“I’m looking for Mrs. Kerenyi,” I said haltingly to the overalls-clad lady in gumboots sweeping the floor. “Yes, that’s me,” she replied, without missing a stroke of the broom. The person I was speaking with did not come across as a business woman by any stretch of imagination . “No, no, I’m looking for the proprietor, Mrs. Kerenyi,” I continued. I stood bewildered. The broom stopped in mid-sweep, she raised her eyes to meet mine in a glacial stare and she repeated, “Yes, that’s me”.

This was Budapest, in 1992. Eastern Europe was newly capitalist and democratic, the winds of Glasnost and Perestroika had blown westwards from the USSR.  State enterprises were being given state funerals with nary a tear and tender green shoots of capitalism were emerging.

By the Danube – early 90s

On a cold winter morning I stepped out on to Keleti station, Budapest, after an overnight journey from Prague. A rickety Lada taxi ride from the station to the hotel unfolded Imperial Budapest—Buda, the imperial seat of power, and the industrial Pest, separated by the majestic Danube.

The tenuous leads I managed were of limited utility. Every morning, from 8 a.m. to late in the evenings, I’d pound the pavement to meet companies.

With little success.

On the penultimate day of my trip, luck favored me. I received confirmations for two simultaneous appointments – 10 a.m. the following day. One was a reputed company dealing in medical consumables and other a small, unknown firm in a remote suburb of Budapest. I chose to meet the former company which showed more promise.

Arriving there at 9:50 am the next day, I discovered that my appointment had been summarily cancelled and no one had bothered to inform me!

Fortunately, arriving early has advantages. In this case, it pushed me towards the other appointment. Though far – most taxi drivers hadn’t heard of the place, my inner voice told me to go for it. After pleading with many taxi drivers finally, a garrulous fellow agreed. I had offered him a Marlboro cigarette and a no-negotiable fare!

Arriving at my destination, I found the back entrance to a building that led me to a small room. I discovered a lady with gumboots and a broom in hand sweeping the floor and a pungent chemical odor coming from a corner. This was Mrs. Kerenyi with the glacial stare!

The room I was in was a laboratory-cum-office, so cramped that only one of us could sit. The gentleman in me suggested that I should stand. Still, somewhat confused, I took out sample packets of dye stuff of different types. Mrs. Kerenyi engaged in detailed discussions on the quality, price, delivery, and demonstrated her ready knowledge of the business.

With Mrs. Kerenyi and family

Soon it was time for lunch, which she suggested we have in her office. I accepted her offer, as it gave us more time to open up and speak in a “non-official” setting. It was during the hearty meal of pickled beet, cabbage, and goulash, we discussed the revolutionary changes taking place in Post Communism Hungary, our families, the usual Indian spices, and spirituality – all matters besides the business at hand. She requested me to come again the next day after the samples have been evaluated, a phrase I had heard before, which often meant no results.

Next day I arrived at the appointed hour expecting another bout of frustration which I was getting accustomed to! Mrs. Kerenyi smilingly informed me that the samples had been approved! Much to my delight she wanted to place an order for two types of dye stuff for a total value of USD 2450! I felt there was a mistake in her numbers but she insisted that was it.

There was another set of complications. I tried to convince her on the financial terms, as was common in international business. She answered that since the banking infrastructure in Hungary was so underdeveloped, we could only work on trust. Payment would be made once the goods were ready for shipment. I acquiesced hesitantly, excited that I had landed my first export order. Mrs. Kerenyi was keen that I meet her family the same evening for a dinner prior to my departure to the airport.

On my return, my boss was amused – a travel allowance of USD 1500 had resulted in an order for only USD 2450. Nevertheless, he agreed that something was better than nothing and a beginning had been made!

How were the supplies to be arranged? A quick trip to what was then called Bombay’s Crawford Market, the chemical hub, led to a meeting with Farukh Rangwala. As his name suggests, he was in the dye manufacturing business. We met in a small mezzanine office, the same size as Mrs. Kerenyi’s. When I walked in, Mr. Rangwala was negotiating an order on a landline call. Courtesy dictated I wait for him to finish. “This is Bombay, Mr. Kapur, I can listen to the call with one ear and you with the other!” – my first introduction to Mumbai’s business culture. Within a month, goods readied by Mr. Rangwala were shipped by air to Budapest, and payment was promptly received.

The first successful export transaction of my career done!

This marked the beginning of a long-term business relationship. Over the next three years, we exported container loads of dyes to Hungary. Mrs. Kerenyi , by then a friend, would telephone when her stocks ran out , Mr. Rangwala would manufacture the dye stuffs exported by us. The value of the goods rose to a few million dollars with every shipment and my friendship with both parties still endures.

Businessman by day and tourist at night!

What lessons did I learn on this order?
Every change carries within it the seeds of opportunity which needs nurturing. Don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t judge a customer by how they look. Somebody who understands the dignity of labor and can multi-task is an ambitious person and a good prospect with whom to enter into a serious commercial relationship.

When a customer or an important person you are meeting at his office offers tea or lunch jump at the offer – you are getting more time to meet him and discuss things outside of work to build a relationship which is most important! You may not make a friend a customer but always make a customer a friend.

Induce honesty among your vendors by offering them a profit relationship that includes fair price and repeat business. Always better to have business coming out of a tap (repeat) than to dig new holes for business!

Many more business opportunities came my way post the first visit, but the taste of the first from the “lady with the broom” is a favorite!