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'Music is a gem of Hungarian culture’


'Music is a gem of Hungarian culture’

Interview with András Simor

Our series of interviews with the BFO Board of Trustees continues. This time, Júlia Váradi talked to András Simor, the chairman of the Board of Trustees.

I have seen you several times at Festival Orchestra concerts, which you regularly attend with your family. As far as I know, you have no particular connection with classical music, but whenever I see you, I feel that you are somewhere in the clouds when hearing the music. What are your feelings towards music and classical music in particular?

I’m not a music connoisseur; I’ve never played music. It had stayed out of my life, and even out of my whole family's life. Even my teacher was happy to throw me out of the choir because I was singing quite out of tune. But my dad had a very large record collection and it was relaxing for him to keep busy with his records. He worked a lot and, when he came home at night, he’d put on a record or two. At that time, black vinyl records were the only ones that existed; he had thousands of them. In the socialist era, there were great record companies in Eastern Europe and you could get the best recordings of the best artists at a low price, so he accumulated thousands of records.

Do you remember what your father used to listen to?

Yes, most often Beethoven, because he was his favorite. I remember very well, because at that time there were five of us living with my mother's parents in a seventy-four square meter flat where one couldn't isolate oneself. If music was being played, everyone had to listen to it.

Did it annoy you as a child?

At first I was probably not very happy, but I got used to it and eventually I got to like it.

My parents were both economists, but culture was very much a part of their lives. They had season pass to the Liszt Academy and the Opera, which was quite common in bourgeois families at the time. And of course they often took me with them.

I know you fell in love with sailing as a child, didn’t you?

My father used to participate in sailing competitions as a member of the Builders’ Sport Club in Balatonalmádi. I was sometimes taken out on the club's boat, but I was quite young then, and I was about six or seven when he was more or less banned from sailing. The reason was that sailing wasn’t for party members, it was a sport belonging to the former élite. So he stopped, but he didn't talk much about it later because he was a very private man; he never talked about his feelings.

And did you still have the desire to sail, because of the great experiences you had?

Well, I didn't know that at the time. But when my father died, I was standing at the funeral, sad of course, but without tears, and then one of his former sailing teammates walked up and as soon as I saw him, I started crying. As more and more sailing companions arrived, the sobs got worse and worse. At that time I thought that this thing, sailing, was connecting me to my dad, so I'd have to start again sometime. Twelve years later I managed to buy a second-hand sailboat, pass my test and since then it's been a really important part of my life. It makes everything so much easier.

But you didn’t become a professional sailor. What did you want to be?

Some children have precise goals for their future. I wasn’t that kind of kid. At the time of my graduation at the Rákóczi Gymnasium, I decided by a process of elimination that I didn't want to be a doctor, lawyer or technician, but I did well in math and history, so I applied to the University of Economics. Fortunately, I got in with high scores.

As I remember it, in the first half of the seventies, there were some very brave professors at the University of Economics with particularly good skills, who had a great influence on the economic policy of the time and who, together with their students, did very progressive things. Were you involved as well?

There were some really influential professors there, for example Tamás Sárközy and Iván Szelényi, but to be honest I was not so much taken by what I received there. I was mostly interested in things I didn't understand. That's how I got involved in international finance; I hadn't the faintest idea about it, and they didn't teach it well. None of the professors were really familiar with the concepts of foreign exchange rates, shares or bonds. They couldn’t know enough about that world, but I was getting more and more interested. I had always been one of those people, even as a child, who wanted to understand the workings of all things unknown. It's like a little boy who’s handed a flywheel car and fiddles with it until he can take it apart to understand what makes it go and how. So I started looking for the place where I could finally understand what I wanted. There was only one place in the whole country, the Hungarian National Bank, so I applied to it. Some of us who had graduated in international finance at the University of Economics were taken.

To what extent was working abroad a goal for you? At the time, many people in this profession decided to seek a place in the Western financial world.

I wasn’t one of them. I had a vision of my future specifically in the Hungarian National Bank, but when the opportunity to work for the MNB in London came along in 1979, I found my real professional challenge. There I learnt about monetary economics, had a great time, and made great friends. We were successful and we worked a lot. It was a wonderful six years. I got married in the meantime and my two older children were born, so it was like a dream.

Why did you come home in '85?

On the one hand, my time was up. On the other hand, some of my colleagues had started their own companies and I was invited to join, but if I had said yes then I wouldn’t have been able to come home, because this was long before the change of regime. Both my wife and I wanted to come home to our families back home. Moreover, my father had just died and I didn't want to leave my mother alone.

Coming home, what did you discover about the economic situation in Hungary?

