Volume 4 Number 1
Conversation Maker
01 January 1991

John Williams talks to a computer whizz kid who has gone from rags to riches more than once, and believes that a better style of management is even more vital than new technology.

Bela Hatvany cycles to his office through crawling London traffic, a 20-megabyte laptop computer in a haversack on his back. 33 years ago, when he entered the business, a computer this powerful would have filled several floors.

His company, SilverPlatter Information, was the first in the world to put data on the compact discs invented to record music. The business doubles in size every year and finances its growth out of income, with no need to even think of bank loans. Hatvany is clearly onto a good thing.

Each 5-inch CD holds a staggering 250,000 pages of information. This means that a doctor can plug into his computer a CD containing all existing medical knowledge, updated every month by subscription to the American Medical Association's 'Mediline'. Researchers can be provided with everything yet known about, say, agriculture or hazardous chemicals, all instantly accessible: there's no need any longer to pore over indexes. The Rockefeller Foundation is already distributing CDs on such subjects around the developing world. Hatvany's firm sells a set of three CDs containing all the phone numbers in North America.

Pocketsize CD `readers' are about to appear. We will soon be able to read newspapers, magazines and books by dropping a disc or a chip into a reader with a back-lit liquid crystal display screen ('no need to wake your wife by turning on the light to read in the middle of the night').

Hatvany waxes eloquent on how greatly readily-available information will speed up world development, providing enough effort goes into `creating a healthy workplace'. One of his favourite phrases is, `We must foster a conversation about that'. Management, he says, must orchestrate dialogue which `engages the will of each worker' and treats problems as opportunities.

The world's problems surrounded Hatvany from an early age. His father was a Hungarian Jew and his mother the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador to Hungary. They married in 1936, just as Nazi influence in the country was growing. During a hunting trip in Romania the following year they were warned that his passport would be confiscated if he returned home. They fled penniless to England - but this did not prevent the British government from interning Hatvany senior when Hungary came into the war on Germany's side in 1941. Young Bela was born in London in 1938, and so is British.

His first memory is of being sick over a pair of shiny black shoes on board a boat in the Irish Sea. He was three, and he had just seen his father through a barbed-wire fence. Hatvany senior had told his family that on their first night of internment the Hungarians had been packed into the tropical birdcage at Liverpool zoo so tightly that they had had to break windows for air, alarming the authorities who thought they were rioting.

After the war Hatvany senior rebuilt his career in finance and sent his two sons to Harrow, one of Britain's leading schools. When Bela was 15 his parents split up and, perhaps in reaction at hearing them scream at each other, he began stealing from his fellow students.

Nobody caught him at it. But on an impulse one day he decided to go to confession, even though he was not then a Catholic. `I must have got fed up with myself, and I went to this rolypoly priest and had a great change of heart. I gave back everything I could to the people I had stolen from and I was able to stop stealing just like that. It was a tremendous thing. I looked at myself and the way I was behaving for the first time in my life.'

When he left Harrow, his father told him he was on his, own, and he won sponsorship from British Petroleum to study in Dundee, living very cheaply with a butcher and his wife and getting round town on a£20 motorbike. He spent much of his spare time in `long religious discussions', and became fascinated by theology.

When he graduated, he wanted to learn French so got a job in Paris as a computer service engineer. In those days one `bit' of memory required two glass valves; a byte (eight bits) needed a big aluminium chassis, so a thousand bytes, the minimum requirement, was a vast piece of equipment. Computers were `unbelievable baroque rococo monsters', with memories called clystrons `which looked like sea anenomes with blue flashes spurting all over them'.

In Paris he met a Dutch au pair girl, Ellen, who was also learning French. When they both returned to their homes, he developed a suspicious fascination for Holland's tulip fields and art galleries, and in three years they were married. By then he was international sales manager at Honeywell in London, after a period at Burroughs writing programmes ('I just never stopped working: it was wonderful'). His boss suggested he go to Harvard Business School.

This looked impossible, but unexpectedly his past yielded a dividend. In the internment camp in 1941 his father had thought he was going to die, so signed over some of his Hungarian assets to his two young sons. In 1965 Hatvany discovered by chance that he was eligible for compensation from the Hungarian government for the seizure of these assets. This paid for his course.

