Zbigniew Niemczycki reminisces about the life and activity of an outstanding Pole and his Friend.
'Success', 'Vision & Innovation', 'Social Engagement'. These three categories of the Jan Wejchert Prize, awarded for two years now under the aegis of the Polish Business Roundtable which I have the pleasure of chairing and which He was the co-founder and its first Chairman, is probably the most succinct expression of the philosophy behind His actions. After less than four years since Janek passed away, as His acquaintance and then friend for nearly quarter of a century, I can only recount my great amazement at: his inexhaustible energy, persistence, the multitude of ideas he had every day, his incredible imagination and passion for life, and also his 16-year-long fight with leukemia that evokes the highest respect. Few knew of this difficult battle, full of focused spirituality. Janek – as he used to say – 'ignored' this fatal disease.
In his teenage years, he left for the West with 5 dollars in hand and with the address of his female colleague. In 2008, he placed 897th in the Forbes magazine's ranking with a wealth of $1.3 mrd. The fulfillment of the 'American dream'? I would rather say that he fulfilled the 'Polish dream'. Even in his home country hardly anyone knows that he takes after some incredibly inspiring family values. Until 1939, his grandfather Tadeusz Wejchert had a forwarding company in Gdansk, whereas Tadeusz's brother Kazimierz was a representative of General Motors in Warsaw. Shortly after the war, once they started taking care of business again, they both ended in prison in communist Poland. Kazimierz was found guilty of 'spying for the benefit of the United States of North America' and their proof was that he was a representative of General Motors, whereas Tadeusz was 'accused' because… he paid his employees better than state companies did, taking away the best specialists. The Wejchert brothers did not live to see justice done. Their good names were restored only after their death, in the 80s. The aspirations, desires of the grandfather and his brother could only be realized by Tadeusz's grandson…
During the times of the People's Republic of Poland (PRL), Janek's parents lived 'paycheck to paycheck'. He earned his first money at the age of 12, selling photos from the event at his primary school; he spent his allowance on a photo camera and the necessary chemicals. This – as he used to say – 'taught him how to calculate'. He studied nuclear physics at the University of Warsaw because 'he wanted to perceive the world in many dimensions', then he switched to econometrics. But both the theory and practice of the socialist economy sickened him, he did not see any logic or sense in it. He could not fit within the small frames of a country which, as he once colorfully put it, was like a 'hairy pork hock with a functionary's stamp'. Thus, he set out for the so-called 'saksy' – unexplainable to today's Free World Citizens, but well-known to those rebellious spirits in the eastern block – trying his hand at various part-time jobs in a few of the West European countries. He worked, for example, in a food warehouse, unloading trucks – he learned the tough rules of capitalism from the ground-up. And also the theory. His spiritual teacher was Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, author of books on management. Welch's book 'Winning', copies of which he later handed out to his subordinate managers, he probably knew by heart. In time, with a little help from his relatives abroad, he could make his own way in the world.
He became the talk of Poland already in the 70s, during the reign of the enlightened party leader Edward Gierek who promoted a careful 'course of opening' toward the West. At that time, Janek was promoting the products of the Dunlop concern. In the folksy communist Poland, he organized the first tournaments with the participation of professional tennis players, The great tennis players of that time took part in it: Björn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Tom Okker, Jan Kodeš. Janek worked miracles to bring them over; he even rented planes just for them. The courts, where the matches were played, were packed with people who wanted to see up-close those previously unknown stars. For him it was probably an important lesson in marketing and public relations as part of a rather wildly improvised situation. At that time, thanks to my love for white sport, I had the opportunity to meet him and we managed to find common ground. We quickly became friends.
And again, even in Poland hardly anyone knows that Janek, as a budding businessman, wrote… the bill on Polish expatriate companies, which constituted a crucial impulse for the disassembly of the so-called real socialism and the beginning of the political transformation. So what was it all about? Polish expatriate companies were thought of, by the hardheaded members of the Polish United Worker's Party, as 'sores on the healthy body of socialism'. The first such companies started being established in the 80s, when the shelves of Polish shops only held vinegar. As for soap and toothpaste, Poles had to buy them from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It was clear to all that the socialist body was visibly decaying. The government, wanting to do something about it, decided to let some capitalism into the country. But it was not really about capitalism, it was about the strong currency that in Poland was worth much more than in the West. In order to bring some dollars over, the party decided to encourage 'expatriates' to establish companies in the country. The condition was that you had to invest in the home country. And to produce the 'product mass' for the empty socialist shops. Janek entered Poland with the offerings of the Konsuprod company, which he was CEO of, as one of the first – right next to Zenon Ignacy Soszynski, Jan Kulczyk or Jerzy Starak.
