Sunday, June 19, 2016

Five Take Aways from our business trip to Poland

Cheers, all!

I'm glad to report that the 2017 cohort arrived home late last night.  While I'm sure everyone was glad to be back in there own beds, I know there are some, myself included, who are already missing the richness and beauty of Poland life.

The trip back was a perfect time for reflection, and that's exactly what I did between the layovers and cross-Atlantic flight to head home.  Amongst the sightseeing and the fun, we observed a lot in regards to what it means to do business in present-day Poland 2016.  In essence, we find a perfect melange of motivation from history and hope for the rising entrepreneurs of tomorrow.  These business men and women compete with each other from a market perspective, yet more holistically, this competition is actually a sense of unity to build Poland to the heights of tomorrow.

I tried my best to try to summarize some of the most important themes and points from this trip as all these types of reflections flashed through my head.  Here are five of those take aways from the week in review.

1) Poland is very much a text book example of how politics dictate the national economic environment.

Right from the beginning, Poland’s recent rise past the Soviet Communistic era was emphasized as a core theme to living and doing business in the young democratic nation.  There was previously no point to pursuing your own business or being creative or competitive because there was no incentive to do so, a theme especially underscored during our business visits to Startup Poland and Coca Cola.  Now, not only is there incentive to push the boundaries of creativity and profit models, the limits are endless, and it seemed as if those attitudes were reflected at every single visit as each speaker spoke of the future of their companies to come.

2) Past events do not guarantee future results, even for rising nations.

The Mongol battles, the fights against the Turks, the war against the Nazis, and the struggle past Communism signify some of the key events in Polish history.  If these conflicts were indicators of the future, then it would be easy to remain skeptical about the security of living in Poland in the generations to come, let alone any thoughts of having a business.

However, as our panel speakers indicated, as strong and prosperous as Poland has been, especially as being the only country in the EU to avoid recession during the dive starting in 2009, Poland needs to remain cautious as it relates to future performance.  It is true that the better part of the last decade has shown tremendously positive results, so keeping in mind that, financially speaking, every economy has its peaks and valleys, business owners and residents need to realize this natural cycle and simply be ready when the first big ‘valley’ arrives.  Poland has advantages when it comes to adjusting to dips in its economy which it can use to strengthen its position through these cycles to come.

Photo courtesy: Bara Pelcova

3) Globalization and assimilating to known global brands is a sign of strength in Poland.

The concept of accepting seemingly obvious name brands into a country seemed obnoxious to me at first, but after hearing the Polish perspective during our Coca Cola visit, it is clear to me now that to a new democracy that these are signs of global commercial acceptance, not commercial take over.  Even more, our speaker at Coke when asked about trying to overtake Pepsi (a distant competitor in terms of volume in Poland) stated, “Without an enemy, doing business wouldn’t be any fun.”  The capitalism model appears to be truly embraced and prompts motivation, pushing business people to try harder and be better in the work that they do.  The name brands that we in the States are so quick to turn our heads to truly epitomize the efforts that the Poles have made to grow their economy to a strength with global standing.

4) Everything works out for a reason, including with Polish currency.

When Poland originally petitioned to adopt the Euro, it did not meet the requirements of the Eurozone to adopt the currency change.  As it turns out, this worked in Poland’s favor, especially in terms of the recession which started in 2008 and hit the EU full force in 2009. Today, you will find numerous news articles which now state the opposite of this initial petition: Poland has no intention of adopting the Euro in the foreseeable future.  Remaining on the Zloty has allowed Poland to depreciate the currency they have independent of the rest of the Eurozone and, therefore, adjust to allow for economic adjustment and growth, an option Greece did not have as a result of being part of the Eurozone and the Euro.  This flexibility is absolutely another strength which will allow any business owner the opportunity to jump in and be a part of the growing Polish economy.

5) Although we may forget its importance at times, culture will always be critical for business and economic growth.

One area where the Polish and the Americans are similar is their sense of national pride.  However, I tend to give the Poles the edge when it comes to their culture.  Being an American represents so many different things, so much so that especially with a country our size, it is common for people to have, dare I say, extreme variance in culture based on where they grew up.  The values of these sub-cultures may vary, and the perspectives and perceptions of the state of the States also varies depending on the roots of a group's experience.

