dragosA king showing me around his castle, that is the impression I get from Dragos as he gives me a tour of his offices. His subjects lower their voices, talking on the phone or to each other. A tall man, in good shape, wearing a nice suit – and he knows it. It’s a nice castle though, located on the first and second floors of an office on the outskirts of Bucharest. Over 100 people work here, for Dragos’ 20 companies, all of them active in Romania’s tourist and transport industry. He is a powerful man, who from time to time may even find himself discussing business and a range of projects with the country’s president or one of its ministers. ‘I fit in many of your categories,’ he says when I’m about to start the interview. An entrepreneur now, a doctor before, in Germany, a local celebrity because his entrepreneurial success secured him a role on the TV show Arena Leilor, the Romanian equivalent of Dragons’ Den. ‘And a double immigrant,’ he says. ‘I was an immigrant in Germany when I left Romania in 1982. When I returned in ’95 the country had been through a tremendous change. A communist state had turned into a capitalist country. Everything was different but the language. And even speaking Romanian was hard for me after using only German for ten years.’

‘Has Romania changed for the better?’

‘Coming from Germany, I saw a lot of things Romanians themselves did not see. The streets were dirty, business did not offer proper services. People really had lower standards than in Germany. I think that had to do with communism. Under that system, quality of service was not valued. Back then, the only thing Romanian business people thought about was getting money out of your pocket. They did not care about the goods or services they provided, or if you were a happy customer.’

And that is changing now?’

‘Yes it is, however slowly. The borders are open, and entrepreneurs have started adopting best practices from other countries. As an example: when I started my first bus company, every bus coach that was available got booked immediately. You can imagine that quality is not the immediate priority when you are making profits like that. Eventually people started to realize that without effort nothing happened. Then they understood that they had to offer better services. But we are talking about a different mentality here, and it takes time to change a mentality. For me it is very frustrating. I have ideas and best practices I want to implement in my own company. When I do so, my own employees tell me, “Dragos, that’s not possible, this is Romania, not Germany”. Getting people to change takes time. In my company, it takes five years for such a mentality change. In the country as a whole, it is 15 years. This is not easy for someone like me. I have to fight every day.’

‘You said you are bridge, bringing the German ways here. But in what ways could Romania teach the rest of Europe?’

‘I think it is creativity. The only problem is: currently they use this creativity in negative ways. The best hackers are Romanians for example. Romanians are also great in finding and exploiting legal loopholes. But this creativity is also used positively. The singer Inna is very popular internationally. Romanian movies get good critiques in Cannes. I think the creative industry is the future of Romania. Together with tourism, agriculture and IT.’

‘What is the position of Romania in Europe?’

‘I think Romania has a really bad image in other European countries. I see that as an opportunity,’ he says. ‘You’re either a businessman or you’re not. The reality is luckily much better. Expectations are low so most tourists leave Romania with a good feeling. We really have the potential to be a great tourist destination.’ This is true: Bucharest is a really nice city, and though I haven’t seen all of it yet, I have heard that the Romanian countryside is beautiful too. ‘The only thing holding us back currently is the Romanian mentality of blaming everything on the government. People should take some leadership themselves.’

´Talking about this bad image: in Amsterdam we have a real problem with Romanian pickpockets. We even had to enlist the help of the Romanian police to combat them…’

Dragos interrupts: ‘These are gypsies, not Romanians. They are not a Romanian problem anymore but a European problem. We no longer have that many gypsies: you have them. I do not want to generalize or be racist. They are very good businessman, they saw an opportunity abroad and left. It is the same with gypsies from Bulgaria or Hungary.’

Time to bring up delicate subject number two: ‘For Youropeans, I interview a prostitute in every city I visit. Many of them turn out to be Romanian, why do you think that is? Is there human-trafficking involved?’

‘I don’t know much about that industry so I cannot say anything about criminal activity. I think it is the same as with the pickpockets: these girls see an opportunity to make much money. Working abroad they can ask much more than they would earn as a prostitute or otherwise in Romania.

During the interview, the term wild capitalism comes up a couple of times. I ask him what it means. ‘It is a combination of an entrepreneurial spirit combined with not taking the laws very seriously, while working a lot with state money. So there’s corruption involved. The majority of businessmen in this country don’t conduct their business this way – luckily things are changing more and more, especially after becoming an EU member in 2004.’

‘So you would say the EU has had a good influence?’

‘The EU provides a framework we cannot go outside. Many laws come from Brussels now, we cannot make all of our own laws and insert creative loopholes in them.’

And for you as a businessman, are things easier in the EU?’

‘After 1995 Romanians could freely travel with a visa, return ticket and travel insurance. Everything had to be in order 30 days before departure. For me that situation was better. I knew much earlier how many s coaches I needed at which time. Later it became worse: at the border, you had to show you had at least 500 euro with you to be able to sustain yourself abroad. We got a lot of competition from small firms that sold tickets with this proof of money that people needed. As a bigger company, we could not do that. It cost us a lot of passengers back in 2005, 2006. So now the borders are totally open, the market is really liberalized. If you offer value, you survive, otherwise you disappear. There are two big transport passenger companies in Romania now. We are one of those two.’

‘If the EU was a company and you where CEO: how would you lead that company, what would you change?’

The answer is one you might expect from a business owner everywhere: ‘More flexibility, less bureaucracy. The EU is really unnecessarily bureaucratic. Things such as a common vision for Europe, the Schengen zone, the Euro and solidarity funds are all beautiful things. But I am already waiting five years for the new travel package directive from the European Commission. They are still talking about it. That is really too much.’

Then the king says goodbye and asks orders one of his subjects to drive me to my next appointment. ‘And if there’s anything, if you need help with anything during your stay, let me know, I’ll help you.’ I’m sure he can and he will.