Trials and Errors
I hope you have plenty of time...
The story of Reflex and my own career are completely intertwined - the title could just as well read "Lajos Énekes and his various businesses and endeavours".
The beginnings - 1966-1983
Ultimately, the roots of Reflex Translation Agency can be traced back to a childhood love of mine. As a kid I spent a few weeks each summer in my paternal grandparents’ house in Pősténypuszta, a tiny village near Szécsény in Nógrád County. One of the neighbouring families was often visited by Gabi, a pretty young girl from Vác, who I was very fond of. There was only one hitch: I was only 13 and she was 17. All the same, I always sought her company whenever I could. She responded to my "advances" with motherliness mingled with joyous understanding. Gabi attended a grammar school specialised in the French language. It was obvious to me that I could only be interested in the foreign language that she studied.
I started to attend my first language course at TIT (Tudományos Ismeretterjesztő Társulat – Society for the Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge) in Miskolc in Lajos Felici’s class, from whom I would not learn much but whose renaissance personality and fascinating travel stories – we are back in 1966! – enchanted me. Anyhow, my interest in the French language persisted so that when it came to deciding about my further studies, I chose Kilián György (presently Diósgyőri) Grammar School, which had a special curriculum in French. It proved to be a good choice: my grammar school years were wonderful. I fondly remember my classmates and the excellent teachers that I learned from.
The next step towards founding the translation agency was the result of an unlucky decision: after finishing the 2nd class, during the summer vacation I hit upon the idea to become a metallurgical engineer. My foster father, whom I loved as my true father all my life and still think of him as such, happened to be a metallurgical engineer himself.
It was a curious decision, as I had always been more interested in the humanities. My parents, however, were happy to seize the opportunity that their only child could stay with them after the G.C.E. as metallurgical engineers were (and still are) trained at Miskolc.
I got myself together a bit in Maths and Physics, and in 1972, with 11.5 points, I managed to just slip into the Metallurgical Faculty of the Technical University of Heavy Industry (the maximum was 20 points at the time – I couldn’t get myself together any more than that).
Still, the technological university had at least three advantages:
- I was forced to attend a rather wide scale of technical subjects from mineralogy to the various computer programming languages. When a couple of years later I translated the various technical and economic texts as a translator, the Hungarian equivalents of the special terms and expressions came back as good (or rather bad :-)) memories.
- I was trying to defend myself from the flood of technical information poured upon me by reading enormous amounts of literary works as well as improving my French knowledge. I was still at university when I took the intermediate level state language examination in French.
- The overall negative balance is improved by the fact that it was here that I met my wife, who also graduated as a metallurgical engineer three years after I did and with whom I have been living in a happy marriage with for 26 years.
In 1978 – after a repeated term – I received my degree in metallurgical engineering (I have never felt more liberated in my whole life).
For August I stayed within the walls of the university, participating in an intensive German language course. At the beginning of the course I didn’t know a single word in German and after a month I was able to converse in the language at a basic level with our guests from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) – it was a great feeling.
In autumn, I entered into employment at the Wire Works “December 4" of Miskolc as an apprentice engineer. I returned as an old acquaintance, as I had already worked there before, if only for a short time, as an engine operator and furnaceman for 6 months, waiting for my repeated term. In the end, I only spent a year in the then superb community of the wire works.
What happened was that a childhood friend told me that he had managed to travel to the GDR (German Democratic Republic) for a one-year study tour. He said it was a great opportunity to study the language and also praised the pay. I seized upon the idea and managed to find an inviting institute. In October 1979, I left for the metallurgical works called "8 Mai 1945" in Freital, a few kilometres from Dresden. For a while I worked as a founder, then I pottered about aimlessly in the sales department (Absatz) for a couple of months – as so many others did in that social regime, regardless of the country. I primarily killed time by studying German.
In spring 1980, after 7 months I had to terminate my one-year stay early because I was drafted into the army.
I obtained my German intermediate language exam during the four-month military training period.
Thanks to my university degree, I was made a sergeant when the training was over. Afterwards, I practically worked 8 hours per day at the headquarters of the Hungarian Air Defence Command in the Bocskai Barracks in Miskolc.
My first translations are connected to this organisation as I was regularly asked by a wing commander to translate articles about various American fighter planes, published in West German specialist magazines. This task was really to my liking for I have always been attracted to flying. That was when I first thought I should deal with translation.
