Adding Value, Boosting Confidence - AmCham Hungary Voice Magazin

  • 11 Apr 2013 9:00 AM
Adding Value, Boosting Confidence - AmCham Hungary Voice Magazin
AmCham’s new president, William Benkő, was elected unopposed at the chamber’s annual assembly on December 6, but says that wont alter the way he approaches his latest role. “Would I have liked to have won in an open election contest? Yes; but it is what it is, I can’t worry about that, and it won’t change my plans or ideas: there are things that we need to do in this country, and my focus is on those.”

Benkő, 53, says the biggest challenge is the same one faced by his predecessor, István Havas: making sure AmCham can raise competitiveness related issues with decision-makers and that its membership is represented well. “We measure our significance or effectiveness in how well our voice is heard. Not a lot of voices will be listened too – that is a fact of government, and it’s just the same in America – and we want to make sure we are one of them.”

He thinks that is happening, and credits Havas and the chamber office with the fact that AmCham became the first organization to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with the government. “That is one of the big successes of István’s tenure: there are always things you want to improve, but first of all you have to be part of the process. Once in, you can work on refining the process. That agreement transcends his presidency, and we will work to build on that.” And that means an intelligent – rather than confrontational – engagement with stakeholders. “We want to be known as an organization that creates and offers useful and workable solutions.”

He also wants to see more businesses engaging with and joining the chamber. Having headed the Membership Committee for two years, he believes a growth in numbers is still possible, even in the current economic environment. “I’d like to see a 10% growth in membership over this year and next. That’s only 40 companies, or three a month. If myself and the board and the office staff, who are already doing a brilliant job, each bring in two members a month, we are practically there, so I think the numbers are achievable.”

Another priority area for Benkő is to create more engagement with young people, not least because if they are going to be joining the chamber 10 years down the line, when they are in their 30s, they should be getting exposed to, and enthusiastic about, AmCham now. “I’d like us to work more with youth, and I think it is an inevitable development of our focus on entrepreneurism and innovation.” Younger people tend to have more open minds, too, and Benkő says he sees real benefits in promoting that mindset in and through AmCham.

He is almost universally known as Willy, but the Benkő surname speaks of Hungarian ancestry. In fact, his parents left Hungary in 1956, and his was a fairly typical upbringing for the children of 56ers born and raised in the United States. “I grew up speaking Hungarian at home, but it never really crossed my consciousness whether I was American, Hungarian or American-Hungarian. People here would ask me what an American Christmas was like, and I’d say I don’t know, because we always had a Hungarian Christmas in America. But the guys I went to school with, and the people I hung out with, were all Americans. I guess if you forced me, I would say that my mentality is American, and certainly my optimism.”

He was living in Dallas, Texas in 1989 when, as he puts it, “the Wall started jiggling”. He had a fascination for the country, fired by trips back to Hungary with his family every three or four years; it seemed like the perfect time to go. “I decided that this was the opportunity if I ever wanted to test myself, to see what I could make of myself and what value I could add in Hungary.”

That could not come without some effort, of course, not least in improving his language skills. “When I came here 22 years ago, I was self confident in English, but not in Hungarian. Although I could speak the language, it had never been tried outside of a family environment, which is very forgiving of all your mistakes. But I didn’t want to operate in an English-only environment. I wanted to make sure I could attend, and give, Hungarian presentations.”

He somewhat overachieved on that front, to the extent that, well known as a public speaker, he also teaches public speaking skills to Hungarian prisoners, in Hungarian. “If you can boost their self confidence, you give them a better chance of being able to do something worthwhile with their lives.” It is just another chapter of Benkő’s volunteer activities, which he says he will continue doing even while AmCham President.

Published on with the permission of AmCham's Voice Magazin

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