Baden-Württemberg’s Minister for the Federal Council of Germany, Europe and International Affairs, until 2016
You are also familiar with the world of sports which has become an important part of today’s diplomacy, sport diplomacy. Sports must be an interesting task for diplomats. Do you think sporst can bring extra success, and recognition for Hungary in the world, and in case they can, in which areas?
After decades of success as a corporate leader, of course, sports clubs also contacted me: I was the president of BVSC (Budapesti Vasutas Sport Club “Budapest Railwaymen Sports Club” in English – ed.), and for 13 years I was the president of the Hungarian Tennis Association, but I also led the already mentioned basketball association. Furthermore, under the new sports law, created in 2001, I was elected to be the president of the National Sports Association, including all Olympic and non-Olympic national sports. Hungary was, is and hopefully will also be a sports power in the future as well. The current government does a lot for Hungarian sport, and there is a specific goal to bring as many world championships as possible to Hungary, such as the Swimming or Judo World Championship, or the latest Women’s Final Four Basketball Championship in Sopron. Of course, as a diplomat, I am happy to participate in bringing these events to Hungary, because I strongly believe that sport successes greatly contribute to preserving the worldwide reputation of Hungary.
Let’s go back to your work as a Consul General. In addition to classic consular tasks, which areas do you focus your activities on, political or the economic activities?
As far as my work is concerned, I can say that – as our name implies – the main activity of the Consulate General is to act as a Government Office, representing the interests of a large number of Hungarians living in the consular area, serving their requests and needs. Upon request, we provide ID cards, birth and marriage certificates, certificates of naturalization citizenship to the people who live here, and we also provide notarial services. The other main area that is really close to me, as I had worked in the same field before is the maintenance and expansion of the economic relationships with companies like Daimler, Bosch, Knorr-Bremse, Festo, ZF, and I could go on listing the hundreds of companies who are already present in Hungary as investors. My goal is to convince the ones who are not yet present to make investments in our country. I am also proud of our Balassi Institute, which aims to spread the diversity of Hungarian culture among the Germans. Politics is carried out by the Embassy of Berlin, but because the action radius of the Consulate General I lead runs in the territory of three federal states, I maintain political relations as well with the provincial governments who have serious permissions especially with the government of Baden-Württemberg, which has close industrial and economic relations with Hungary, at Prime Ministerial or State Secretarial level if needed. As the German press is rather critical about the migration policy of Hungary, and in many cases the government is subjected to unjust offenses, questioning the freedom of universities, the press and the judiciary, I must keep the concerned parties informed about the real situation in Hungary, about the real decisions of the government as opposed to the situation they perceive and interpreted. As all Heads of Mission, I am responsible for confuting false, mistaken and in many cases untrue statements with data and arguments or to explain misunderstandings.
With Guido Wolf, the Minister of Justice and European Affairs of the State of Baden-Württemberg
From your former career’s point of view, which work, or period is the one you are most happy to remember?
As a GYSEV scholarship holder, after graduating from the University of Economics, I was employed by the same Austrian-Hungarian railway company. It was considered to be unique in Hungary to speak three foreign languages at advanced-level and to have the possibility to cross the Hungarian-Austrian border daily. I was attracted by the possibility that I could travel abroad, even if no farther than the GYSEV Neufeld an der Leitha/Lajtaújfalu station. Vienna was only a few miles away, which was a great attraction for young people at that time. The only problem I had was the dialect there. Despite my advanced-level language exam, it took me a good year and a half to understand it. The situation is still the same in Germany. Although I think my German is good, if someone speaks with a Swabian dialect, I have some problems. But fortunately, in Germany, I can ask my partners to speak Hochdeutsch (is a German word which literally translates to “High German” and it is the standardised variety of the German language – ed.). I will always be proud that despite my university degree and language exam, my leaders at that time sent me to the execution service to the station and I was made to be a warehouse keeper, a ballot, a customs officer and to do any other jobs which I considered to be under-ranked at the time, but thanks to which when I became a CEO, my highly disciplined railroad colleagues with their own closed world said that “we accept János Berényi as our a leader, because he is a veritable railroad worker”.
Do you have any future dreams? After Stuttgart, would you still like to take a new post or is it yet to be decided in the future?
There is one thing for sure; I won’t, and I can’t stop, but the answer is in the question, it is yet to be decided in the future. For the time being, I am proud that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has extended my mandate until 2020, while my colleagues who I travelled here with, are unfortunately going home this summer. I enjoy staying in Stuttgart, I do my work with my wholehearted support, and I’m happy that my bosses acknowledge and appreciate it.
Is there anyone in your family following in your track continuing your work and profession or you’ve rather encouraged them to take a different path?
Since graduating from university, I actually worked for the same company, the Austrian-Hungarian railway company GYSEV, stepping up the ladder and after 30 years ended my work as the CEO of this company. Meanwhile, besides MASPED Rail Cargo, I built RAABERSPED, the second largest cargo logistics company in Hungary. My daughter, Barbara works in this area, we could kind of say she has been following in my track. As for myself, I have been following in my son’s, János’s track, as he has been working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade since graduating from the university. He was involved in the smaller team preparing our EU entry and has been working as a diplomat for several foreign services ever since. So, the situation is just the other way around here, even if it sounds a bit funny, I have been following in his track by becoming the Consul General of Stuttgart. But my two sons, who live with me here, my 20-year-old one who is currently a university student and my 16-year-old one who goes to secondary school can still follow in my track.
As a diplomat, what has been your best experience in the world of diplomats so far?
I got into the world of diplomacy in a very important region in a difficult era. In the German media, there tend to be constant bad news rather than good news about our country. It is not an easy thing to stand up, argue, fight for our righteousness, defend my country against unjust attacks in this occasionally even hostile environment, but I seem to succeed. I feel that I am recognized in the environment where I work, I’m respected, and I’ve partially managed to convince them. Despite the existing differences, we are conscious that the decades of relationships are important to both parties and we are working together to maintain them. However, the situation in the economy is different, they definitely admit Hungary’s good performance, that it is a safe country to invest in every aspect.
Although your current work is not yet finished in Stuttgart, what would be the greatest recognition and confirmation to you showing you have been doing perfect job for Hungary?
I took up my position in Stuttgart on 31. January 2015. A few days before that, in the Mercedes factory in Kecskemét, I had attended the ceremonial delivery of the latest model, the CLA ShootingBrake, in the presence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Markus Schäfer, member of the Board of Directors responsible for Mercedes production. After the introduction of the new car, the Prime Minister turned to me and in the presence of Mr. Schäfer and several political and economic leaders he said the following: “You have been delegated to a position which is very important to Hungary, and you must be aware that just like every Head of Mission, you are my “extended arm”. Everyone is a little prime minister in the field where he was delegated, so I would like you to represent our interest and defend our country if needed with having this in mind.” I am trying to do my work in the spirit of this “Botschaft” mission. The greatest recognition for me is if people back home also feel that I have earned the trust I was given in advance.