I was towards the end of my 14-month military service when I received an offer from the Faculty of Metallurgy of the Technical University of Heavy Industry to work for them after leaving the army as a scientific associate. Although they referred to my two language exams as the reason for their offer, I was surprised that they thought of me. After some hesitation and influence from my family, which now included my young wife, I finally said yes and tried to convince myself that I would grow up to the task in the end (I would not).
In September 1981, I took up work at the University. I immediately registered at the university translation bureau of OMKDK (National Technical Library and Documentation Centre), later OMIKK, as a German and French translator, from where I started to receive increasingly regular work.
In January, I took part in a one-month intensive English course. Although I would not take a language examination, later on the English language gradually moved to the second position after my German, while I now rate my French knowledge as third. The reason for this is the almost total lack of opportunities to practice the French language.
After a few months’ translation I somehow learnt how much the translation bureau charged for one page – I received less than half of the amount – so I decided I should set up my own translation agency and keep the whole amount.
At the beginning of 1982, I founded Énekes Lajos Metallurgical Translation Services as a secondary occupation. Of course, it was incomparably more difficult than today (we hadn’t even heard of Gorbachev back in 1982). I tried to drum up business for myself at the metallurgical works operating in the neighbourhood, with some success: my income in the first year was 40,000 HUF at a time when my monthly salary as a scientific associate was around 3,500 HUF.
1983 - 1989
I had hardly been operating for a year when the first personal computer, IBM PC appeared. Hungarians travelling abroad with IBUSZ (the largest and, needless to say, state-owned travelling agency) or as tourists (every three Commodor VC 64 home computeryears) started to import small computers and other accessories, for example various Commodore models, and sold them to state-run companies through BÁV (the official commission store) as these firms were unable to purchase such products due to the lack of convertible currency. These computing devices were primarily brought in from German speaking regions, mainly Austria, with German documentation. The companies purchasing the devices had difficulties as no Hungarian translations existed. I managed to convince the Miskolc store of Fotoelektrik Industrial Cooperative to trade my translations for some commission (paid to the store manager). My first job was to translate the Commodore VC 20 home computer user’s manual from German. I knew a printer who worked for a large state-owned company and he arranged the printing for a great price (naturally, he pocketed it all). In the beginning, I didn’t dare to "order" more than 10 copies but the later translations were all printed in 50 copies. My wife and I arranged the 250-300 pages at home and then I had my "works" bound by a self-employed binder I knew, earning 3,500-5,000 HUF with each copy (please, compare the amount with my salary at the time). The money earned this way was all sunk in the construction of our house.
Motivated by these successes, my wife and I founded SZÁMFORD Computer Translation and Information GMK (the abbreviation for unlimited partnership) in late 1983, where I became a full-time member on 1 December after I handed in my notice at the university. I furnished my office, consisting of a desk and bookshelf, in a room in our house. I notified hundreds of companies about my previous translations. As a result, I received a lot of orders for ready materials but also for new translations. Some organisations became my regular customers.
A few months later in the spring of 1984 my then largest customer, Mátraaljai Szénbányák (coal mine) ordered the translation of nearly a thousand pages of computer technology texts. It was such a huge amount that I only could have completed it in several months, so I had no other choice but to involve outside translators. I placed a few advertisements in local Miskolc papers, which resulted in nearly 20 responses. Thinking back today, it is astonishing that nearly half of the applicants were excellent translators, some of whom we still work with. If only we could advertise with such efficiency today...
In early 1985, several major companies realised the business opportunities of publishing computer technology literature and one after the other they published the books we were also translating. Thus, our market disappeared nearly overnight. I decided to not limit our translation services to computer technology only, but rather to become a general translation agency. For this purpose, it seemed practical to rent an office in the centre of town. I found a small back apartment on the main street of Miskolc at 54 Széchenyi Street and its 10m2 room appeared perfect for a start. I changed the name of the company (after all, Reflex is easier to remember than Számford), had some trade signs made, and using a few pieces of furniture from home, I furnished the office.
It took several months before our turnover started to increase.
At that time private individuals often had different texts translated, mainly user’s instructions, letters of invitation (for journeys to Western countries), and gift-deeds. The gift-deeds were provided by foreign acquaintances, who signed them before a public notary. Travellers importing technical devices of serious value needed this document to prove that they had received the currency from a legal source. Naturally, 90% of the gift-deeds were forged, which everybody knew, but this was also part of the special Hungarian folklore in the late Kádár era.
