My Leadership Story
The story of the woman who transformed a website in Romania into a true power. Why did she give up a CEO role after more than 8 years and what she wants to do next
We talked with Cristina Gheorghiţoiu approximately 7 years ago, soon after becoming responsible for developing Mercador - the brand under which was operating back then the business transformed into OLX, after being acquired by the South-African investment fund Naspers.
She became the Business Manager of the platform in September 2012, until the beginning of 2021, when she decided to leave the General Manager role, and went through various transformations - personal and professional - at the same time with the business transformation.
With an average of 4 million active ads and about 12 million monthly visitors, OLX became under her management the leader of the classifieds market. At the same time, she diversified the categories in
Romania, including the real estate platform, Storia. ro, the auto platform - Autovit.ro, and a category dedicated to Jobs.
Business card Cristina Gheorghitoiu
Cristina Gheorghitoiu joined the company, in 2012, as a manager of the Mercador platform. In 2014, Mercador rebranded and became OLX. She managed this transition and constant business growth.
After more than 8 years in OLX Group, she decided to replace the General Manager role with the Coach one, following the Co-Active Training Institute coach training.
OLX Romania has more than 4 million active ads and above 12 million monthly average visitors according to SATI.
The company announced in February that Sebastiaan Lemmens was named in the General Management role, being responsible for Romania, Portugal, Bulgaria, and Bosnia markets, and taking over the position from Cristina Gheorghitoiu.
The beginnings. The milestones
"We started from a team of 5-10 people in a competitive market, we were at that point in the 3rd place in the category. A very accelerated growth followed, it was like a roller-coaster of challenges leading to growth both personal and professional, next to the business growth. Looking back, I identify myself a lot with this growth that happened in parallel with the business growth."
The company evolved from a start-up level, having at that point the clear goal of becoming the market leader, to reaching this objective and transforming the business into a profitable one. "When I took this role there was a lack of trust vibe about how feasible that goal was (becoming category leader n.red.), it was a very competitive category and other players were leading at that time.
After reaching this milestone, there was a second big challenge that followed: the rebranding of the platform from Mercador to OLX. "Nobody was seeing this brand as one easy to establish and use by Romanians. I remember that we were discussing even how to pronounce the new brand. We were talking with our creative agency that success meant that people won't even remember how the brand was named before."
The rebranding investment was at the level of millions of euros, in the context of fabulous marketing investments even before that, both from them and from the main competitors. It was a "marketing war". We talk about millions of dollars spent, at the beginning, we were talking about a loss-making business. Autovit. I was the only profitable business at that point. This extended more years, but now we are in a very different position when it comes to profitability."
A third important moment was when we started to monetize the platform, going from a free service, accessible to all, to a partially paid service, even now users still being able to post for free ads in different categories of the platform to encourage the private consumers’ segment. "This was also an interesting stage, where we learned a lot", mentions Cristina Gheorghitoiu.
After a while, I took over the country manager role of our company in Romania, becoming responsible also for Autovit. ro business. "The challenge for Autovit was to take a mature brand in an entirely different business dynamic, in a new growth era, since it was stagnating at the time."
Next, there was the development of the real estate platform Storia. ro, which brought additional pride reasons: "I believe that we optimized the experience by comparison with what we could have made available with OLX Real estate, but at the same time there is room for improvement and the team continues to work to upgrade the client experience in the real estate category."
How does she see these achievements looking back?
"When you have an impressive milestone to achieve, and for us, this was reaching the leadership position, somehow everybody moves in that direction, it is fantastic what it is possible".
She shares that all these milestones in the company's development meant also a lot of working hours, emotions, and anxiety. "The first press conference was for me a very stressful moment, due to public speaking anxiety; the reality is that it was not at all easy, but all this brought me satisfactions that are inevitable when the journey is intense and takes you where you aspire to go."
The main things, she said, that made her proud are related to the teams she formed of talented people "who managed to contribute not only in the Romanian team but also in the central team and then in other big companies". Until she reached a 40 people team she says she didn't have HR and she recruited the first people in the initial business stages.
"For me, it's important to bring in the team people that have the necessary skills, they know what they do - but they are humble and willing to learn more, even if they already know a lot of things", she describes the main things she appreciates at employees.
Also, she thinks it's important to have a mindset of experimentation, of growth, not limiting oneself to the role. "I appreciate and look for people who take ownership. The ability to learn from mistakes is also something that I tested a lot in interviews - it's impossible not to make mistakes unless you do nothing", she adds.
When it comes to the reason for leaving OLX, she says that she wanted to make a change. "I'm a strong believer in constant growth and it comes a day when, no matter how beautiful a journey is, you need to end it to start something else. I was very focused on everything related to OLX and I both took and gave back a lot in this experience."
Another reason that led to this decision is that she was not motivated by the idea of expanding into an even broader corporate role, leading teams of 5000 people for example.
"I appreciated a lot the relationships with my people, in a corporate world they are somewhat replaceable, and I believe, maybe in a naive way, that every person is super important and I want to interact with each of them and I take energy from this."
Cristina Gheorghitoiu mentions that she asked herself what professional fulfillment meant for her and she says she wanted to find a role that fully engaged and motivated her. "I found this in coaching and one of the questions of the year for me is what role will coaching have in my life - Beyond my passion for coaching, I have an entrepreneurial mindset and I'm passionate about solving problems". She thinks about this year as one "somewhat sabbatical", one with a more relaxed but in the same exploratory lifestyle. "I want to be open to try things, to learn new things. I've seen freedom as the ability to give up something very good for something more important. This is for me some sort of freedom and unconventional approach in discovering what might come next."
She confesses that she is also lucky enough to afford such a relaxed approach: "Many people who would like but do not take similar decisions don't do it for reasons of financial hygiene, maybe they do not have the stability that allows them such a move. I don't feel that I am pressured to find fast answers. I believe that most people take the time to prepare for such a step, I afforded to take this year as a preparation. At the same time, I didn't find the energy to create a backup plan in parallel while working full-time.
For those interested to take such a step, she advises a gradual approach, based on their own needs and context: "One can also prepare for changes in a different way, safer, more gradually. I don't think we should limit ourselves because of fear, but we should prepare better, to embrace a changing rhythm that is fit with our style and our needs".
My Personal Story
Since I was a child, born in a small town, I had the inner belief that I need to take ownership of my life, shape my future, and find answers outside the universe I was part of.
One could have easily found myself surrounded by books, challenging everything, asking provoking questions, and fighting for my independence.
I was lucky enough to have parents that understood the importance of investing in my education, even if this sometimes felt like a stretch. I always felt the pressure of meeting some more or less explicit expectations of being the best, that I needed to repay their efforts in some way.
It took me a while to discover what it means to cultivate a flexible mindset, to shift from the chase for success as it is defined by society to listening to my inner voice and working towards what gives me fulfillment, embracing my imperfections and growing from a place of acceptance, curiosity, and excitement, rather than for the fear of failing to be a superhuman.
I now know that growth doesn't need to be painful, that one can stretch and celebrate while moving in the direction of their dreams.
I feel inspired to enable and witness the transformation of amazing people I coach. I feel inspired to imagine a world of people that live up to their potential, that are fully alive and fulfilled with their journeys. Success is a very personal concept.