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Lucian Butnaru - exclusive interview with Business Magazin

How does Lucian Butnaru, Country Director for Cegeka Romania, balances his roles as an entrepreneur and a multinational head? What are his plans for the future? What obstacles did he have to overcome?
In an exclusive interview with BUSINESS Magazin, learn more about Lucian's career path, passions, and plans for Cegeka.

1. A description of the company's current activities - as well as its most recent financial results (turnover, net profit, number of employees 2020)

Cegeka is one of Europe's leading providers of IT solutions, including end-to-end application development services, IT staffing, Cloud services, IT infrastructure, data services and automation, such as Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Business Intelligence, RPA, IoT, DevOps, with over 5,000 employees group-wide in Europe. Cegeka Romania has been present on the local market since 2011, currently employing more than 700 people in Romania and Moldova. In the first half of 2021, Cegeka Romania recorded a turnover of €18.8 million, 12.2% higher than in the same period last year. This is a significant and important growth for the company and the group, which demonstrates the company's stability and ability to adapt in conditions of uncertainty, health crisis, but also permanent fluctuations in general economic activity.

2. A comprehensive description of each step taken in your career: from your studies and motivation for choosing them, to your current role and the reason for accepting it.

Like many children, I had a number of career ambitions that I would have liked to pursue as an adult. The first was to become an astronaut, then I wanted to be an inventor, and s I got older and started to have access to computer science circles at school, I decided that I would be very much suited to the job of programmer. Later, I entered the Polytechnic University, during which time, together with a French partner, I founded my first company. At the time, this didn't sit well with my student status, being only 21 years old and responsible for almost 100 employees. Some professors at the university required physical presence, and my entrepreneurial schedule didn't allow me to go to lab classes. So I decided to put college second to business until I was 29, when I decided to continue my studies, pursuing executive programs at various universities around the world. I realized that learning has to be a continuous process and that is why it is part of my daily routine, starting from executive training programs, personal and professional development, varied reading, and learning from the people I interact with/around me.

3. How do you reconcile the role of CEO, real estate investor and entrepreneur? How do you divide your schedule between all these activities? What are your plans for each of these lines of business?

This is a question I am asked very often, and I would therefore like to give some examples to support this statement:

- Elon Musk is CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and other companies;

- Jack Dorsey is CEO of Twitter and CEO of Square, both billion-dollar companies.

It's not abnormal to split your time between two or more companies. In my case, I coordinate on the one hand the activities of Cegeka Romania and Eastern Europe, but I am also a real estate investor and a major shareholder and Chairman of SelfPay. In the context of the pandemic and working remotely, without wasting time in traffic, this becomes much easier. As long as the team is given autonomy in decision making, a CEO's time management and actions translate into creating value for shareholders, defining the strategic direction of the company and hiring key people to execute the agreed plan. The rest, i.e. implementation and execution, is largely the responsibility of the team. From this role you become a leader who provides support and coaching to the team that runs the business. This way, I manage to find enough time to balance all the roles (CEO, investor and chairman) with my personal and family plans.

4. What was the biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it? What about the biggest risk you have taken in your career?

In any business, there are hard times when you feel like giving up and sometimes it may even be good to give up certain activities or even businesses. Well, those moments are the challenging moments. Obviously, these challenges haven't escaped me either, facing in every business of mine such difficult situations. And here I'm talking about inflection points, where some tough decisions have to be made - either cost-cutting, staff reduction, change of plans, change of strategy, different economic crises, etc. But the only chance to succeed in the long run is not to give up on your goals and believe in your dream.

5. If you had to choose any other role, any other profession, what would it be?

The latest of my newfound passions is coaching, and if I were to choose to stay in the business area - I would do coaching, I think it's another job that would suit me. A good coach is the one who through questions helps to find the most appropriate solutions to unblock the most difficult situations. If, however, I was to leave this area of business, I would like to turn to one of my hobbies, either photography or exploring the world.

6. Who is your mentor and what have you learned from him?

To this question, I could say that I do not have or have not had one mentor, but several. I consider you to be the average of the people you surround yourself with, and it is important for me to learn as much as possible from those around me. And I am fortunate to be surrounded by so many business leaders who are both friends and mentors to me at the same time. In fact, we mentor each other, it's reciprocity. My first mentor was my first business partner, I learned the most from him. I have also noticed that I, in turn, discover new things and learn a lot from those I mentor. There is similar reciprocity here.

7. What are the most important qualities today's leaders should have? But what qualities do you think are generally lacking in today's leaders?

Leaders must first and foremost be able to inspire multi-disciplinary teams and motivate them to achieve a common business goal, to help the people they lead reach their full potential. Most leaders have all the necessary qualities, otherwise, they would not be leaders.

8. Which books do you recommend?

I would start with The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach. I find it a good book, both personally and professionally. From my point of view, it is a real "bible" of business and beyond, which I would re-read anytime. On the technology side, I recommend Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis, Morgan Brown, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.

