The Warsaw Voice » Business » Monthly - August 28, 2015
Business & Economy
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Poland’s Richest Man Dies
Billionaire Jan Kulczyk, one of Poland’s best known businessmen and the richest man in the country, died unexpectedly at the end of July. He was 65 years old.

Some saw Kulczyk as a visionary and a brilliant entrepreneur, while others believe he built up an empire by cleverly exploiting his political contacts. Whichever is closer to the truth, Kulczyk was a symbol of Poland’s transition from communism to a market economy.

Widely regarded as the wealthiest man in Poland, Kulczyk died in a hospital in Vienna. According to an official statement, he underwent a minor medical procedure, but then suffered pulmonary embolism. The sudden death of the Polish billionaire, whose assets earlier this year were estimated at zl.15 billion ($3.9 billion) by the Polish edition of Forbes magazine, was a shock to the business community. The prices of companies in which Kulczyk had shares, including Ciech and Serinus Energy, dropped on the Warsaw Stock Exchange in the early hours of trading after the news was announced. With operations on several continents, Kulczyk was one of the most internationally active Polish businessmen and his death also surprised and saddened his business partners around the world.

Born in the city of Bydgoszcz in 1950, Kulczyk was a well-educated man. He obtained a law degree from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and graduated in foreign trade from the Poznań University of Economics. He also had a doctoral degree in international law, but rather than pursue an academic career, he focused on business.

Kulczyk’s career began in the late 1970s. His father, a businessman working in Germany, gave him money to start him off and in 1981 Kulczyk established his first trading company, called Interkulpol. Its products included industrial cleaners. In 1988, he turned to the automotive industry and became Poland’s first official Volkswagen dealer. The first major contract that Kulczyk’s company landed was a zl.150-million deal for 3,000 Volkswagen cars delivered to the Polish police and the security services in the early 1990s.

Kulczyk built his fortune mainly by investing in the brewing industry. In 1993 he bought the Browary Wielkopolskie brewery in Poznań for zl.20 million and then teamed up with the South African corporation SAB Miller to acquire a brewery in the southern Polish town of Tychy. Over a decade later, he exchanged his stock in Polish breweries for an around 4-percent stake in SAB Miller. The stake’s current value is estimated at zl.9 billion. Other noteworthy deals Kulczyk struck in those early years included acquiring shares in the Warta insurance company and Powszechny Bank Kredytowy. He was involved in a consortium that received a license to launch the Era GSM mobile telephone network. Kulczyk also took part in the privatization of Telekomunikacja Polska, Poland’s national telecom operator. In most cases, Kulczyk later sold shares in the companies at a profit. Today all of these companies have foreign owners. In an article on Kulczyk’s operations, Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper once described Kulczyk as an expert in bringing private business acumen to public sector enterprises. According to the newspaper, he bought state-owned companies and purchased licenses that “he would then sell in part or entirety to other investors, mostly foreign ones, at a huge profit.”

Kulczyk became involved in a project to set up a huge Central European fuel corporation based on the combined assets of Poland’s largest petrochemical companies Orlen and Rafineria Gdańsk (currently Lotos) and Austria’s OMV and Hungary’s MOL. The project never materialized, in part due to concerns that Poland’s fuel sector could be dominated by the Russians. In the process, irregularities were exposed in the Orlen corporation, as a result of which a special parliamentary commission was appointed to investigate the affair in 2004. The commission claimed that Kulczyk had a greater impact on the lineup of Orlen’s supervisory board than his 6-percent stake would suggest. According to the commission, Kulczyk owed that to contacts with top politicians in Poland. Even though no specific charges were made, Kulczyk sold his stake in Orlen and started transferring his investment abroad, including to Africa. He bought a gold mine in Nigeria and acquired stock in Neconde, a consortium that won a bid to purchase large deposits of oil. Kulczyk also acquired shares in Ophir Energy, an oil and gas exploration company operating in Africa and Asia. Moreover, he held stock in Serinus Energy, a Warsaw Stock Exchange-listed company exploring oil and natural gas deposits in Tunisia, Ukraine and Romania.

Kulczyk’s other major undertaking in the Polish energy sector was the WSE-listed Polenergia company. Last year, his empire expanded to include a controlling stake in Ciech, a WSE-listed chemical corporation. Ciech was a state-owned enterprise and the deal stirred a lot of controversy. According to the parliamentary opposition, the government sold the Ciech shares too cheaply, but no irregularities have been found in the transaction.

Kulczyk’s name also popped up in a scandal surrounding a number of top politicians eavesdropped on and illegally recorded at several restaurants in Warsaw. According to media reports, Kulczyk was among those recorded, and speculation started circulating that his alleged conversations with government officials were related to the privatization of Ciech.

Apart from the energy and chemical sectors, Kulczyk’s portfolio included real estate and logistics businesses as well as a company that manages a freeway in western Poland. While the Polish media was not always enthusiastic about Kulczyk’s operations in Poland, his activities on markets abroad were admired by many. By investing on several continents, Kulczyk achieved the status of the most active Polish businessman on global markets. He strengthened his prestige by inviting former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former German president Horst Köhler, and James L. Jones, former U.S. national security advisor under Barack Obama, to join an international advisory board that assisted him in key projects. Kulczyk was also a member of the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., a prestigious think tank made up of prominent figures from around the world.

Kulczyk’s death was reported by major international newspapers. The Wall Street Journal described him as “a controversial symbol of the country’s transformation from communism to a market economy,” adding that his “business activities for years remained intertwined with Poland’s economic fate, but also tied him to controversies surrounding the privatizations.” The New York Times said that the Polish tycoon showed courage and imagination in his business choices. The newspaper mentioned Kulczyk’s role as a generous sponsor of historical and cultural institutions, citing a zl.20-million donation he made to help complete the permanent exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Kulczyk also funded scholarships for talented people and offered support to Polish Olympic athletes.

Regardless of what people think of his business accomplishments, Kulczyk came to symbolize the changes that Poland has gone through since communism fell in this country in 1989. “You cannot write an honest history of Poland’s transformation after 1989 without mentioning the role of Jan Kulczyk,” Poland’s former finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of the country’s economic reforms, wrote after Kulczyk’s death.