Honorary Consul of the Republic of Austria in Denver for Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming
Honorary Vice Consul of the Republic of Austria in Denver for Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico
Mr. Ersek, you were born and raised in Turkey and moved to Austria when you were 19 years old. Would you have done anything differently in order to rise through the echelons of the companies you worked for?
I was born in Istanbul in 1961; my father is Turkish, my mother is Austrian. I went to an Austrian High School in Istanbul, St. Georgs-Gymnasium, and later studied at the University of Economics in Vienna. I worked for Mastercard for ten years, for General Electric (GE) for five years and I have been working for Western Union for almost 19 years now. I was fortunate that all these companies gave me the right tools to be successful. Obviously, there were also very challenging and tough times but looking back, I guess I would not change anything, as I have always enjoyed what I was doing, and I am still enjoying it today.
Was your becoming CEO of a multinational company like Western Union part of your work-life strategy or rather a happy coincidence?
Western Union is one of the most global companies. We are present in 200 countries and territories with 500.000 agent locations. I guess my background and my skills made me a perfect fit for the CEO position of this company. Growing up in a multicultural and multireligious environment gave me the necessary skills and flexibility to understand customers and shareholders alike.
When did you set your eyes on the prize (i.e., the CEO position at Western Union)?
I guess it was at the right time and at the right moment. I do not think one can simply target a Fortune 500 CEO position. Obviously, you must have the right skills, work very hard and be talented. On top of that, however, a lot of coincidences are also needed to actually get the job.
Digitalization and new technologies have brought about tremendous changes in the financial sector. What is your opinion on that?
Yes, they led to tremendous changes but also to many opportunities. We at Western Union have been transforming the company. Our fastest growing channel is WU.com—Western Union’s online and mobile money transfer channel. It allows, for example, customers from the U.S., from Austria as well as from many other countries to send money using their mobile devices to 200 countries, the transferred funds arriving within minutes.
What are the greatest challenges that Western Union and its competitors are facing in this context?
Western Union is processing 31 transactions every second, moving about $300 billion in 137 currencies every year—as you can imagine, this is very complex. Every country has its own specifications and regulations, and customer needs are also different in different countries. Being a successful fintech company means combining financial expertise with technical capabilities effectively.
Have you or has your company already experimented with blockchain technology? What is your verdict?
Western Union is one of the largest digital and physical money movers and we are uniquely positioned to move funds across platforms, devices, borders and currencies. As an innovative company, we are of course experimenting and testing blockchain-related technologies on several fronts, including transaction processing and settlement, working capital optimization, regtech, and digital identity. Even though the scale and efficiency of our existing platform have already set a high bar, we continue to explore whether these technologies could potentially reduce costs or improve the customer experience. We remain open to the future of this technology and are committed to learning about its applicability.
Transactions made by migrants make up a considerable revenue stream of Western Union. How has the refugee crisis affected your multinational company?
In my opinion, we should not mix the challenges and opportunities migrant populations are facing with the refugee crisis. On the one hand, there is economic migration with people leaving their home country to look for better opportunities abroad; these people are often specialists in their professional field, i.e., engineers, doctors, nurses, construction workers, etc. and they migrate to host countries that need them. On the other hand, there is forced migration with people having to leave their homes in order not to die—we cannot let these people down. The latter was the case in Europe during the Yugoslav Wars or recently during the Syrian refugee crisis. Apart from these examples, there are many other conflicts and crises in the world. As a global company we have to understand the different needs and trends around the world. In general, our revenue generation is based on fees per transaction and we serve customers with different needs in 200 countries. During times of crisis, Western Union acts socially responsible and supports populations in need by charging them significantly reduced fees or no fees at all.
In the course of your career, you have been honored with a number of titles (“Responsible CEO of the Year”, “Austrian of the Year”, “Manager of the Year” etc.). What is the secret to your success?
I am very honored and humbled by these titles. Friends and mentors tell me that always being authentic is one of my strengths — with me, what you see is what you get.
As a successful Austrian with migration background, former Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made you an “Integration Ambassador”. Do any obligations come with that title? Did you put them into action with immigrants in Austria?
I moved from Turkey to Austria and then from Austria to the U.S. Being an immigrant is not easy. There are more than 250 million immigrants worldwide. However, they do not have their own anthem, they do not have a constitution and they do not have any rights. On top of that, many of them struggle because the integration efforts of their host countries often do not work very well. Migrants generally work hard, they help increase and support the economic growth of their new country and they pay their taxes. However, most of the time, they do not get to enjoy all the privileges the citizens of their new countries do. The key here is integration and it takes an effort on both sides. Migrants have to respect the new environment and adapt and integrate themselves to it. The host countries, on the other hand, need to have or establish programs which respect and understand the needs of the immigrants. Compared to other countries, Austria has good integration programs in general. I am obviously uncomfortable with the current protective and nationalist movements in Austria and worldwide. It is easy to blame the weakest, and many politicians blame the migrant population for all bad things happening — that is unfair. As mentioned before, integration is key as it can create a win-win situation for both Austria and the migrants.
Have you also met any Presidents of the United States?
