Florentin Banu, a former Romanian badminton champion, has built up a business group involved mainly in construction and in the production of plastic parts. His story is an extraordinary example of the sort of initiative that has helped get Timisoara to where it is today.
In 1990, Banu dropped out of university and left for Austria.
"The revolution took place at the end of December 1989. I remained here in Romania for another month, as I participated at a tournament in Bulgaria. Then I returned and immediately emigrated. By train. I got out of the train in Vienna's West station, and in front of the railway station I met my trainer, completely by accident: He literally picked me up off the street, so I didn't have to live in the Traiskirchen refugee camp – I had to sort all my papers in Traiskirchen but, thank God, I didn't have to live there."
In Vienna he worked as a badminton coach, roofer, pizza chef, and taxi driver. Looking back, Florentin Banu explains:
"I drove a taxi in Vienna for almost 3 years. I made all my business plans and calculations in the taxi. Whenever I was waiting for customers, I planned and dreamed … that something would come of it. And something came of it. It's all in motion. It's an awakening, a historic economic period of our country, everything is in movement now. We're really beginning to become a market economy."
But the road to personal success and to Romania's economic boom and EU accession was long.
Shortly after Banu returned to Romania in October 1994, he founded Joe IBC, a small company producing wafers. He started production inside a garage, but developed his small enterprise successfully, eventually employing over 300 workers. In the late 1990s, with a turnover of € 12 million, Joe controlled around 65 percent of the Romanian wafer market. In 2000, Banu sold the business to Nestle for several million dollars. The multi-national retained the brand name. "Joe" wafers can still be found in most Romanian supermarkets.
In 2001 Banu launched a supermarket chain, Artima, which would eventually include 14 stores in the western part of Romania. Business was difficult at first. After two years on the red, Banu, nearly broke, had to ask a friend of his to invest in Artima. As a result, his own share in the company fell to only 27% of Artima's value. He had miscalculated, Banu now admits. He had imagined that Artima could succeed with 5 supermarkets; in reality, he needed 10 stores just to break even. After the initial setbacks, however, business took off. In 2005, Banu sold Artima to the Polish PEF (Polish Enterprise Fund) for € 17 million. Two years later, the chain was bought by Carrefour, reportedly for € 55 million.
After selling the supermarket chain Florentin Banu entered into yet another business: real estate.
"I have two passions: badminton and business & management. If I would only be interested in making money, I would do real estate, that's most profitable".
In 2004 Banu paid tribute to his passion for badminton by building a large sports complex.
In 2005, he opened Banu Construct, a real estate and development company that now employs some 150 workers, including staff from his former businesses. Banu Construct's general manager is Artima's former head of acquisitions.
But Florentin Banu's heart lies with Interpart, a manufacturing plant for plastic parts, also founded in 2005. Interpart workers initially did little more than paint already finished plastic parts. By 2007 Interpart was producing its own moulds. By 2008 it was employing about 100 people, including an Austrian specialist – "by far the company's most expensive employee", says Banu – who commuted every week between Vienna and Timisoara. In 2007 the company was still sustaining annual losses of about € 2 million; Banu aimed to break even in 2008.
Florentin Banu's professional career, the fascinating tale of a self-made man, illustrates a wider trend within the Timisoara business world: that of a gradual move away from trade and construction towards sophisticated production processes and innovative technologies.