In the real estate area, I'd go for Am I Being Too Subtle by Sam Zell, a very good book where you'll find lots of tips. From a coaching perspective, I recommend Coach the Person, Not the Problem by Marcia Reynolds.

A must-have for both coaches and those who want to learn to communicate and listen better. Think Again by Adam Grant is fascinating. The insights written in this book will make you rethink your opinions and your most important decisions. I would also add Principles by Ray Dalio, where you will find unconventional principles for the business and living area.

Another interesting book is Atomic Habits by James Clear, which will help you change your less good habits and guides you on how to make good choices, how to create the right habits, and how to shape your mindset in that direction.

No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. Here Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder, and CEO, talks openly about the leadership philosophy behind Netflix's culture, you can find concrete examples of staffing and how to encourage people, plus many other tips. Then, Dare to Lead by Brene Brown is another leadership book where you can find many examples and stories from this sphere.

Last but not least would be Chris Voss's Never Split the Difference or the art of negotiating on another level. Just when you think you know everything about how to negotiate, Chris Voss, who worked in the FBI as a hostage negotiator, will give you new approaches and insights. A very interesting read for anyone who wants to diversify their negotiation tactics.

The list goes on, but I'll stop here. I hope it will be useful.

9. What is the first thing you have set out to do post-pandemic? What hobbies do you have and how much time do you devote to them?

The current pandemic situation did not stop me from doing what I wanted to do: I traveled as much as allowed, saw and communicated with people, went to the office. I spend my time in as close to a natural way as possible, obviously respecting all the regulations and health safety rules in force.

I think it is very important to give time to your children when they need you and not just when you are available. The time allocated to them is extremely valuable, it should be proportionate to the time they are growing up (a 5-year-old needs a parent more than a 15-year-old) and it should be a priority. It is also very important to take time for personal development, reading, physical activities, nature walks. I believe a lot in the motto ''Mens sana in corpore sano - Healthy mind in healthy body''.

Last but not least, I would like to summarize a few principles that guide me in life - be present, listen and give back to those around you through your presence.

10. How important is the local market for the international group to which Cegeka Romania belongs? (And some figures to support this importance)

Cegeka Group entered the Romanian market in 2004, starting with the acquisition of 2 local IT companies, and we have been operating as an entity under this name since 2011. We started this business by delivering quality software projects to the group's international clients shortly after its establishment and, thanks to their high demand and satisfaction, we have grown organically, healthily and stably from one year to the next.

Cegeka Romania is currently composed of 2 divisions: Nearshoring and Applications. 2021 saw the development and transformation of the Nearshore Delivery Center in Romania into the Cegeka European Delivery Center (CEDC), which is designed to support the success of all business lines in all countries of the group. CEDC contributes 60% of the turnover and will serve Cegeka customers in Europe. The second division, Applications, in Cegeka Romania is aimed at local customers, i.e. companies in the financial-banking, insurance, retail, real estate, telecom and logistics sectors, and is dedicated to the development of professional applications and services.

The growth we will have at the end of 2021 for the 2 divisions will be close to 15% (turnover will be around 39 million EUR), while the profit margin for Romania is the highest of all countries of the Cegeka Group. Many companies have invested in digitizing their operations in order to remain relevant and useful to their customers, even in a more difficult economic context, which has reconfirmed the importance and stability of business in Romania, as well as the strong technical capabilities of the local talent market.

11. What are the company's plans for the next investments?

For us, employees are the most important people (not just in words). Unfortunately, I see a lot of companies that treat the employee as just one of their resources and that's it. This is wrong! That person, both personally and professionally, has ambitions, wants to develop, wants to grow, and it would be ideal if the company supported them in this endeavor.

I am glad that at Cegeka we have a modern vision of this reality. We start from the employees and build our business strategy around them. This different approach allows us to support people and encourage them to follow the path they choose, realistically speaking. Therefore, a large part of our investment budget is constantly going to them, and this year is no exception, with around €1 million to be invested in training and professional development courses.

We will invest significantly both in our colleagues and in attracting new talent eager to grow. I am not hiding the fact that Cegeka also has an increased appetite for acquiring new companies similar to ours, some already completed, others in the process of being announced, plus other businesses that have caught our attention and we believe in them. But more details will be announced in due course.

12. What are the group's most important objectives for the coming period and how do you intend to achieve them?

One of our goals is satellite offices, which we are slowly starting to implement. Through these satellite offices, we want employees to have a place where they can have meetings or various discussions when they feel the need, where they can participate in various internal events organized by us, developing a sense of belonging.

As we have mentioned before, we want to be a top employer, and in this sense, with the help of satellite offices, the hybrid working model, the focus on wellness and professional development, we try to provide them with an environment that is as comfortable and flexible as possible, so that they can perform and develop as well as possible.

