Comment: How to create a meritocracy in Romania

A few days ago at Klausen Burger I had the best draft beer you’ll find anywhere in Romania. It was crisp and delicious and freshly brewed. When we were finished, the waiter came by and asked how we liked the meal. After telling him that it was very tasty I added that at the very least we’d be back for the beer. “Most people don’t notice the quality,” he said, “you know how it is here, everyone drinks the same stuff.” And then he listed a bunch of the local beers that suit everybody just fine.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the local big-brand beers, they suit me just fine too, but they have a way of being very drinkable without being impressive. No real depth of flavor and not much to write home about, but they’re well marketed. Every corner shop sells about five of the big-brands and the larger stores add a bunch of import beers to the roster – Auchan’s got the best selection around – but still, I used to wonder why it is that there’s no real micro-brewery culture in Romania, one of the world’s top beer consuming countries, while micro-brewing in Canada is basically a national hobby. But the waiter at Klausen Burger reminded me why; ‘most people don’t notice the quality’. Ain’t that the truth.

This past weekend I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi (yup, that’s the full movie on YouTube). Jiro Ono owns a booth of a restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. It seats up to ten diners and reservations have to be made a month in advance. The Michelin guide has given it three stars. Even if I can’t afford the EUR 300 meals there, I like that the Michelin guide has demonstrated that they don’t judge a restaurant by its cover. It’s not owned by a celebrity chef, there isn’t a dress code, no snooty waiters, and no ‘view’ -literally. Even the ‘service’ is not much to speak of; it consists of being served by the chef, Jiro himself – and he’s not much of a talker. That means that the only real standard of measure is the quality of the food. Clearly, the Michelin inspectors didn’t take cost into account, but they did notice the quality.

Why do I think this is a good example? Because it’s hard to be precise about measuring quality, but almost everybody will have experienced the same meal taste ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It should be natural that we can transfer the knowledge of that experience to some of the other things we consume (or produce); clothes (not fashion), furniture, hardware, software, even literature and other forms of entertainment. Of course, as it is with food, there should be a benchmark for it all.

But there you have it, the benchmark for quality in Romania is extremely low. People are used to buying things that break easily, malfunction, or just plain don’t deliver on what they promise. After this oft-repeated life-lesson, the only thing that starts to matter is cost. If it’s going to break anyway, why pay more? The answer is because Romania is no longer part of a geopolitical reality where all things break equally. Quality has made its way here. We’re just slow to recognize it.

The problem isn’t that people don’t want to spend more on high quality products in favor of saving money, for example, but that the requirement for quality is mostly irrelevant in decision making. The problem is not that people buy iPhone clones over the real thing, or that they spend money on poorly made kitchen utensils. The problem is that this mentality has permeated the business environment and from an economic growth perspective the results can be disastrous. It’s pretty much the reason why we sell our raw resources to other countries and then buy them back as finished products at ten times the cost.

Imagine paying for an apartment in a building where the only concern the builder had was for the cost of the material, not efficiency of design, not the amenities, nor the capacity of the contractors to carry out the work. Simply put, there are lots of corners that can be cut when building something. Likewise when installing the pitch for the brand new National Arena and choosing to go with a contractor with a poor track record instead of hiring a decent firm right off the bat (see results here).

It’s no surprise that so many projects undertaken by the government fail miserably given that the official policy is to award contracts to the lowest bidder, never mind that this might imply inexperience, ineptitude, or inferior materials. The problems that crop up end up costing more in the long run, too. Ironically, it wasn’t a competitive bid that resulted in the disaster that is the A3 highway and Bechtel’s gross incompetence, but it’s an example of the lack of another type of quality; integrity. I remember a friend in Canada would sometimes say, “Well, that’s good enough for government work!” whenever we were hurrying to finish a job. That’s kinda what happened there.

What’s really bad about this ‘cheaper is better’ mentality (and the accompanying disregard for quality) is that the local people who produce the things we consume are constantly under pressure (or tempted) to cut corners. Why would Klausen Burger continue to make the best micro brew around if they figure that they can use a cheaper variety of hops and make more profit per unit? Why would anyone continue to make solid wood artisan furniture when nobody’s going to buy it because the Ikea compressed wood furniture is cheaper? Most people in other countries understand the benefit of cost/quality assessments, while here, even the government doesn’t get it.

At the end of the day, it’s great to have low-cost options, but we need to start giving the concept of quality some serious thought. Fair enough, the average household income in Romania doesn’t allow for the kind of spending required for artisan furniture -or even Ikea – but nothing’s stopping anyone from researching the the benefits of one product versus another and from choosing to spend more wisely and for the long-term. This would encourage local businesses to put more effort into their work (at service and at product level) in order to satisfy savvy local and external markets.

I know it’s a tough ask from personal experience. Although we’ve been approached by a number of Romanian companies, not a single conversation continued past the quote stage. It’s the same story with almost any other IT services company, nobody wants to do business locally when their skills are recognized and rewarded only on international markets. Recognition is key to creating a meritocracy. When it comes to playing in the big leagues, it’s definitely not about the price. No healthy company aspires to be recognized as providers of the cheapest service or product. It’s always about the promise of quality and exceeding expectations. The beauty of that is how it easily transcends business and how it’s applicable across all layers of society, because it’s the recognition of quality that creates a meritocracy.

By Matt Sampalean, Guest Writer

Matt was born in Romania and grew up in a world of ration cards and clandestine Radio Free Europe broadcasts. He emigrated with his parents to Toronto, Canada in 1991 where he spent twenty years before returning to Romania as co-founder of a technology startup. When he’s not working he blogs about his experiences as a person with ‘bipolar nationality disorder’. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania

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