Yes, I have met Bill Clinton several times during philanthropic activities and I have also met Barack Obama during UN meetings. I think both are amazing personalities.
Would you consider yourself a philanthropist?
No, not really. I am a CEO and running a big company. However, there is nothing wrong with producing significant shareholder value, while being socially responsible at the same time.
Why did you accept the nomination as Austrian Honorary Consul for Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico besides your demanding job as Western Union CEO?
My wife, Dr. Nayantara Ghosh Ersek, and I were asked five years ago by Austrian officials to become Honorary Consuls of Austria. Austria gave us so much and now it is time for us to give back. As Honorary Consuls we are doing this on a voluntary basis and we both enjoy it. #throwback to when they received high Austrian decorations for their dedicated services
Dr. Ghosh-Ersek, you were born in India — what brought you to Austria?
My mother is Austrian; she left Austria by boat in the early 1950s heading for India. An artist of the Vienna Academy for Fine Arts, she was hired to portrait the celebrities of India, such as The Dalai Lama or Nehru. During this time she met my father who worked for Air India. He was asked to open the first Air India offices in Europe — that is what brought us to Vienna.
With your multicultural background, how do you respond when people ask where you are from?
I tell them that I am from both worlds. People often ask me this question, thinking that you have to belong to one place or another. I feel I belong to both.
You have an Indian background, your husband a Turkish one, and you both represent Austria. Can it get any more intercultural than this? How do you celebrate diversity in your everyday life?
We celebrate all the festivities and fill our home with traditions from our countries of origin but also with traditions from all the places we were able to visit over the years. We truly enjoy eating curries and schnitzels as well as Turkish delights.
Was your passion for intercultural issues ignited by your husband or did you choose to study this field even before the two of you met?
It has been my passion for as long as I can remember. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the subject over 35 years ago. I have also been giving lectures at various academic institutions and training corporations, NGOs, and governments in the field of intercultural communication for many years.
Where and how did the two of you meet anyway?
We met in Vienna — it is this beautiful city that brought us together.
Are there any common intercultural misunderstandings between the U.S. and Austria?
There will always be different perceptions, but once you are aware of it, it can be “bridged”. Just to give you an example: While Austrians like to debate music, philosophy, religion, and politics in order to understand their counterparts, they are less likely to divulge personal information, and they will make sure to keep their work life and private life well separated. This may cause consternation with people from cultures where no such divisions exists.
Among other places, you studied at the University of Salzburg. What do you like about this city?
It is magical in so many ways: the city itself as well as the uniquely beautiful nature all around.
Why did you choose to study in Salzburg?
Actually, I wanted to study medicine and enrolled at the University of Innsbruck. Back then, I was still a citizen of India, and the medical department in Innsbruck did not accept students with Indian nationality. As I have always been interested in having a “social” profession, my next choice was to become a teacher. The linguistics department at the University of Salzburg was, and still is, very well-known; this is why I decided to study there. I completed my academic career in the field of Romance Studies and English Studies with a Master’s degree and a PhD at the University of Salzburg and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Because of the movie The Sound of Music, most people from the U.S. have a rather specific image of Salzburg. Have you seen The Sound of Music? Does the image portrayed in this movie correspond to the Salzburg you know?
I have watched the movie, yes. I guess it is still one of the best promotions for Salzburg and Austria in general.
How does life in Colorado differ from life in Salzburg?
It does not compare at all — the wide open spaces of the prairies and the Rocky Mountains with all the wildlife everywhere are just out of this world; but so are the Alps, the lakes, the meadows and romantic villages of the Salzburger Land.
Now, let us briefly talk about a completely different region: In what capacity did you work in Sudan? Did you have any concerns for your safety?
I went to Sudan in the late 1970s. I was young, very adventurous and never thought of any security issues. Besides, the world was a “safer” place in many ways back then. I worked on Italian diving ships, I was cleaning, cooking, and accompanying tourists who were shipwreck diving in the Red Sea.
Your husband must be a very busy man as CEO of Western Union. When it comes to dealing with daily consular matters, is it you calling the shots as the Honorary Vice Consul?
Yes, this is basically what I do, but of course we coordinate our activities and duties to represent Austria here in the West of the United States.
What consular issues keep you most busy?
Applications for citizenship and passports for minors, queries regarding pensions, quite a few authentications, meeting state officials and business people, promoting the German language at schools and universities, and of course advertising for Austria in general.
How big is the Austrian community in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico respectively?
There are no official figures. However, our estimation is that there are approximately 600 to 800 people with Austrian heritage.
Do you regularly interact with them and if so, on which occasions?
We celebrate the Austrian National Day on October 26th every year and there are always many attendees at this event. We also organize an Austrian Christmas celebration each year. Moreover, we host events when Austrians visit this area on official government, cultural or business trips.
Time or money: TIME
At present, you would invest: in sustainable innovations and of course in Western Union.
Favorite spot in Austria: Vienna/Neuwaldegg
Favorite spot in Colorado/Wyoming/New Mexico: Wellington Lake, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico
Current favorite song: Andante Andante from Mamma Mia / El Amor de mio Bohio (Cuban song)
#AustriansAbroad #HonoraryConsul #Denver