AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 8/2011

Economic Boom: Poland Is Europe's New High-Flyer

By Jan Puhl

Poland, once a backward agricultural country, is quickly becoming an economic powerhouse in Central Europe. The Poles are strongly pro-European, and even their relationship with the Germans is no longer as tense as it was just a few years ago. Nowhere is the transformation easier to see than in Wroclaw.

The third-richest man in Poland had arrived in Wroclaw by private jet in the morning. Leszek Czarnecki, a slim, tanned man, is now sitting on the 12th floor of the Wroclaw Arcade, gazing out at the center of the formerly German city. Czarnecki owns the arcade, an office building and shopping center complex.

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He doesn't spend much time in this office, and the furniture looks like it could be from Ikea. It's the office of a man who doesn't feel a need to impress his guests. It has a view of the construction site of the "Sky Tower," which, when completed in the spring, will soar up 212 meters (695 feet), making it Poland's tallest building. Czarnecki also owns this new building.

He came to Wroclaw today to set up a new company, but by noon he'll already be back in the air on the way to his next destination. The 48-year-old Czarnecki, a restless man, has established a number of firms in recent years, including a high-end furniture company and a bank that specializes in the very rich. Getin Holding, which he owns, acquired a few small financial service providers and insurance companies and bought up all the shares in Allianz Bank Polska. About 2,000 jobs were created in the process. Czarnecki's various businesses are all doing splendidly. And the global economic crisis? It was non-existent for Czarnecki as it was, in fact, for all of Poland.

Europe's Most Optimistic People

The country has benefited from its accession to the European Union and globalization more than almost any other. Twenty years ago, the deeply Catholic country was largely agricultural and considered backward and provincial, a millstone around Europe's neck. Since then, however, Poland has experienced an almost nonstop boom.

Even when the rest of Europe was suffering through a recession in 2009, Poland's economy grew by 1.7 percent. Thanks to its accession to the EU in 2004, unemployment fell from more than 20 percent to about 8 percent today.

The boom has been most evident in the cities. Warsaw and Poznan, for example, have full employment. According to surveys, Poles are among Europe's most optimistic people. They have never had it as good as they do today.

Warsaw is also at peace with itself politically. Prime Minister Donald Tusk runs the government with a stabile majority, while nationalist extremists on the left and right are no longer represented in Poland's parliament, the Sejm. Poland is now on excellent terms with Berlin and has toned down its rhetoric toward Moscow; the country is also no longer seen as an unpredictable obstructionist in Brussels. Almost a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the country of 38 million has become a respected regional power.

Dreaming Up New Business Ideas

Hardly anywhere else is the Polish economic wonder as much in evidence as it is in Wroclaw. When Leszek Czarnecki was defending his doctoral thesis at the city's business school in 1987, Poland was still paying homage to the socialist planned economy. Czarnecki, an extremely talented student and avid diver, formed a company for underwater welding with a few friends. "We were 10 times cheaper than the corresponding government company, and we were also better and faster," he says.

When the Iron Curtain fell, Czarnecki sold his shares. He leased a Mercedes with the proceeds, and in doing so realized how profitable the leasing business was. He promptly entered the leasing market for cars and construction machinery. He sold his company 11 years later to the French bank Crédit Agricole for €200 million ($270 million). Czarnecki had become a rich man.

Today he is worth more than €1 billion and his company Getin Holding owns subsidiaries in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Czarnecki is constantly dreaming up new business ideas. When asked where he gets his inspiration, he says: "Musicians can't explain why a new melody pops into their heads during their morning shower."

Foreign investment is less responsible for the Polish economic miracle than the ingenuity of the country's entrepreneurs. Their small- and mid-sized companies produce primarily for the Polish market, so that only 40 percent of the economy is dependent on exports. Consistently high domestic demand and the Poles' love of consumption prevented the country from sliding into recession during the 2009 crisis.

In Wroclaw, the Poles work primarily in Polish companies. Only 40,000 of the 150,000 new jobs created in the region in the last eight years were the result of foreign investment. And yet these are not low-wage jobs. The country is no longer a place for foreign companies to outsource their work. In fact, the West has discovered the value of Polish workers, men like Andrzej Rusewicz, for example.

A trained programmer, he left Wroclaw in 1981 when the communists cracked down on the Solidarity movement. Rusewicz moved to the United States and became a mathematics professor in Minneapolis. "I always dreamed of coming back," he says. Recently, that dream came true and he has been back in Wroclaw managing a team of programmers since last April.

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