In the meantime, some computer technology teachers from the university, including the one who (rightfully) plucked me from Algol programming and made me to repeat a term, contacted me saying that they had prepared a cutting pattern optimising programme for a Commodore 64 computer and asked me if I would help them sell it. In the end, we successfully sold the programme to about 15 companies with my cooperation.
I employed my first two colleagues, Judit Schiffer and Kriszti Hornyák, who would work with me for the following few years, taking turns at 4 hours each. It was a major change for me to not have to be at the office all the time.
I always found it important to continuously modernise our technical equipment. Thus, the Hermes typewriter, pictured in the header of the menu item "Translation", was replaced by a Robotron after a few years, which was such a huge change, like shifting to a motorcycle from a bicycle. Its written image was excellent and razor sharp, mistakes could be deleted by the push of a button thanks to its lift-off tape and its built-in memory was able to store about one page of text.
Yet my real dream was a computer, as I was actively translating at the time and I knew how much easier it would make my work, not to mention invoicing and managing various records. Equipped with the first "world passport", I and my little family travelled to Munich to buy our first computer (IBM PC 286 compatible, 256 kB RAM, 40 MB hard drive, monochrome monitor + Citizen matrix printer. (That was the first time my wife and 6-year-old daughter travelled to "the West"). A world passport was the popular name of the travel document introduced by the Grósz government in 1988, which was valid for all the countries in the world – for the first time after 40 years! The 3,000 D-Marks that we had bought on the black market – equal to around 200,000 HUF then and would be worth 2.2–2.4 million today – we had to hide in the fuel tank of the Skoda and an Austrian friend of mine was kind enough to provide me with a gift-deed.
In 1989 Reflex GMK became richer with an important person: it was then that twenty-year-old Erika Asztalos joined us. We wanted to get rid of her for a long time, she was so clumsy in the first year or two. Thanks to her kind and amiable personality – and luckily for Reflex – we had enough patience!
Erika later made considerable process and she gave evidence of her creativity and immense ability to struggle. At the end of the 1990s she was granted a share in the company and has been working as a managing director for a few years now. In addition to managing the Miskolc office, she is responsible for business development and customer relations.
In early 1989, two lawyer friends of mine proposed that we should launch a real-estate agency. As far as I can remember this activity was made possible for private individuals and companies in January 1989. Our idea was that they would perform the legal tasks and we would provide the office in the town centre (by that time we were using the entire apartment of around 36m2) and to deal with the clients. My wife had the inclination for this new line of business. She quit her full-time job at Lenin Metallurgical Works and she also became a member of the economic association at a full eight hours. Reflex was the first private real-estate agency in the entire region. My wife held her endurance for about 2 years, when she gave up during a bad patch and said she did not want to deal with private property any longer. She found it hard to bear that although we sometimes had people queuing in the yard, precious few people actually wanted to buy anything (and then we could hardly collect our commissions from them). It was a mistake, and I still often tell her this.
However, we did not give up the activity altogether, we just stopped dealing with private clients afterwards. We took up valuation, though, and later became involved in trading business properties. These two new activities, especially the valuation of real-estate, proved to be immeasurably useful to save the company during the times of democratic transformation. Preliminary privatisation necessitated the valuation of great numbers of properties and we regularly entered and often won the tenders of the State Property Agency and Treasury Property Directorate.
Today, our real-estate activities are limited to property valuation, which we only perform in the area of the Miskolc office.
1990 - 1997
Reflex GMK transformed into a kft (limited liability company) in 1990.
The contribution of state-run companies in our translation business continuously grew and soon became a determining factor in a year or two, which remained the case until the political transformations in 1990. At that time, our sales revenue was around 6 million HUF – the equivalent of about 60-70 million HUF today – with our main customers being TVK, Lenin Metallurgical Works, Ózd Metallurgical Works, and the Steel Plate Factory in Borsodnádasd.
Then, we experienced a rather difficult period as all the above-mentioned major companies, which used to make up 60% of our turnover, practically ceased to exist, with the one exception of TVK. Our sales revenue from translations decreased by more than 50% and only started to rise again in 1992. Apart from those two years, our development has been continuous throughout.
