By Gail Edmondson Florin Vasilica was already doing well in post-communist Romania in the mid-1990s working as a young computer programmer. Back then he was making $500 a month -- more than double the average national salary. But earning an MBA in 1996 from a program offered jointly by the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest and the Graduate School of Management at the University of Ottawa catapulted Vasilica into the big leagues of international finance, starting with jobs in Istanbul and New York for Chase Manhattan.
Now based in London, the 37-year-old Romanian is vice-president for investment banking in Southeast Europe for Merrill Lynch. "It's an exponential leap," he says.
OPPORTUNITIES AT HOME. Vasilica is one of a growing crop of talented managers pouring out of MBA programs that germinated across the former East Bloc in the 1990s. Initially, many grads went West in search of jobs. But now the vast majority are finding that the region's rapidly growing economies, coupled with robust foreign investment, are creating plenty of attractive opportunities at home.
Ionut Carstea, 29, a first-year student in the same Romanian-Canadian MBA program Vasilica attended, plans to continue in his current job after he graduates. He works as a finance manager for the Bucharest-based subsidiary of Romastu Trading -- a unit of a Lebanese company that distributes over-the-counter drugs and vitamins. Salaries for local managers with Western skills are 60% to 70% of Western levels, he says. "It's a very good moment to work in Romania."
Many of the region's MBA programs were initially set up with grants by Western governments to help fill the management gap in the East and speed economic transformation. Government aid encouraged American and other Western universities to team up with counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe and launch joint MBA programs. Western schools contributed professors, course material, and other resources to ensure the new MBA programs met Western standards.
The University of Illinois, for example, paired up with Warsaw University in 1991 to offer Poland's first MBA program. And the State University of New York at New Paltz has been running its own MBA program in Prague since 1998.
UNDERSERVED MARKETS. What started out as a Western aid program is well on its way to becoming a competitive industry, with each country boasting several Western-equivalent MBA programs and more on the way. The City University of Seattle launched an MBA program in Slovakia in 1991 and now has identical programs in Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic -- all linked to local universities or colleges.
The school has 350 MBA students across Eastern Europe, with a faculty made up of City University professors, along with instructors from Sweden, Italy, and even Japan. Like most top-rated MBA programs in the region, all classes are given in English. Students are encouraged to study at more than one campus to gain cross-border experience, and many travel to Seattle for a summer session.
"We go where the need is -- to underserved markets," says Branislav Zlocha, director of marketing for City University's European operations in Bratislava.
DEMAND FOR MANAGERS. Romania is a particularly flourishing market for management education, with four international programs and a handful of local ones competing for students. At first glance, the plethora of MBA options might seem odd, since Romania was the region's reform laggard, suffering bouts of hyperinflation and economic chaos well into the 1990s.
But Romanians voted a reform-minded government into office in 2004, and the economy is now racing ahead to close the gap with neighboring countries. GDP growth, expected to reach 5.5% in 2006, is fueling demand for skilled managers.
"We are undergoing much more rapid change than other countries," says Adriana Dutescu, director of the Romanian-Canadian MBA program. "We had to overcome the handicap of being at the bottom of the list. We have to move faster. The people are very skilled and they are willing to change."
LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS. The East-West tandem is proving interesting for Western schools as well. Four years ago Kennesaw State University in Atlanta teamed up with the Institute for Business & Public Administration in Bucharest to design a joint course. The goal was to give MBA students first-hand experience working in teams across cultural divides -- a vital skill in an increasingly global economy.
U.S. students spend a week in Bucharest getting to know their team members, and then the teams work long-distance for a year on a project, such as benchmarking supply-chain management practices at their respective companies. The Romanian students travel to the U.S. in May for a week to present the findings with their American teammates.
"The focus is on the process of teamwork across time zones and cultures," says Rodney Alsup, professor of accounting and senior associate dean at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. It exchanges professors with its Romanian partner and is helping the school -- which was founded in 1993 with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- to gain accreditation for its MBA program in the U.S. "Their curriculum is excellent, and the quality of the faculty is where it needs to be," says Alsup.
"A LOT OF WORK." Companies operating in Central and Eastern Europe are helping fuel the MBA boom. At Carstea's outfit, two top managers have already earned their MBAs, thanks to the company's support, and five more are working toward theirs. Most East Europeans can ill afford tuition, which can range from $3,000 to $16,000 -- the equivalent of more than a year's average income. Ninety percent of the MBA students in the Romanian-Canadian MBA program, for example, have their tuition covered by employers.
"It implies a lot of work -- night and weekends," says Carstea, who, along with his studies, is grappling with the introduction of new financial software systems at his company. If all of the region's newly minted MBAs show that same kind of drive, employers picking up the tab should find that this is money well spent. Gail Edmondson in Bucharest