Róbert Szórádi, Chief Executive Officer
Almost forty years ago, in 1983, the UNITEF success story began, with a wide range of tasks from geodesy to motorways and railways. The company’s design activities cover the whole country, and it has also worked abroad and has been ranked among the top five Hungarian design companies for decades.
The CEO, Róbert Szórádi, said he was working for the state-owned company the year it was founded, when his father was sent into retirement at the age of 62. As his father wanted to remain active, he founded a small cooperative (in the absence of the Companies Act, this provided the legal framework for private enterprise in the previous regime) where Róbert Szórádi also had a second job.
They started out with small projects, mostly for other cooper- atives, designing barns and stables for farmers’ cooperatives and access roads for a municipalities. The boom came with the political changes in 1989-1990. The small cooperative first became a limited liability company, then a private company limited by shares, and the first big professional challenge arrived: the preparation of a preliminary design for a section of the M3 motorway.
“This preliminary design was our first HUF 1 million. When we were awarded the project, I felt that we had taken off, even though many people around me didn’t believe in it. We hired some fresh graduates, we got started and we succeeded. This was a serious reference, which finally gave us the necessary driving force”, recalled Róbert Szórádi.
According to the CEO, they were initially able to win orders because they could operate more cheaply and, more impor- tantly, more efficiently than public companies, where the work ethic was completely different. Workers there would do their day job, then rush to second jobs, work on their private projects on the clock, etc., whereas at UNITEF there was no slacking; everyone worked hard to succeed and were provided with all the tools they needed to design. Although the environment has changed significantly since then, and the competition is no longer from sluggish state-owned companies, the compa- ny continues to compete through efficiency.
This is necessary because, according to the CEO, there is plenty of competition in the Hungarian market and competition is fierce. Although foreign design studios appear relatively rarely, as this is an area that offers them low profit margins compared to the high profitability of construction.
UNITEF also undertakes design projects beyond the borders of Hungary, for example a bypass near Cluj-Napoca and bridges for expressways in Slovakia. Even so, income from abroad is not significant, only 1-2%, with the majority coming from projects implemented in Hungary.
“Every country has its own specific public administration, which you need to know well. But as such, it may not be worth starting to work abroad. In Germany, for example, they would only give us second-rate editing projects because we’re cheaper than the people there”, the CEO pointed out. They do not enter every tender in Hungary that fits their profile either, because there are dangers in over-commitment, and if the design is not ready by the deadline, it destroys the image, credibility and reliability of the company. The CEO prefers a slower but organic development, moving forward step by step, as opposed to quick jumps.
The company has been using green solutions since before it was a buzzword like it is today. In 2008, they were the first in Hungary to install truly efficient heat pumps in their offices. Solar panels were also installed on the roof, but the CEO believes that renewable energy alone cannot meet the growing energy needs of mankind, and nuclear energy is needed.
UNITEF has no reason to complain. 2017, 2018, and 2019 brought strong growth, with sales revenue increasing from HUF 1.8 billion to HUF 3.4 billion in three years. However, Szórá- di added that the company was hit very hard by the economic crisis of 2008, and the only way to get through it was to tighten their belts, so at least they did not have to cut staff.
The company’s momentum was not interrupted by the pandemic either. The switch to home office went smoothly, and the construction industry was not hit hard by the lockdowns. However, the work was made more difficult by the lack of face-to-face meetings, discussions and consultations, as designing is a team effort, and it was difficult to meet deadlines.
Of course, the company is not only resistant to crises, it has also designed the sewerage of twenty-two municipalities, which the client did not pay for.
“We had to pay the invoices of our subcontractors without receiving a single forint from this project. We’re prepared for similar situations; if someone isn't able to build up a reserve, then they’re forced to make disadvantageous compromises.
We need to have enough reserves to cover our operating costs for at least six months without any sales revenue”, said the CEO, who believes that the key to success is not to take the money home straight away, but to leave it in the company. Among the difficulties the manager mentioned was the need to expand the team, saying that it is not easy to find dedicated engineers. A significant proportion of professionals are being absorbed by other areas of the construction industry, where they can advance faster, and hiring a recent university graduate is a three-year investment that may or may not work out. But UNITEF does not have a high employee turnover rate; many people have been working here for twenty to thirty years.
It is impossible to make a long-term business plan in this profession, Szórádi admits, because orders cannot be predicted. But he hopes his company will still be in the top 5 in five years’ time. But “the number one position is never the goal”, added the CEO, who has not yet decided on a successor and has no plans to hand over the reins in the near future. However, it is already clear that he will not find the right person for the job within the family, but rather within the company.