In the desert that was the Polish market, every product, particularly those with aesthetic packaging, sold like water. Ketchup, chips (previously unknown in Poland and, at first, difficult to accept as 'dry potatoes'), and also other food delicacies produced by Konsuprod, disappeared immediately from the shops. Janek did not stop at the food industry. He quickly began importing VHS players and electronic equipment from the Far East, including Hitachi products. He created one of the first advertising agencies. He established the first automatic car wash in Poland. Within the Old Continent, he was a pioneer in many areas of trade and services.
The breadth of his undertakings, international experience, erudition, business instinct caused that Leszek Balcerowicz, chief architect of the economic changes in Poland, offered him the chair of the Minister of Privatization. He refused. He saw himself in the thick of events, but somewhere else, in another dimension. This does not mean he avoided politics, joint responsibility for the country's fate (he became, as I mentioned earlier, the first Chairman of the Polish Business Roundtable which gathers the representatives of leading employers), he did not avoid public appearances, formulating evaluations and forecasts. 'The crisis. I think that it's a change. It mobilizes our company because we want to take advantage of the competition's weakness. The Polish economy should do the same. The crisis justifies quick action and carrying out of reforms which in normal conditions would be impossible to do. You could make the economy less bureaucratic, simplify the tax system, accelerate privatization,' he appealed toward the end of his life.
Janek's immortality in the minds of Poles was ensured first and foremost thanks to the ITI company (International Trading and Investment; established in 1984, for ten years it functioned on the Luxemburg stock market) and the TV station established by it – TVN (to this day listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange). A television station that was… not meant to be.
I remember that in the middle of the 90s, Janek suggested that us three – me, Janek and Mariusz Walter – should start our own TV station. I thought about this a lot, analyzed it, estimated the chance of success. Eventually, I refused because I thought the chance for success was very small. Now I see how greatly I was wrong and how I did not appreciate Janek's vision and determination.
Vision and determination – these words appear practically in every conversation about Janek. But when talking about Him, it is impossible to avoid these words as it is exactly thanks to these traits that he managed to create ITI and turn it, a consortium that at its peak employed 5 thousand people, into one of the most recognized Polish brands, one of the leading media groups in Central Europe. The vision consisted of investing in electronic media at the beginning of the 90s, a field in which it was impossible – according to many – to make big money and to challenge the then all-powerful public television. The determination expressed itself in the fact that TVN became a national Polish television, though for a long time it looked like there was not even a slightest chance of that happening.
The idea to create a nationwide TV station was quite natural when your business partner is an outstanding TV creator – and Mariusz Walter is such a creator: author of cult hits at the time of the PRL, such as 'Turniej Miast' or 'Studio 2' which, among others, was able to bring ABBA to Poland at the height of their career. The Wejchert-Walter duo (the former managed the corporation, the latter handled the program side of the TV station) applied for a concession in 1992. It seemed they had every advantage on their side: solid financial backing, ambitious idea for a TV station, support of Reuters and German RTL. But it was Zygmunt Solorz's Polsat that won – in addition, it received the only concession for nationwide broadcast which meant that there would be no more such TV stations.
And at that point Janek's second incredible talent made its appearance: determination. Even though regulations were unwaveringly clear that another nationwide TV station cannot be established, he was looking for his chance. And he found it. First, ITI secured (in 1997) the concession for a regional TV station in the north of Poland. Then he managed to takeover the 'Wisla' TV station which had a concession for broadcasting in the southern part of Poland. The only thing left was to combine both stations – this way, TVN was born which broadcasted to all major cities in the country and then all over Poland.
TVN 24, the first news channel in Central Europe that consumed $20 mln, also seemed like a crazy idea. The American CNN needed five years to earn its first profit and it had been operating in a much, much larger market. TVN journalists called the new channel 'the most expensive company TV in the world'. In 2001, TVN 24 lost $5 mln. Soon, it became the most profitable thematic channel in Poland.
Janek used to be impulsive. In 2005, TVN's thematic channels had problems during negotiations with cable TV operators. During one of the events, he went up to the manager of a large network and said: 'I like you and respect you, but I have to confess something. If you continue to play with us like that, we'll enter your business.'
He fulfilled his threat. Barely a year later, the N digital platform was launched.
Janek did not stop expanding; he was constantly growing the corporation. Here is a quote from one of the last press interviews he gave:
Question: 'They talk about Father Rydzyk's media empire, but shouldn't they rather talk about Jan Wejchert's media empire?'