I saw a crumbling, decadent, hopeless situation. The only way I could respond was to bury my head in the sand, do the gardening, raise my children and turn off the world. I’d developed a skill for this earlier, and it worked well then too, and of course I waited for some new opportunity to come along. Then, in ‘87-’88, the doors started to open and something started to move, but somehow in the Hungarian National Bank there wasn’t a real breakthrough. I longed to get back to something that I’d enjoyed doing so much in London. In February '89 I left the Hungarian National Bank. I was given a brokerage firm - an Austro-Hungarian securities trading firm - and I was finally in my place. I felt like a fish in the water again, and we felt that things were getting better and better. It was a euphoric period; even the Hungarian economic scene was not in an easy situation, in fact. But I was so confident in this country that I said to our Austrian counterpart that we would beat them in ten years. I had enormous optimism, almost until the end of the 1990s, because I saw that this country had so much potential that it would succeed. I never expected to be so disappointed.

Your appointment to head the Hungarian National Bank in 2007 was not unexpected. Was it obvious that you would take it?

The background to this was that I had taken over Deloitte, the audit and consultancy firm, in a very difficult situation which I managed to fix. In the meantime, I saw that the Hungarian economy wasn’t doing very well and that you can't really run a consultancy very well in those circumstances. So I started to look at how the Hungarian economy could be put on a different track. That's how I came to the attention of the decision-makers at the time, and they knew that I had spent many years at the National Bank. I felt like I couldn’t say no.


András Simor at the annual open-air concert at Heroes' Square on 18 June 2022

How successful did you feel at the helm of the Hungarian National Bank?

It was a terribly difficult period, because, shortly after we started the job, the global crisis hit in 2008. We were busy with this until 2010. Then came the change of government, after which it turned out that the new government ‘didn't need my services’, so from then on we had to fight for survival. It was a very tough six years.

How did you manage to maintain your serenity and your legendary inner harmony during this period?

Of course I didn’t give up. But, as I’m not a politician and I don't feel close to politicians, I had no desire whatsoever to be part of politics. I envisioned running the Hungarian National Bank as a professional task, which of course turned out to be a naive assumption on my part. It wasn’t possible to keep the Bank outside of politics but I thought I couldn’t quit, I couldn’t abandon my duties or my colleagues. I went through with it.

How did you deal with this difficult period?

By moving on. I realized that the options for me in Hungary were shutting down, so I started to apply for jobs abroad. I mase a successful application to the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), which is how I became one of the leaders of the EBRD.

Did you enjoy this work?

Not as much as before, because it was a state-funded bank and, after all these years, I realized that I really enjoyed the private sector. It's close to my habit, my culture, and my interests. But it was very exciting to be exposed to new countries that I didn't know, which I enjoyed. At first I was appointed for four years, but then I was persuaded to stay for another year, and even a sixth. But I didn't want to abuse my wife's patience, so we came home.

Can banking be given up? Won’t it leave a huge void?

Banking can be abandoned, but the bustle is still missing. No more constant flow of information, regular contact with people or exchange of views.

I don't think that the mandate that has existed for a few years, that of chairman of the BFO's Board of Trustees can fill this gap, but it can certainly be a source of other kinds of pleasure. When did you first meet Ivan Fischer and how did this job come about?

My love for music grew stronger and stronger. And I always thought music was a very important gem of Hungarian culture. It has the best chance of being recognized in the world, because it isn’t limited by language. Everyone understands music. I felt that if I could help it in any way then I’d be very happy. Some time ago, before 2010, my friends at the Liszt Academy asked me to become the chairman of the Academy’s economic council. Then my colleague Julia Király introduced me to Iván Fischer, who was looking for a chairman to head the Board of Trustees. I didn’t know him personally; I’d only seen him in the concert hall when he conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I was happy to take up the post, but only when my term of office at the Hungarian National Bank expired. But then came the six years in London, so I had to confront Ivan Fischer with this new situation. He thought it could be done. It's almost ten years ago now.

What is the most important thing for the chair of the Board of Trustees to do?

I’m not a very creative and innovative person...

Are you underestimating yourself?

No, I really do think so. I think rationally and logically; I can usually solve the problems I have to solve;, I can recognize situations well, and I can manage people well. But. in the absence of creativity, I have a tremendous appreciation for people who have the ability to think creatively and innovatively. I don't know a more creative person than Ivan Fischer. That impresses me incredibly. The other thing that has always interested me is how to make things that are not part of the economy work on the basis of market logic. And what I saw was that here is an orchestra that doesn't operate like a bureaucratic institution, but like an enterprise. The people who work there have to perform at their maximum every day. There is no guaranteed or rented space; everything depends on performance. I also liked the fact that they don’t live off the state: even though they receive a very substantial subsidy from the state, more than forty percent of their income is however private. This is almost unprecedented in Europe. I’m also impressed that Iván Fischer is not an artist who is interested in nothing but music – he’s interested in practically everything. I once had to give him a lecture on monetary policy, for example, but he is equally interested in economic policy, international politics, philosophy, technology, and much more. You can talk to him about everything. It is a great experience to meet someone like him. So the whole environment I was put into attracted me like a magnet. Of course, like all geniuses, he is not always easy to work with, but he is very rewarding. As far as the most important task of the Board of Trustees is concerned, it is, of course, to ensure that the orchestra can’t just survive, but also develop as it has done so far. And, lo and behold, it has once again made the list of the world's top ten orchestras. We expect that it might even be the first!