While this may also be true of Poland, the smaller size and especially the history of the country, including in recent years, makes the culture more homogeneous, in my opinion.  To an extent, though, this was also homogenized as a result of the “cultural cleansing” during World War II.  This makes sense to me, though: whereas in the States, only part of the nation has been oppressed at any given time, the entire nation of Poland has seen invasions of regimes, and it was up to them as a collective group to come together and work through those times.  There is no conflict or variance of perspective here in terms of what happened and trying to understand -- the Polish people all went through the same experiences, so where you will find the variance in perceptions will be in the interpretation and reflection of that experience, not in trying to understand the other side.

What was even more clear across the board – site visits, guide briefs, and museums alike – is that because the Poles truly banded together to fight those times, this makes it easier for them to work collectively in a social sense, rather than political, to make their lives better for Poland.  This is incredibly important to their business life today.  Doing well in business, supporting and being a part of a developing the economy, pushing the limits of business, and helping to further anchor Poland’s position as a key EU if not global player in the world market…for these reasons and more, the Poles remember who they are and where they came from, and for that, they continue to fight in a different battle, a healthy battle, of promoting their livelihood through business.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Poland of the future and of the past

Dzien dobry!

This is just a quick update as we all do our last-minute packing in preparation to head back to the states.  As we do so, I'm just processing in my head how much information has been thrown at us over the week, and yesterday was no different.

The stop at is an interesting story of vision in Poland.  The start up has exploded with it's innovative approach to education.  If you haven't heard of the service yet, stay tuned...given that it has expanded to offer services in 12 languages across far more countries, this will likely be a known resource and support tool (such as Facebook), for your children as they tackle their homework.

Brainly's visionary approach was the perfect end to our company visits as it really embodied many of the key themes we've noticed throughout the trip.  The business is catching on, but eventually it is going to need to find a way to be profitable.  The future will be a known challenge in the Polish business world as they figure out which future path they take to remain stable, sustainable, and to grow; although, in all honesty, this is a known growing pain for business across the globe.  To the comment made earlier this week by a site presenter, this truly is another sign the Poland is worthy of fighting amongst the global commerce competitors.

Then, Auschwitz.

I'm not even sure what to write about this visit, to be honest.  We all know the history, and we've heard the stories of survivors as well as the many, many more stories from the families of their loved ones who did not survive.  Yet, to walk on the premises and to see the beyond massive layout that the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp extends, all of a sudden the wave of emotion as you realize the reality of those stories hits you hard.  

A hallway of prisoner photos, the piles of shoes, glasses, pottery, brushes, even of human hair shaved from the women as they were escorted to, what was to many of them, their deaths...I cannot even describe to you how extensive these piles were, and each and every one of them represents only a scratch at the surface in memory of the millions who were killed here.

From one extreme to the other, we've come to recognize the many rises and falls of Poland.  Why is this rise different?  I would argue because we are watching the rise of a new democracy.  In just the last 100 years, in essence the memory of those currently living in Poland, the Polish people have overcome the horrors of the Nazi invasion and they also united to fight communism.  They've re-built war-torn cities like Warsaw to new heights.  They've fought to create a Poland that they want to live in, a home that they are proud of, and a culture that they want the next generation to embrace.  

The world, and especially the European Union, has recognized the fight the Polish community has put up and has numerous support lines in place to help it prosper.  Given the context of our lifetime, and even more so the long-term history, the story of Poland's future will certainly be one to watch.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience what we did and to get a better sense of their feelings on the country and what's to come.  It's been a surreal week.  Dziękuję bardzo, Polska. 

More pictures to come after we get back...see you again in New York.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Warsaw & Kraków update

Greetings from Krakow!

As you can imagine, the busy days of visits and cultural exposure have been going by quickly.  There is so much to share from our experience, so I'll do my best to keep things brief.

Wednesday morning, we stopped at the Coca Cola facility across the river from Warsaw in Radzymin.  Even before getting to the bottling facility, the story of Radzymin was as fascinating as any other we’ve heard regarding Poland’s story:
Immediately as you cross the river is a former communist factory which, if I remember correctly, produced cars.  The state made sure to 'take care' of their workers and built a series of apartment buildings close to the factory so that they would bbe close to the work place. Those flats still stand opposite of the highway which now runs between the two.

The highway system itself was built as a result of money Poland was promised from the European Union.  This money has been applied to infrastructure development, including the building of the highway system prior to the 2012 Euro Cup games when Poland and Ukraine hosted the games.  

