Petrișor Grindeanu, the Romanian who builds for Ethiopia

It will take you 158 hours by car to get there from Bucharest. Or over 6,300 kilometers. Or at least 12 hours by plane. Petrișor Grindeanu ignored all of that and decided two years ago to move to the exotic Ethiopia. He works in the construction materials industry, so he enjoys competition and challenges. And this African country gave him a lot of adrenaline due to the fact that he had to build from scratch a brand new Sika business in Ethiopia and Abyssinia, and to grow the business there. But besides the cultural differences that he tries to understand and overcome, he is fascinated about the Capital city’s dazzling buildings. Nonetheless, Petrișor Grindeanu enjoys discovering the picturesque and wild side of the country. He visited tribes, such as Hammer or Mursi, people living in isolated areas, far away from the fast-forward life we all are living. And he also found out about a beautiful connection between Romania and Ethiopia: orthodoxy and Nicolae Titulescu. „Ethiopia is so big that I definitely have a lot to discover”. And so do we.

Petrișor Grindeanu. Photo credit: personal archive

Cristina Dobreanu: Why Ethiopia?

Petrișor Grindeanu: It is very simple. After working seven years for Sika Romania, in several positions, I received the offer to become General Manager of Sika Ethiopia – Sika Abyssinia. Actually, the company in Ethiopia was a startup. Sika was not present in this country except through a number of distributors and I was the one who established the company, starting with the team, positioning in the market, to the inauguration of a production facility.

Was it a hard choice?

It took me approximately one year to convince myself that a country in Africa can be a good choice. In the spring of 2015, after the very good results I obtained in Sika Romania, Paul Schuler, the EMEA Regional Manager, asked me if I wanted to move to Ethiopia. But, in fact, the first proposal came a year before, in 2014, yet at that time I was not convinced that Africa was a market that could offer many opportunities. Later on, I looked into this proposal very well and I visited several African countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Cote D’Ivoire – and I noticed that it was indeed an area where the potential of building materials market was huge and I came to the conclusion that it was indeed a good opportunity for professional development. So, in September 2015 I came here.

Did you know anything about this country before moving there?

Before moving here, I knew a few things from the research I had made and the short visits here. But that was not enough. Culture is extremely different, and honestly, not even now can I say that I know all about the people here, about their approach on everyday life, and so on. I’m permanently learning something about Ethiopia, how things work here and how to adapt.

So, when you landed in Ethiopia, what have you noticed at the airport, on the streets? If you could put all in a single picture, what would it look like?

I think the most appropriate word is „different”. Different from everything I knew, although I travelled a lot over the years. The first impression was a nice one because Ethiopian Airlines – the country’s national airline – has very modern airplanes and highly trained staff. The airport is a modern one, but the first „heart-breaking” picture appears when you leave the airport and meet with a cordon of soldiers. I come from a country where we do not see the army on the streets, but in the two years I spent here I understood it’s just a matter of security in the context in which Addis Ababa is the capital of the African Union and there are many diplomats here. Beyond that, Ethiopia is recognized as a hub of peace in a great zone of conflict in Africa in the last century.

Was it easy to build a production facility from scratch? 

Not at all! Of course, I had the support of the Group and Sika companies from other countries, but it was an extremely tough process. I had to find equipment that would perfectly fit the raw material I could find in this country, equipment that can be easily installed and maintained. We also encountered difficulties in obtaining production licenses because of the bureaucracy in Ethiopia. Finally, Sika Abyssinia has a production unit that will host 4 lines and will ultimately mean a total investment of $5 million.

How can a foreigner become a leader there? Do you consider yourself a leader?

Leadership is an art and a science. On the one hand, there are people who get into leadership positions and fail to get results due to lack of knowledge and management skills. On the other hand, a manager who has no leadership skills will always have problems with motivating and building a team that works well together.

The leader is the one who, through his personality, can inspire others to improve their efforts to meet a common goal. But clearly anyone can be a leader anywhere. It depends only on your native skills and the ones you acquire. So yes, here, in Ethiopia, a foreigner can be a leader. It doesn’t matter either the colour of the skin or the country where you come from. It matters how much you know, how you can show to your team that you can support them regardless of the situation. Of course, the transfer of trust and knowledge also counts.

I consider myself a leader because I see this through my team. We are a united team and my employees follow me when I’m taking decisions for the company.

Are there any resemblances between Romanians and Ethiopians?

Ethiopia has an orthodox majority. So, I have met here many similarities in terms of tradition.

What do they know about us?

The relationship between Romania and Ethiopia has a long history since the communist era and even before. For instance, in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, in the capital of Ethiopia, there is a fresco illustrating the time when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selasie made a speech at the League of Nations in June 1936. Italy invaded the Ethiopia at that time and Nicolae Titulescu pleaded for imposing economic sanctions against the aggressor, triggering hostile reactions in the extreme right circles in Romania. So, Ethiopian people look at us with respect. Of course, they know about Hagi, and some of them studied in college in Romania 30-40 years ago.

What is the thing that us, Romanians, don’t know about Africans, in general, and Ethiopians, in particular?

I would not be able to generalize, but as I previously mentioned, we do not understand their culture very well and their generally reporting to authority. We didn’t know much about the weather either; although close to Ecuador – between 10 degrees in the winter and 30 degrees in the summer –  most of the country region is at more than 2000 m altitude. One more impressive thing is that Ethiopia is an African country that has enough water supplies for the population.

What are three curiosities that Ethiopians have about Romania?

Many of them do not know we are Orthodox, like them. Beyond that, many have questions about how „advanced” we are, if we are like the other European countries or not.

How is this experience changing you and what was the most important lesson you have learned there?

The most important lesson was that I should not take anything for granted. Here I am struck every day by various shortcomings that may seem absurd in Europe and we have learned that we deserve nothing for granted, but we must work for anything and appreciate everything.

Have you ever felt the lack of trust, because you run a foreign company and you are not from Ethiopia?

I cannot say that I felt a lack of trust, on the contrary. Ethiopians are open to collaborate with a foreign company because they perceive this as an added value to their business. Foreign companies are seen also as experts and that’s fair enough.

What annoys you most there?

Delaying high-level decisions and bureaucracy are the things that make things harder for business.

Your happiest day in Ethiopia was…

The day I incorporated the company and started the production and the day I visited the tribes in southern Ethiopia and I felt like in a documentary from National Geographic.

Your favourite Ethiopian meal is …

I cannot say I like their traditional food, but if I were to choose something it would be “tibs” (spicy meat and vegetables meal).

What have you learned from the locals?

Never say never! And I have also learned that the best way to succeed is to have patience.

If you could describe Ethiopia in one sentence, this would be…

Ethiopia is a combination of new and archaic, a balance between tradition and novelty. Here you have tribes that seem „brought” from thousands of years ago, but also imposing buildings that make you think you are in a great European capital.

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