Although there were some years when we realised attractive profits with the real-estate business, the sales revenue generated by this activity never reached 50% of the total turnover even during the tough times of the translation agency and stabilised around 5-10% after the translation activity strengthened again. Thus, we can say that translation has always been the determining activity of Reflex Kft.
In autumn 1990, we opened an office in Siófok, which I managed for about a year. My initial idea was to deal with real-estate around Balaton Lake and to perform some translation in addition. In reality, I received so many translation orders in a few weeks’ time that I could hardly cope with them and I had absolutely no time for real-estate. At the time, I found it natural that I had to do all these translations.
Finally, to my wife’s request, I returned back to Miskolc after a year although I would have preferred if the family had moved to Siófok. After all, women generally find it harder to move on.
I entrusted the management of the Siófok office to a talented local lady, who was so talented that she set up her own office with the same activity within 10 months.
However, a profitable side branch of this, otherwise failed attempt, lived on for the next few years; it was our translation agency operating at the Siófok Police Station that was open from June to September each summer until 1998. This translation agency performed the German translation of police records for German tourists who reported various criminal cases (breaking and entering of cars, car thefts, burglaries, etc.) as complainants. The German tourists could thereby return home and go to their insurance companies with the German translation in hand. There was quite a significant demand for the activity that I did myself.
Even in my childhood, I was interested in flying airplanes, which used to be the privilege of very few in the previous political regime. Later on, I made a vow to myself that I would learn to fly a private airplane if one day it became as simple as obtaining a pilot’s licence just as it was to learn to drive a car. In autumn 1991, I completed the 30-hour course for flying with the small airplane you can see in this photo in January 1992, I received my pilot’s certificate. Afterwards, until 1999 I flew around 100 hours in different types of airplanes. Today, it doesn’t attract me so much as it did earlier but I still look up in the sky if I hear the buzzing of an airplane.
This period of my life largely revolved around flying so it is little wonder that I tried to make money from this, too, reasoning that if I succeeded, I could pursue my hobby as my profession.
With an American partner, I started to sell American used light aircraft in Hungary. I exclusively worked on this project for almost nine months: I advertised in HVG (national economic weekly) and other newspapers, I prepared and had print an aircraft purchasing guide (brochure) and frequently travelled to Budapest to meet "serious" customers. I spent around 800,000 HUF. In addition, I gave several interviews monthly – journalists loved the idea.
In the end, I was tremendously lucky as I managed to sell the plane to a company in Eger; they intended to use it for pleasure flights near Eger. At least our expenses were met in this way (and the work was for pleasure :-)). (Typically, the company went bankrupt a few months later, just like so many other businesses at the time that sky-rocketed at first and then plummeted just as fast.)
The price of the plane included the journey to and the stay in the US, and the cost of flying the chosen used plane to Hungary. That was the first time I visited America and saw San Francisco and it was during this journey that I first met my American partner. The customer chosed the plane in the above photo. The picture was taken at the airfield in Maklár in February 1993; Jeff Weesner, the young man shown in the photo, flew the four-seated Cessna 172 over the ocean. (He was lucky: as he had constant tail-wind, he managed to complete the distance in 13 hours instead of the usual 16-17 hours.)
As a gambler of the sober kind, when he won back his money, I reluctantly gave up my activities as a plane broker after a few months. Afterwards, I virtually had withdrawal symptoms....
The following, and to this day the most significant milestone in the life of Reflex, was the opening the Budapest branch office in 1997. Despite the fact that the turnover of the Miskolc office grew steadily year by year, we regularly had weak periods. During these intervals it always felt as if the customers had agreed to boycott Reflex. Then, a few weeks later everything returned back to normal. Anyhow, it is rather annoying as you never knew how long it would last. (This cyclic nature of the business continued until very recently and our turnover has seemed more balanced only for the past one and a half – two years.)
I often wondered what the solution could be and finally it boiled down to two alternatives: we should either start doing something different in Miskolc or do the same thing elsewhere. As I had no other usable idea at the time, we decided to open a new branch office in Budapest – I already had a lot of experience in commuting, anyway. We bought an apartment in a back-yard on the first floor of a nice old building at 13 Andrássy Avenue and I opened the Budapest office in January 1997. I advertised the manager’s position, which resulted in about 20-25 applications. Two candidates remained after the interviews; at first I chose the wrong one. It was a young woman of Hungarian nationality who had grown up in America and had recently returned home. I thought the company could do well with a colleague who spoke (American) English as her mother tongue and I didn’t expect that she would be totally unusable even for translations. As if she had come from a different planet ...
