How does he define his philosophy of conducting business that brought him such spectacular success? How is running a business today different from 25 years ago? Is it easy to be innovative and how can it be done? Why did he decide to become the Official Partner of the National Polish Football Team and build a luxurious hotel at Lake Rożnów, and why does he feel like a 25-year-old? An interview with Andrzej Wiśniowski, the founder of WIŚNIOWSKI.
25 years, is that a long time for a company? Is this the perfect time for summarising a certain stage, and time for afterthought?
History, summaries, anniversaries… they’re all very nice, but why do you want to take this opportunity to put me in a museum? I don’t like being on display and I don’t feel well being locked inside a case. If you ask me how I feel celebrating the 25th anniversary of my company, I would say I feel like its peer; that is, I feel like I was 25 (laughs).
What is the source your well-being?
I think that many active people know what I’m talking about because being active in various fields, including business, makes us feel better and younger. Do I need to give you any specific examples? Sure, there are also examples of people who after being professionally active for 25 years and struggling with a free market economy will admit to feeling tired and burnt out. I understand this because everyone is different and reacts in their own way. For me being active, having the possibility to create the company’s vision statement, drives me and gives me something what is now called a positive kick, losing track of time there for a moment. Anyway, I feel that the most important challenges are still before me.
Can you imagine WIŚNIOWSKI in 25 years’ time?
Don’t get me wrong and don’t think that I don’t appreciate what we have accomplished over the past 25 years. I really appreciate it and I ponder on the past. We have been very successful and let’s leave it at that, at least for now. And now, please imagine me sitting comfortably in an armchair and thinking every single day about how wonderful I am, how much I have achieved in my field, letting my success go to my head. In a very short time that would lead to a terrible disaster. Modern history is full of examples of companies (I won’t give you their names because it’s public knowledge), world-class giants, leaders in their field, who thought that they were immortal and that their success would last forever. Success is intoxicating, especially if you can’t wrap your head around it. If you have too much then it can be deadly and become a trap. This is why I personally believe that it is most important to think about the future. Speaking the company’s language: raising awareness of thinking about the future at each organisational level is a part of this strategy. If the habit of thinking about the future becomes a part of our job then, in a very short time, we can expect spectacular results.
If, during the anniversary, the word “future” is more important than “past”, what kind of future can you see in your crystal ball?
Please, don’t make jokes. The company’s outlook is not the result of some magic spells and wishful thinking. I can predict the future of our company roughly, of course, but based on hard data and concrete figures. One day an entrepreneur said in an interview that mathematics and economic balance are the most important in his company. The vision of our future has also its basis in economic balance and not in the crystal ball.
What is the time-perspective for Andrzej Wiśniowski’s plans?
I think it won’t come as a surprise if I admit that the plan for my plant’s expansion spans more than 10 years. I mean the expansion of the plant including the products, which should also undergo constant change. How will the company look in 10 years’ time? We need to remember that we are operating in a place that does not allow bold spatial planning. Hence, we are looking for innovative solutions, such as large underground car parks that can save space under new office buildings and production facilities.
When you look into the future, even 10 years ahead, what is the first word to come to mind?
Innovation. Definitely innovation. I would even say that for a long time now it has been the keyword in our work. If you’re not innovative, if your products aren’t innovative, then you lag behind others. Obviously, we don’t want to be behind others. I daresay that innovation is a process that never ends because even good products need to improve. Let me give you a recent example from our sector: the PRIME sectoral door is today the most innovative solution in the market in this product group. Even good products need to improve and even the most refined product will be validated by the market. That is why we carefully observe what is going on with our products during their use phase, so we don’t miss out on any of the customers’ needs. Even if it sounds paradoxical, or I sound a bit obsessive, I repeat one more time, even the perfect product of today will have to be changed in the nearest future.
Let’s get back to the past for a moment, or should I say the company’s history? A family-run operation located in a garage, in 25 years became a top European player. It fuels many people’s imagination, allows us to believe that anyone can have their American dream.
On many occasions I hear that, 25 years ago, during the Polish political transformation, it was easier to build a successful company and its position in the market. In my opinion, without false modesty I can say that I have had hands-on experience in this area and it’s absolutely false. On every occasion, and today is such an occasion, I strongly emphasize that it was definitely harder in the past. In Poland there is a silly stereotype that 25 years ago anyone who opened their own business was destined to be successful. I wonder how easily we forget that many entrepreneurs of that time ended their careers with a business failure or even worse. Why do we so easily forget that the galloping inflation and uncontrolled changes in interest rates on loans ended in drama for many entrepreneurs? I’m certain that running a business today is way easier.