Of course, we still want to maintain our position in the market, offering quality services both on the end-to-end application development side and IT team extensions, so that customers can benefit from a fast time to market and offer modern services and applications to their users. In this way, the passion we put in offering innovative solutions and quality code will be the best calling card for attracting new customers.

13. How many employees do the company currently have - and what is the target number of employees for the next period?

Cegeka Romania has now surpassed 700 employees, and the company's plans for the coming period are to expand in several cities in Romania and Moldova by setting up several satellite offices, while Bucharest will remain the headquarters, along with the pivotal activities in Iasi. The projected increase over the next 2 years is the hiring of 75 new people in Moldova, while 200 new colleagues are expected to join the satellite offices in Romania.

The open positions are for technical specialists for a diverse range of projects, most of which are on the following technologies: Java, .NET, Mobile, JavaScript, Cloud, Windows, Linux, Cyber-Security, Storage and Digital Workplace.

14. How do you manage to keep employees motivated in atypical times like these?

The dedication and involvement of employees, stand-up meetings, ad-hoc intervention plans, frequent and transparent communication, the importance given to the area of the wellbeing of colleagues through a wide range of programs - comprehensive support in the area of health, socialization, and support for managers on managing teams remotely, all taking place online, have successfully contributed to the loyalty of employees in Cegeka Romania, which is reflected in their commitment.

In addition to this, we also conduct an annual internal study to help us in thinking, establishing and sizing tools, methods and strategies that will lead to continuous improvement in employee satisfaction and employee engagement with the organization. It is a calibration of the company's efforts that should result in beneficial effects on our people. It is also a tool to streamline the organisation and increase its productivity and performance so that we can offer our customers the highest standards of service.

15. How do you cope with the competition for employees in the IT market?

We are a company where we really put the employee first, we support them in their career development and invest in them, offering them projects to choose from. Our employees are the CEO of their own career, 'Be the CEO of your own career is our slogan in internal communications. They can choose which direction their professional career takes and the company facilitates and encourages this development with significant training budgets, challenging projects and state-of-the-art technologies.

We also have a salary policy that is permanently adjusted to market averages, benefits packages that are at the top end of what the market offers (switching from medical membership to health insurance for all employees, facilitating car purchases through operational leasing, wellbeing workshops, financial education sessions and more).

All of the above, combined with our entrepreneurial approach to the pandemic crisis and our strategic partnerships with clients, bring promising prospects and a competitive advantage to Cegeka Romania.

16. How has the pandemic affected the company's activities, what were the challenges encountered and how did you overcome them?

The pandemic situation generated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus tested all our limits - both the organisation's and our customers' - and reshaped us, resulting in an improved version of ourselves. Our main priority was communication - both internally and with customers.

We've noticed that we, like other industries, have seen a strong acceleration in digital transformation initiatives, driven by a desire to stay as in touch as possible with customers and the market. Thanks to this high demand, we have been able to launch a number of new projects as well as extend existing collaborations and we expect this trend to continue.

The transition to the home-working system imposed by this health crisis was easy. We had been working in distributed teams for some time, and all the technical foundations for being productive in the remote system were already in place. However, the presence of strong management, the creation and realisation of synergies, exclusively in the virtual environment, were other challenges we addressed through a series of varied initiatives.

17. Work from home or from the office? Which do you prefer and which will you choose for the employees of the companies you represent?

The hybrid working model has been well received by my colleagues since the beginning of its implementation as a practice. The strategy for definition and execution took into account: how this model fits with our values and culture, our business goals, how we measure, what tools we use and how we integrate this way of working into the employee's daily experience. We started from our core value of "in close cooperation", giving our employees total flexibility to choose the right balance between working at home and working in the office.

At the same time, we encouraged socialising and catching up with team members, and recommended working from the Cegeka offices in Bucharest and Iasi, subject to a prior booking of the workspace and compliance with health and safety rules.

I admit that after an uncertain period, where social distancing was necessary, we were glad to have meetings on a physical level, to be able to enjoy a coffee together, to have internal social events under the #MomentsThatMatter campaign, things we were deprived of during the quarantine periods and, I must admit, that the number of those present was higher during the summer period.

18. What do you consider before promoting someone? What qualities do you value most in an employee?

One thing I've learned over the years is not to look at people's skills. Why? Because they can be acquired through learning. There are trainings, courses and other ways in which that person can develop, and I am one of the most vocal supporters of people who want to grow both professionally and personally. As a leader, I am results and business performance-oriented from my current position and obviously from past roles as well.

At the same time, I am very interested in the values that employees have, and how these fit with Cegeka's values and culture (respect, ownership, entrepreneurship, flexibility, in close cooperation). However, in addition to all the above, I am also extremely attentive to the attitude of my colleagues. Why? Because attitude is that differentiator that determines where they stand in relation to the challenges and risks in business, how they are addressed, but more importantly, how they can be turned into opportunities. Attitude is everything!