dr. Anikó Száraz Deputy Chief Executive officer, dr. Imre Bándi co-owner, Chief Executive Officer
The history of Caola dates back almost two hundred years, to the Reform Era. In 1831, a master soapmaker from Pest, József Hutter, founded a factory on the old Váci út. This became the legal predecessor of the well-known company and the foundation of the Hungarian cosmetics industry. As time went on, the range expanded, and by the 1930s they had conquered the markets of the countries in the region. During the socialist era, this became a chemical mammoth that grew to become the largest in Central and Eastern Europe. After the political changes in 1989-1990, however, Caola quickly lost its market-leading position, unable to compete with Western multinationals. In addition, the owners neglected brand building in the 2000s, so while well-known brands such as Baba shower gel were acquired by competitors, most of the remaining products are now known and used only by the older generation. One of Hungary's most historic companies, which could not be destroyed by two world wars, was quietly marching towards bankruptcy, and would have certainly been liquidated if it had not been bought out at the last minute by Dr Imre Bándi and his fellow investors.
“We bought the company in April 2020, when it was practically months away from complete insolvency. They had hundreds of millions of forints in overdue debts, and even if they had received a large order, they wouldn’t have been able to raise the money needed to fulfill it”, recalled Imre Bándi, who decided to buy the company in order to save this company, which can also be called a Hungaricum, from destruction, which he sees as a kind of social responsibility.
For the new CEO, the reorganisation of the company is his home turf, having previously dealt with the reorganisation of state-owned companies. He initially restructured companies of the Ministry of National Development and later ones in the health sector, bringing a wealth of experience to Caola.
“We started negotiating the acquisition of the company in September 2019 and we reached our goal last spring. We were just about to start reorganising when the pandemic hit. Disinfectant suddenly became a scarce commodity. We were going through a difficult time, having to save what we could, pay the bills we had to pay and start reorganising, all at the same time, as we were busy producing disinfectant on all our production lines. At the time, we felt that we’d bitten off more than we could chew”, recalled Imre Bándi.
Eventually, they rose to the challenge and even created a Medical product group in response to the pandemic. They have donated a significant amount of their Caosept disinfectant to several organisations, including the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid Foundation, and Caola Zrt. became the hygiene supplier of the Groupama Arena in the 2020/2021 season, so the Green Eagles also provided Caosept-containing contact-free dispensing stands for last year’s Champions League matches.
“We have now managed to stabilise the situation. MGV Zrt. provides us with a working capital loan, so our operations, all project development and, last but not least, production can be financed. In addition, the pandemic has made it necessary for the government to support Hungarian companies that are able to produce large quantities of disinfectants in emergency situations. Using government support, we have started to build a new factory in Martonvásár, which will be equipped with state-of-the-art Swiss equipment”, the director said.
But they are not stopping at a new production unit: in August, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipality of Miercurea Ciuc and Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania to build a new production hall in the Transylvanian city. The greenfield project will cover an area of around 4,000 square metres, with the necessary warehousing space of 2-3,000 square metres. “Thanks to a modular structure similar to that in Martonvásár, the plant can be further expanded if more capacity is needed”, said Imre Bándi, whose goal is to restore Caola to its former glory in the next ten years and to make it a dominant player in the region again, with a good product portfolio and renowned brands.
They aim to achieve this primarily through high quality products, using new equipment and quality raw materials. He cited the example of many manufacturers who, during the period of high dumping, removed from the disinfectant the ingredients that ensure a consistency that is gentle on the hands; this did not occur in the case of Caosept, so it does not dry the skin. They are also trying to raise their cosmetic products to the premium level and come up with original ideas, such as the joint innovation by Szentkirályi Magyarország, Vízangyal Kft. and Caola; the launch of beauty products made from mineral water. The range includes shower gels, face sprays, body lotions, hand creams and liquid soaps.
The company is not currently facing a shortage of staff, despite the fact that Imre Bándi believes it is important for those who work for Caola to have a little sense of ownership of this company with a long history, to feel the weight of the company’s history, which is carrying on a tradition. The management team has been assembled, largely from chemical industry professionals, and the team is stable at this level. There is some employee turnover among manual workers, but there are also people who have worked here for ten or even fifty years. “At the moment, the company has forty employees, but with the planned expansion and the opening of the factory in Miercurea Ciuc, the acquisition of companies and brands with similar profiles may be considered, so we will need many more people soon”, added the CEO, who is working hard for success, but he believes that a little luck is also needed. If this is not there then all the work is wasted; it can’t be put to good use.