#14: The powers behind Meijer&Co. Consultancy: László Tóth-Deák

Mirjam Donáth
15 January 2024

As part of introducing the people behind Meijer&Co., meet László Tóth-Deák, Business Development Partner for the sustainability recruitment firm.

“Sustainability and environmental care are for rich countries.”
László might be so far that single outstanding “human resource-win” for Meijer & Co that didn’t involve any high-end networking: the 42-year-old organisational leader, or as he refers to himself “manager”, simply applied to the sustainability firm’s job announcement on LinkedIn. He was pleasantly “surprised by” the line of business Meijer & Co wanted to develop, and knew he must be part of it.

László’s expertise? The Balkans. He calls them “the funny countries” where rules are not quite the same as in the rest of Europe. Born and raised in Transylvania to a Hungarian family, László knows the region and its people of various cultures inside out. With the help of his fluent English, German, Hungarian and Romanian, he has the ability to be the diplomat of the “chain of wooded mountains” (the meaning of the word “balkan”) building bridges between west and east.

The Balkan countries have their distinctive mindset and a history that was formed by the Turkish Empire under Ottoman rule, László says, which had a deep influence in the way people think, how their administration (and even corruption) works. “Here we have a, let’s call it ‘high flexibility business’: agreements, contracts are handled quite flexibly… you can never be sure if the agreement you made will be respected, and sometimes you have to fight to get your pay,” he explains. “The only sure thing is that nothing is sure.”
László speaks in a deep and solemn voice. Among his daily challenges is the hyper-sensitive navigation among different people with very different cultures and religions, who oftentimes are in conflicts that have deep historical roots. “Turks and Greeks do business with each other but are not keen on each other, I learned,” László says, “also the Serbs and the Croats. I have to be very careful when I communicate with one party about the other.”

Leading his high school’s Boy Scout team was the first position in which László felt the weight of responsibility for everything from food supply to the safety of others. During the summers of his youth he worked in the US as a high-altitude construction worker and right after the first summer, he was named as a sub-team leader responsible for smaller building projects. “From a very young age I was put into situations to lead others, make strategic decisions, and till today this is what I do.”

When Romania joined the European Union in 2007, various environmental requirements arrived upon the country. Back then Romania’s municipal waste was (in the best case) collected in trucks, brought somewhere outside of the city and dumped. László had the good fortune to see things first “from above” being the right hand of the European Integrations State Secretary preparing the legal framework for wind and solar projects. He soon realised, however, that “the world of politics in suits”, might not be the most fitting spot for him, and joined the first, and soon market-leading private company to build EU landfills in Romania servicing around 60.000 people regarding waste management and snow removal.
“We started from zero,” László recalls, “and when I left the company we had a fully operational, non-polluting landfill, waste sorting and recyclable collection on the top level. We finally had the system that had already been running in more advanced countries. I learned a lot by doing, from excellent colleagues.”

Having been responsible for recycling and raw material trading of paper for multinational companies for decades, László has built strong connections with colleagues in Serbia, Bulgaria and Croatia. Today, he owns his own business involved in headhunting, recruiting, business consulting, and training. He was named as “representative of the Balkans region” by one of his clients, the market leader Vipa Lausanne S.A., a Swiss merchandiser of recyclable materials and recycling services. His responsibilities include doing business with the above-mentioned countries plus Romania and Ukraine.

For the bigger part of László's life there was no climate discussion in Romania. He heard about the concept first from his grandfather. In the small village, Csíkszentgyörgy, where László spent his childhood, there had been massive deforestation, cutting down huge surfaces of wood. A few years later, people started noticing the lack of rain. “Everybody was complaining about not having water in the river and that the crops were doing bad,” László says, “and my grandfather, who was 70, told me that the lack of woods had such an effect on the climate. Later I realised that he was talking about a micro-climate change.”
Inspired, László studied environmental engineering specialised in soil and decontamination at his university in Temesvár (Timișoara), and wrote his thesis on the drainage system of his hometown destroying the valley and its river when the swamp region was changed to agricultural land. Today, he teaches about this still occurring phenomenon to his students at Edutus, a Hungarian university as a Professor of Environmental Economics, and of Leadership and Organisations.

When László says that sustainability and environmental care are for rich countries, he means that having environmental frames set up the way they are in Western Europe, requires money, money that the bigger part of the Balkans cannot afford. He is hopeful when talking about Bulgaria and Croatia, countries, he thinks, that have evolved quickly. Romania is slowed down by political debates on the subject and can only call itself sustainable because of the lack of the coal industry.

László lives in Szekelyudvarhely, a small town in Transylvania not far away from his hometown. Together with his wife they spend lots of time in the local markets and avoid big retail chains. “All our food comes from local producers,” László says about their sustainability habits. “I think this is one of the most important things that we can do.”
“When I see the guys in Budapest e-biking around, I think, if you wanted to do the same on the streets of Bucharest, you’d have to have very good insurance and a good relationship with God.” Romania doesn’t have the infrastructure for biking, making this popular sustainable practice of Western Europe, extremely dangerous. “Even if you made it to the meeting,” adds László, “in no case you’d be considered a serious business partner arriving on a bike.”

As Meijer & Co’s Business Development Partner, László has “lots of conversations” with companies about turning their attention towards the Budapest-based sustainability recruitment firm, and building their ESG standards out even before being forced to do that. Yet companies have just been starting to wake up to discuss sustainability topics.

“In Romania, Meijer & Co is outside of the box. Everybody still looks at me weirdly when I tell them that we specialize in the sustainability recruitment field, and few people understand what we want to do, László says, and does something he had not done during this interview before: he smiles. “Never in my life have I had to do so much explaining to companies about what we want to do.”
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