He grew a family business into an empire, of which he has been the driving force for nearly thirty years now. We chat with Radosław Koelner about how the company he runs used to function back in the days of the Polish People’s Republic, i.e. before 1989, with only 25 kg of plastic per quarter.
You grew up in a family that was well-versed in the fixings and fasteners industry. As children grow up, they either boycott anything that’s associated with their parents, or follow their path. You chose the latter option. Do you recall the exact moment when you made that decision?
I don’t think it’s ever one particular moment, but rather a series of small triggers, of glints in the eye that make you develop an interest in something, want to learn and understand something.
It is definitely not insignificant that my mother was an orphan from Volhynia. Her uncle, who travelled half the world with General Anders’ Army, found her in an orphanage in the 1950s and made it possible for her to go to London, where she got a taste of a reality more colourful than that in Poland at the time. These two elements of her biography made my family home, on the one hand, always full of humility but, on the other hand, also curious about the world and capable of navigating it.
The effort I put into this learning is still paying off today. I have a university degree, but I’m not an engineer, I had to become one – to be able to competently select those projects which are worth our commitment. I was and I still am capable of judging for myself whether a particular design, device or technology are interesting, whether it’s possible and worthwhile to apply specific solutions also in our industry.
You mentioned your mother, Krystyna, who is a very important person to you.
I speak of my mother with great respect because I learnt a lot from her. I was lucky to work with her – she actually shaped my approach to other people and to my environment. Work at school prepared her well for HR, mainly at the ground level, so to speak: that associated with shop floor workers and with keeping core services such as accounting, finance and payroll operational. Thanks to her knowledge and experience, I didn’t have to take care of that at all for the first 20 years of running the company – she used to do it brilliantly and I could work on building the external distribution and sales structures.
People around the company have all sorts of different ideas about you. Some treat you like a living monument, some fear you, and for many you remain a mystery, a “Mr President” with whom one can allegedly be on first name terms. However, you are no outsider, you had lived and breathed this company before you even took its helm.
When you’re 14, 17 or 20, you don't think about how long you're going to work here or there – you just want to make a decent living. If you see interesting things happening around you, you start joining in – this is my origin story.
The 1980s were actually a struggle for survival. The economic conditions prevalent in Poland back then didn’t allow us to employ more than... two people. The official quota of plastic, a whopping 25 kg, would arrive once a quarter. Once, we got only 12.5 kg. Half a bag! At that time, my Mum would make all the mistakes you could possibly make, because she trusted people. Once, for example, she bought plastic from a neighbouring plant (there were a dozen of them nearby, set up in garages and outbuildings) and it turned out not to be the kind she had ordered. I took it with a wheelbarrow to the guy who’d sold it to her, and he goes: “You bought it how you saw it!”. It was like that back then.
Interesting scene, I can picture you pushing the wheelbarrow with the plastic scrap you want to complain about.
That was a normal thing to do, I was a young lad. Mum was 45 or 50 at the time, was she supposed to be pushing that wheelbarrow? You throw the bag onto it and you’re off!
Today’s 30-year-olds won’t understand that reality, it was an era full of absurdities. It wasn’t until 1989 that certain paths became unblocked, and I quickly found the right one – precisely because we had always had an ease with foreign languages at home, with access to different content and materials from abroad. After the borders opened, I developed an interest in import. The wall plugs we started with required both plastic and metal. Back then, they were either not manufactured in Poland at all, or their quality was so poor that nobody wanted to use them any more by the early 1990s. That was the time when we, as a company, started to combine our manufacturing expertise in the field of plastics with the knowledge and skills allowing us to navigate the global market for fixings and fasteners, or more precisely, at that time: bolts and screws. This is where I come from: continuous learning and making the most of your opportunities.
I have another family-related question. You have told me that you would like to write some books once you retire, and the first one will definitely be about your older brother Przemysław.
Absolutely. In a nutshell, he’s a powerhouse of ideas, and inspired me greatly in my early years. He has made and spent hundreds of millions. He set up the first online shop in Poland, he was successful... but then he got bored.
Was he the driving force behind you?
He mainly pushed himself, while I learnt mostly smart, and sometimes less smart things as we went along. When it comes to education, my brother has a more technical background. When we started running the business together, he was better versed in legal, financial, tax, and accounting matters. Mum would take care of the HR. I was in charge of organising the people from management, sales and production; I’d develop the structure as well as the product and the technology. This mechanism of working together proved excellent in the first ten years. My brother helped me a lot in the preparations to take on the role of CEO, even before we converted the business into a joint-stock company in 1999 and floated on the stock exchange a few years later.
In the next episode, we will talk about what is. That is, from your perspective, how running a business looks like in times of a pandemic, war, and crisis. Until next time!
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