Also noteworthy were multiple shrine-like decorations every few kilometers alongside the road.  These set ups were similar to what you would see on the alter or praying station of a church – a Christian cross surrounded by flowers and sometimes a note in Polish.  I asked our tour guide if he knew why these set ups were there.  While he wasn’t sure, he indicated that it very well could have been in honor of someone who died.  Whenever anything happens, even at the border where a city ends, you are likely to find a shrine set up to commemorate that; between that and the strong Christian environment (to quote our guide, Marcin, “Poland is all about Christianity”), you’re likely to see this kind of celebration.  His point was clear, though – given how new the highways still are, driving on the new auto route and the highway deaths which come along with it are a new concept to the Poles.

The Coca Cola plant was everything one could dream of in terms of a Coke sancturary.  The facility has been around for 25 years, but it has a modern welcoming feel as you walk through the door.

Coca Cola has done very well in Poland in recent years, but once again, the political history was presented as a clear influence which controlled its success Poland. The Coca Cola product itself was actually introduced in 1957 after the death of Stalin.  At that time, the communist government made a point to label Coke as a product of the enemy, both Capitalism and the United States.  Coca Cola has made a point to market past this previous perception, and today it holds the largest volume of non-alcoholic beverages in Poland.

The story of Coke is a particularly interesting one to me because our presenter (Wojciech Obidzinski, Executive Advisor) was the first of our presenters who clearly lived and worked both during communist times as well as now.  He made several references indicating his past, having worked in a yard and also joining his coworkers in strikes against the state before eventually being fired (a moment he laughed about as a high point of his past).  He had indicated that the introduction of a Coca Cola Facility to Poland after the Solidarity Movement was symbolic of the new era - it truly represented the move past communism to what seemed as a bright future under capitalism.

I asked Mr. Obidzinski if the symbolic Coca Cola presence of moving toward the capitalistic economic structure was why he had decided to work for Coke.  With a smile, he responds (paraphrased), “Yes!  Coca Cola was the symbol of capitalism and it was a very promising thing.  I didn’t know if I had a chance, but I figured I needed to give it a try.”

My brief chat with him made it clear that the motion to  be a part of the movement to develop the Polish democratic society was an important thing to those who were living through the change.  It meant more, and it meant a lot, to be a part of the developing the future that Poland had fought so hard for.  He indicated that having such well-know American brands in Poland was the period at the end of the sentence, a clear sign that Poland had joined the ranks of the Democratic and Capitalistic superforces which had done so well.

All of a sudden, seeing the likes of Subway, MetLife, Burger King, TGI Fridays, and so on have more meaning.  As a tourist, I still get a bit annoyed seeing the trades I already know, but lesson learned – you never really know what you’re looking at until you understand the context.  Understanding now that these brands are milestones to prove they are a global player,  Poland is clearly moving up with plenty more room to rise.

If nothing else, the excitement Mr. Obdzinski exuded and the clear joy he had when talking about his work with Coca Cola resounded loudly.  You don’t have to study any books or number about Poland's past or current state when you see that kind of emotion....that language is universal.

Since, we've been to Can-Pack, State Street Bank, and we had our tour of Krakow last night.  Today, we visit the successful (, and then the visit we've all be curious about - the historical Auschwitz-Birkeneau concentration camp.  It will be an emotional day for sure, though there have been many.  I'm sure my classmates would agree, though, that the entire trip has been impactful and memorable.

It would be an understatement to say how rich Poland is beyond the economy...the culture is deep and the future is promising because of the history Poland has endured.

Do widzenia for now!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Business Begins

If you are reading this now, it will be nearly 2 AM back at home, but for us, it is our last hour before we pack up for our last visit followed by our road trip from Warsaw to Krakow.

One thing has been evident as we have spoken with the various business speakers and professionals since we got to Warsaw -- understanding the history of Poland is critical to understanding its current success as well as its promising future.  Several times now, we have heard our speakers comment to the various points of not forgetting the past and where Poland came from.  When you've been oppressed to any degree, rather than try to forget that it happened, you can sometimes get that much further ahead by repurposing that dark time into a launch pad to move forward.  Poland clearly has been the example here, creating a foundation for themselves out of their history and using it to drive them into the future.

Monday as day one set a great bar for what to expect for the week.  The AM panel discussion we had clearly indicated that as much as Poland has advanced on numerous levels, there is still a lot left to develop and achieve.  While past results are not guarantee of future performance (as reiterated by one of our speakers, Ms. Dorothy Dabrowski of the American Chamber of Commerce in Poland), the trend of upward growth and relative stability is all the reason for those who are Polish to remain positive.  For outsiders, like me, looking in, it also gives me faith that after knowing the history of war and only the recent change to a democratic state (a democracy which is younger than many of us on this trip) that even for something as complex as uniting and building your democracy, the future has a way of working itself out.