She spent 2 days with us.
I was a bit excited when I phoned Anikó Berta whether she had found a job in the meantime. Luckily she hadn’t. Her first question was if I had chosen somebody else first. Ashamed, I admitted I had and tried to find excuses :-).
Anikó has been another of the company’ determining personalities for 10 years. I thanked her for this in February of this year.
Her computer speed and memory, combined with her overwhelming work intensity and German precision still make me astonished. I feel a bit like the bad student as he marvels at the Maths solution of the star student (I know this feeling as I had plenty of opportunities to experience it – otherwise, see "The Good Student Tested" by Frigyes Karinthy).
When we opened the Budapest office, I had to decide about the relationship between the two branches. A competitive structure seemed the most practical, which means that both offices have their own "hunting-grounds" and financial accounting. Leaders of the branch offices manage the work of their respective offices with maximal independence, more or less like their own businesses (with an appropriate share in profits). As a consequence, there is some healthy rivalry between the offices. Until 2006, the sales revenue of the Miskolc office had always been higher than that of the Budapest branch. Last year, Budapest managed to take the lead for the first time. This year, though, Miskolc seems to be stronger again, or so it seems so far.
1998 - 2007
The next few years were mainly about strengthening the Budapest office, which required serious effort from my side. Therefore, I moved my "headquarters" to Budapest. To the present day, I generally arrive on Monday afternoon and leave back for Miskolc late Thursday evening. I sleep in my study, so I can make really good use of the time spent here. Also, I only have to face the traffic problems of the capital to a bearable extent.
The clientele of the translation agency grew well in a year or two; besides, we had realised significant sales revenues from the real-estate business for a long time. We dealt with valuation and trading large value industrial/commercial properties. Some outside colleagues performed the expert services, while I functioned as the real estate broker.
Complementing and balancing each other, the translation and real-estate businesses made the Budapest office profitable within a year or so, which was not so very difficult, as the expenses were by far not as high as they are today.
As for the profession of commercial real-estate brokering, it needs a lot of persistence and you need to be able to handle failure well in order to pursue it. Due to the narrow portfolio and value of transactions, which occasionally reach hundreds of millions or even a few billion HUF, it is rarely possible to sell something. Then, of course, it feels like heaven. After some time, especially if you have another alternative, you get bored of working on a handful of properties for years before realising anything.
In my case, however, this was not the last drop in the glass but the fact that in the last few years my offers frequently appeared elsewhere: my clients often told me that they had already seen the property that I was selling with this or that other broker. So I had to realise that the energy and money invested in the real-estate business could be utilised much more effectively in our translation activities.
In 2002, we moved to our new premises in Budapest, on the second floor of a newly built residential block at 8 Szinyei Merse Street, near Kodály Circus. We bought a 76m2 apartment before it was constructed, so we had the opportunity to modify the plans according to our purposes. When we chose the place, the reception service, underground garage, and close vicinity – 5 minutes’ drive – to the M3 motorway (Budapest-Miskolc) were all important factors.
At present, five of us work in this office in excellent working conditions.
In 2004, the Miskolc headquarters of the company received its new office at the same standards as the Budapest premises, less than 100 meters from the old site in an apartment block built on 35 Széchenyi Street.
In January 2006, we opened our branch office in Győr. Before launching the new agency, we considered two options: one alternative was the Industrial Park in Győr, where a total of 65 companies were already operating.
The other option was the downtown area, where the large pedestrian traffic makes in possible to quickly increase the turnover but where the customers that are attracted in this way cannot be expected to generate such average sales revenue as companies in the industrial park.
We opted for the first alternative and on 1 January our Győr office started operating in the services building of the industrial park.
However, the sales figures did not justify the decision, which is why we terminated our rental agreement after a year and this March we purchased four offices of 20m2 each in the centre of town in an office building on 28-32 Arany János Street, above Raiffeisen Bank and in the same building as the local branch of the National Translation Bureau.
Two offices have been already refurbished, the other ones are presently under complete renovation.
Our office in Győr is still operating at a loss. I expect it will be able to generate its expenses by the last quarter of the year.