Answer: 'I don't like imperial names. But it's true, me and my partners managed to create a group that is unique on a global scale. As part of a single holding, we have a TV station, thematic channels, a news channel, the Onet web portal, a chain of cinemas, the N platform and the Legia Warszawa football club… You could compare us only with Time Warner.'
Boasting? No. It's stating the facts. Janek was a modest man, all the while realistically evaluating his chances and position. He preferred partnership, teamwork, though he did like being the leader. Both in the company and outside of it. His subordinates liked him, but they also highly respected him. 'A charming smile and attentive, steel eyes', said one of the ITI managers about him. He was blessed with great manners, a sense of humor and natural charisma, setting the standards for an entire generation of Polish entrepreneurs. At TVN, he did not bet solely on commerce. He decided to create the non-profit channel Religia.tv to 'spread tolerance in Poland'. He knew how to multiply money, setting the risk level 'right down to the centimeter', but he also knew how to share it. He discreetly supported the construction of the large, symbolic, patriotic work of Poles – the Temple of Divine Providence. Also discreetly, without publicity, he dedicated money for charitable goals. To this day, the Foundation 'Nie jesteś sam', functioning alongside TVN, continues to meet with much success. For him, morality and ethics were not empty words. 'Janek believed in the boomerang rule – harm always comes back to its source,' said Aldona, His wife.
Big connoisseur of life
Incredibly disciplined, he regularly woke up at four in the morning, went to sit behind his desk and devised some kind of strategy. He went back to bed, slept until seven AM, started the day with a glass of water with lemon, exercised, meditated, and only then he started working. Yoga, which he jokingly called a 'mania' was especially important to him, in particular during the last period of his life. He always took care of his physical fitness. He dived, climbed mountains, rode the bicycle, played golf. Speaking of which, he initiated the construction of a large golf course near Warsaw.
With the amount of work he had to deal with, he was the stay-at-home type, in one of his three houses in Europe. He always tried to find time for his wife, family, their five children – he made sure they received thorough education, he taught them respect for work and money. He was a big connoisseur of life. Literally and metaphorically. He was passionate about photography. He collected paintings; he was particularly interested in École de Paris. He loved to cook; he had an impressive library of culinary books which he took inspiration from, modifying the recipes so that they fitted his tastes and palate. He preferred French cuisine; he did the necessary shopping by himself, at those small French food markets. But the stuff of legends among those visiting the Wejcherts will be His ideas and their execution: 'a true Polish cold soup' (lighter than the traditional one, based on yoghurt and kefir), 'baby chicken' a'la Poland (with stuffing), sea bass (with onion, tomatoes, also some white wine), or a soup from seaweed. Moreover, hardly anyone knows that Janek made Wojciech Modest Amaro into a master of European cuisine. Amaro, a chef with many years of experience, straight from Sosnowiec, won the competition for managing a restaurant in London's Media Club (a club for journalists) and planned to stay there for longer. But one day Janek visited the Media Club to have his supper there. Almost immediately, Janek brought him to Warsaw and had him manage an experimental kitchen in the headquarters of the Polish Business Roundtable, in Warsaw's Sobanski Palace (thanks to Janek, the palace was bought and, with piety and care, renovated). Amaro was the master chef at the Sobanski Palace for seven years, until Janek's death. In September 2011, Amaro opened his own restaurant – Atelier Amaro. In 2013, Atelier Amaro earned a Michelin Star, the first in Poland.
'Don't cry at my funeral. Open a bottle of good wine and remember the good times', said Janek shortly before he passed away. So let us make a toast, with a glass of good wine, to Remember one of the few representatives of modern renaissance.
Author: Zbigniew Niemczycki / pr-controlled.com ©
Photos: Judyta Papp
Zbigniew Niemczycki, owner and Chairman of Curtis Group. He has been the Chairman of the Polish Business Roundtable for 4 terms now. In the Business Centre Club, he is Member of the General Council. He graduated from The University of Warsaw with an engineer's degree.
He is a licensed helicopter pilot; he also has a commercial pilot license. He is an avid tennis player. His passion for aviation helped establish GENERAL AVIATION LLC, a company providing the so-called small aviation services,
and also the Polish Eagles Foundation – since 1995, he is the organizer of the International Air Picnic in Goraszka.
Laureate of numerous awards. For his charity work, he was awarded the Cross of St. George with Star by Pope John Paul II in 1991.
Polish version of Zbigniew Niemczycki's essay