The site visits since them gave us even more perspective on some success stories of local organizations and how they strive to thrive and, in a sense, shape Poland as it continues to develop.  Monday afternoon's visit led us to Startup Poland at the Google site in Warsaw -- certainly a positive visit, but one where after speaking to the presenter (Ms. Eliza Kruczkowska, CEO), I learned that the approach to both their own business as well as the ones they support, it's seems a bit similar to life: because many of these businesses are developing and growing at the same time, they are in essence just figuring out the secrets to success and prosperity for the first time on behalf of Poland.  This seems to be true of many businesses according to the various other feedback we've heard, including the tour guides -- existing businesses had to adjust to the democratic state, and therefore they are setting the benchmark and paving the way for future businesses to succeed.

Tuesday's visits took us to the Engineering Design Center, a partner of our Capital District native GE (of which that speaker, Magdalena Nizik, Managing Director, seemed excited to find out once we explained the connection -- perhaps she is one we will see again very soon!) and to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD.  In short, both visits highlighted the positives, especially in recent years, of the Polish economy juxtaposed with known current challenges.

I look at these challenges with a bit of a biased eye, I have to admit, but only because I still cannot get over that emotional reaction I felt in that museum.  If this nation can overcome those types of challenges, then certainly they can work through these ones with politics and the governing bodies both in office now in Poland as well as within the EU.  It will be interesting to see how the next 10 years looks for these businesses as well as the Polish state and economy in general.

Despite my positive bias, it's clear that there is a lot to work out, but I tend to focus on the positive because it is hard to deny the general optimism that I've noticed consistently since our is also hard to deny the sense of national pride, especially as you see how the country unites to support the Euro Cup soccer (er, football) tournament currently going on in France.  I haven't learned it in Polish yet, but go Poland!!!

Off to our final site visit in Warsaw now....see you again in Krakow!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Polish Perseverance at a glance


If there is one thing to say since our arrival in Poland, it is that every ounce of history and perseverance can be summed up only in emotional reaction not words.  While it would be easy for me to sit here and tell how the trip from start to finish transpired seamlessly, I almost feel that it would be shallow to do so.  Yes, we are all fortunate that we had no issues, no bags were lost in transit, and the food and hospitality has been beyond amazing, but even after jet lag, fatigue, and other adjustments, what is most striking to me, if not the cohort, through the weekend has been the richness and depth of the Polish history and culture.

To begin, one of our first stops after arriving was at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, essentially an extensive recreation and tribute to those who rose up in the second Polish uprising in 1944, an effort to fight out against the Nazi occupation.  I will be critically honest here -- consensus amongst the group, myself included, was that while we appreciated the experience, we all would have enjoyed and appreciated it more had we had a chance to get caught up with the time change and such.  Even so, I personally have to express how particularly stuck I was by the atmosphere of the museum.  

If you have not yet had the experience, I highly recommend it.  Regardless of what you know of Polish history, especially that during World War II, I cannot even begin to describe the emotional reaction of what I felt in that museum.  From the cobblestone floor, to the eerie lighting, to the heavy heart beat playing as a sort of "black noise" (what would have been white noise, but they want you to be aware of it), to finally the sudden sound effect of planes and, eventually, a bomb exploding in the background...the effect of this museum was absolutely real.  I'm sorry to say that I couldn't repeat half the information I learned while exploring...however, I can tell you that I felt to the core this absolute sense of terror, apprehensiveness, and despair.  Certainly, whatever this reaction was, this is recent Polish history at its surface.

Yet, even with the destructive past, it is clear that there is a strong sense of pride and perseverance.  Every story from every tour guide we have met since yesterday morning has ended in a lesson of strength and belonging.  The Poles belong in Poland.  They feel a pride in Poland.  This is their home, and they will not give it up willingly.  After the emotional blow we felt at the museum, clearly only a fraction of what must have been felt by those in the moment, and the recognition of what we've seen -- that of a new Warsaw after having essentially annihilated by the Nazis -- it becomes real to a new level that Warsaw and Poland in general serve a particular purpose in the world...if nothing more, it is clearly its destiny by tribute of its history.

A sincere thank you to all of the experts of the city sites whom we've had the pleasure of working with since arrival.  Our first impressions would not be so striking had it not been for your expertise and hospitality.  The bar has been set high as we prepare for our business discussions tomorrow, so stay tuned for more as the experience continues.