He left Britain with relief, vowing never to return. `It was an appalling experience to work in this country. Management was very autocratic, taking a lot of privileges like separate diningrooms, and providing its workers with very little opportunity.'

But he loved Harvard. The Business School was `not just teaching knowledge that you went out clutching but an understanding of how to seek what you wanted to know and use it'. By then they had three children: `I used to be able to fasten a nappy with one hand while I was holding a book with the other.' In midwinter a friend in Mexico asked for computer advice, and Ellen leapt at the idea of going to a warm climate. By January 1968 he had set up a computer bureau in Mexico City. `I didn't have a word of Spanish but I picked it up quick: I had to.'

During his three years there he trained 56 people to be programmers and set up seven of them as mini-entrepreneurs within the business. This attempt to train others was to prove important to his thinking. On a recent visit he found that these men had become managing directors of the city's largest computer firms.

But he had to pull out of Mexico himself. His partner was bought out by a man who overextended the company and wanted 100% control. Hatvany had to relinquish his stock in exchange for three mini-computers. `I had four children, three computers, one wife and not much else.'

In Chicago over a bottle of wine at two am one morning he and a friend decided to set up a company computerizing libraries. The business had potential, but `I ran it badly. I was a real tyrant. I had enormous energy and I was out to make sure everything was done correctly. I controlled everything.' By 1975 the company had run out of money. `I resigned as president with my hands shaking.'

The family went to England for a holiday which became the turning-point of his life. Ellen's parents were with them and tried to interest Hatvany in techniques of meditation. `But I couldn't do it. I was too frantic. I couldn't sit still.' His fatherin-law then taught him yoga, and `after this every morning I could calm myself enough to sit and meditate'.

To everyone's surprise, including his own, Hatvany decided to return to Chicago to his old company, because he had technical and marketing knowledge they needed. This time, he resolved, `instead of using people to do my will I would be there to serve them. I asked them what they thought they should do. I listened, and then found ways of facilitating it.'

To save money and teach the children French, Ellen took the family to France for a visit. They found a one-roomed house in a tiny village with a curtained-off loft reached by a ladder and a lean-to shed with a tap in it. Here they could live cheaply. Back in Chicago, Hatvany sold their house and slept in their family car, an old hearse, while he helped wind down the company, by then in the hands of receivers.

The bank which took over the company put it up for auction but no-one would offer more than a million dollars. Hatvany had received $25,000 from his house sale, and he and his partner offered $50,000. The bank was impressed by the new way they were running the firm and, realizing there might be no other way of getting its money back, lent them $1.4 million. Over the next years the company `zoomed'. Within a year Hatvany was able to buy a big family house. In 1985 the company was sold for $20 million.

In 1981 the family returned to live in England at Ellen's request. Bela clearly enjoys it, despite his earlier objections to British life - and London traffic. He puts this down to the difference meditation has made to his life.

A healthy company, he says, serves five constituencies: first and foremost, the people who work in it; secondly, the customer, who deserves excellent products and services; thirdly, the investor; fourthly, business partners like suppliers and distributors; and finally, society as a whole. `To create an enabling and empowering workplace there must be trust.'

His approach goes further than techniques. `In the Christian tradition we have this wonderful idea of the mystical body of Christ: we are all cells of that one body, and in some way a facet of God.' In meditation, he says, one is really listening to what has been described as the still small voice, `creating a conversation in which you listen all the time'. You then notice what you are doing wrong, `and once you notice it, it doesn't run you any more' so you are `in a conversation about forgiveness'. He is apt to get impatient with what he sees as many Christians' traditional emphasis on guilt rather than on empowering people and helping them find forgiveness. He and Ellen have donated a house in Montreal for a Benedictine meditation centre.

A casual conversation in 1983 led Hatvany to his current breakthrough. The new compact discs then coming on the market, he was told, were digitally recorded, and each second of music on the hour-long disc required 150,000 characters. He was astounded at the possible applications of this in his field of computerizing libraries. `The idea of putting 600 million characters on one disc, and replicating the disc in a fraction of a second, was fabulous!' So he formed SilverPlatter, and in June 1985 at the American Libraries Association show demonstrated six out of the first seven information CDs ever made. Much of his time since has been spent in `fostering conversations' with competitors about standards in the industry.

It seems unsafe to guess what he will be up to in the next ten years.

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