Jan Glas’ pilgrimage on the Eastern European exploration track

Back in 1997, when five – star hotels were rarities in Bucharest, when there were no parking problems and a place called Minerva was considered the top hotel in the Romanian capital city, Jan Glas, now Managing Partner at TPA Horwath Romania, moved to Bucharest.

At the end of 1996, the opposition had won the elections and Emil Constantinescu was sworn in as President, and to many it was the beginning of a new era for Romania. A wave of enthusiasts, opportunists, investors, people with entrepreneurial spirit settled in as doors were opening. Jan Glas came in Romania in 1997 to work for a consulting company that tried to attract foreign investors into the country. “I always had this drive to go east. When the wall in Berlin fell, I was in Poland, visiting AIESEC friends.”

Fast forward 17 years, when Jan Glas sips from a cup of coffee at a small coffee place in Piata Victoriei, still in Bucharest. He is in his forties, mildly extrovert and witty in his nostalgia for a Romania that somehow doesn’t exist anymore. Even though he wears glasses, an elegant suit, and even if tape recorder stands very close to his coffee and croissant, formality doesn’t get in the way. You can feel he is actually there in every story he tells. Normally he cycles to work every day, but today the rain stood in his way. It is raining as relentlessly as if he were in his home city, Bruges. His Belgian home city looks as compact and nice as a chocolate box, or as Jan puts it, like an outdoors museum, which hasn’t probably changed in the last five hundred years.

Romania, though, has changed. Dramatically and only in a few years, Jan says. “It was February 1997. I was still working for Deloitte, which had won a tender to audit some funds given by the Flemish regional government to projects in Eastern Europe and I was asked to do the audit for the Romanian selected projects. I received a letter signed by a prefect to let me drive safely through. If a police had stopped me, I would only have had to show them the letter.” In Draganesti, in Olt county, Jan had to check if the technical material sent to a school had been delivered and was being properly used. “I was invited by the head of the school to his home where he offered me food; it was the old style.”

But those were the early days. After working one and a half year for a small consulting firm, Jan decided to start his own accounting company and assist foreign companies coming to Romania. “At the end of 1998 I set up my own business from scratch. The day we opened the office I had only one employee called Dan. The firm was between the Big Four, the big boys in accountancy and local company experts, let’s call it contabil Popescu. I had six years of Deloitte background, three, four potential clients out there and I had learned Romanian.”

Jan Glas_079

Jan Glas_079Back in the room they had rented as an office, which “had the nicest address one could have, 2 Calea Victoriei, in this fantastic building on the Dambovita, on the left, with a red dot, full of pensionari (e.n pensioners), which always smelled like sarmale or friptura”, Jan Glas and his colleague Dan were sitting with one computer and one fax, talking about how they were going to do it. Then came their first client, which brought the second one and like in the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, the beans ended up growing into a EUR 4 million business, with 85 employees. For Jan Glas, it was his Romanian fairy tale coming true in the country’s early capitalist period. The fact that he was Belgian did help, Jan says. “I do realize that all our clients were foreign clients. In our business as consultants, you win clients through personal contact, not by doing big marketing campaigns.”

When Jan’s firm became part of TPA Horwath, an international Austrian group, in 2007, the company lost its original name, Quintus. However, the name was not lost for good, as Jan Glas set up a foundation, called the Quintus Foundation, which organizes sports events including the wine marathon (Maratonul vinului), a cycling event taking place in Urlati, where this year about 600 people cycled through the vineyards. The same way Jan is attached to bikes, or marathons, or having breakfast outside, he has a special connection to this name. “I had a mentor, a partner in Deloitte. He had a dog, a Labrador called Quintus, who in the meanwhile passed away. When this happened, my friend told me, Quintus passed away but we were glad that his memory will continue thanks to an accounting company in Romania called Quintus.”

Just like Austrians are born with the skies under their feet, Belgians are born with bikes, says Jan jokingly. Sports are a big passion, but he is not as sporty as other expats are, he adds. Jan Glas ran his first New York Marathon in 1993, “when I was about 25, in my first midlife crisis”, then the second one in 2003 and a few years ago he cycled to Santiago de Compostela. It rained for about seven days of the eleven-day trip, and the city wasn’t that spectacular. “What was really interesting was the actual trip, meeting every day the pilgrims, passing through different cities, putting on wet clothes every morning and getting moving.”

His ambitions to run marathons or cycle to Santiago de Compostela are not different from the drive he had in his twenties to go east. For Jan, sports and business mean exploring. “The real thing is to walk to Santiago de Compostela, not to cycle, so we the cyclists were called ‘Peregrinos descafeinados’ (decaf pilgrims)”, says Jan Glas, while taking another sip of his coffee, thousands of miles away from Bruges, Santiago de Compostela or the Bucharest he discovered in the late 90s.

By Diana Mesesan, Features Writer, [email protected]

(photo: courtesy of Jan Glas)