Haven’t you heard, especially from younger people, that with today’s market saturation it’s more onerous to set up a company than in times when there where shortages in everything and the customers consumed any amount of goods being produced?
I have. But if today it’s so difficult, why do we constantly hear of young people who come up with great business ideas and successfully implement them? Of course, some sectors of industry are more saturated than others, but for the brave ones, those who have interesting ideas, some new niches always open up.
I’ll stick to the idea that 25 years ago there was shortage in everything. Now we have access to everything that is needed to run a company efficiently. We have access to modern marketing tools, we always have a mobile on us to communicate with our suppliers and customers, we have access to knowledge and, with just one click, we get all the materials needed delivered right to our doorstep. In the past there was no knowledge, no mobiles, no modern computers with calculating or graphic programs nor material to be used for production purposes. There were no electronic financial accounts nor many of the other things that today make an entrepreneur’s life easier. Phew, I just got so cold reflecting on those times that, according to some, were so conducive to achieving business success. Believe me, they are two different eras, which are almost impossible to compare. I’ve lived in both.
Since today it’s easier, everyone has equal access to knowledge and tools to pursue their goals, what is the key to success?
I believe that success lies within us, especially in our imagination. In simple terms, we are one step ahead of others if we can be the first to imagine what the customer needs. Finding others’ needs is very easy and, at the same time, extremely difficult. I believe that the customers’ needs are unlimited and, step by step, we should foresee and meet them. Let me give you an example: I enjoy travelling because there’s nothing more educating than visiting places where we can see what others do and how they do it. Once, during a visit to a factory making handmade cars, I realized that it is the idea of detail that is essential in satisfying the customer’s individual needs. Everything else is easily obtainable in the market, and you don’t need to manufacture it yourself. We don’t have to produce engines, wheels or tyres because they are produced by someone else, so we can simply purchase them. For us the most important is the idea behind those details that make our product special.
I believe that success lies within us, especially in our imagination. In simple terms, we are one step in front of others if we can be the first to imagine what the customer needs. Finding others’ needs is very easy and, at the same time, extremely difficult.
Is your work more enjoyable today or 25 years ago?
I generally enjoy my work because, if I didn’t, I suppose I would have felt burnt out by now, I would have lost my enthusiasm and motivation to work. While I was setting up my company, I was handling many different things, from production, administration, accountancy and transport to other things that needed to be done at the time. Today I can say that we have created an organization of work that allows me to give voice to my aspirations. Today I can focus on developing the company’s strategy and implementing visions that have been evolving in me for a long time now. To put it simply, for the past 25 years I have worked in almost all positions in my own company and now I am where I am. It’s a process and I think it hasn’t ended yet.
Peter Drucker, one of the most renowned 20th-century management consultants said: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” Do you have your own list of courageous decisions from the past 25 years?
I think that the most courageous decision was made even earlier than that, when I decided to set up my own business. Today thousands of people a day make similar decisions, but back then, in a country where people were too attached to state jobs, used to social security and almost non-existent risk involved with their professional careers, going my own way was a journey into the unknown. Other courageous decisions? Certainly, I also quickly dared to invest money borrowed from the banks. Of course, I borrowed after establishing my creditworthiness, and that did not come out of thin air. You had to earn the banks’ trust, show that the company was a healthy and well-managed organism.
How did you know how to manage your own company, how to develop it, because before 1989 nobody taught it in Poland and after 1989 there was no time to catch up on business theory?
I think that in those times many novice entrepreneurs had to make do with “hands-on business experience.” This method was sometimes very painful, which was very visible back then. I’ve already mentioned that for many entrepreneurs it ended really badly. I don’t mean to say that I was the most exceptional student in the school of life and that such experience wasn’t painful for me. For sure, due to my family background, it was a little easier for me. I must have said it some time ago, but I was simply genetically destined to be an entrepreneur because it runs in my blood. My grandpa, who was a sailor, brought a greenhouse from the Netherlands. I think it was the first one in our region, and located it in Ubiad, a small village in Sądecka Land. In this way he became an entrepreneur, although this kind of activity had a different name back then. In times of socialism he was scornfully called a truck farmer. So, thanks to those greenhouses, as a young boy I had the chance to observe how his own company was run and how very different it was from a state job. I also quickly noticed that having one’s company relates not only with particular problems but also advantages. The problems and risks are obviously far greater than those connected with a state job but the advantages resulting from independence are usually worth the risk. I have to say that I liked being an entrepreneur and that is why I started working on my own even before 1989.
You talk about running a business like it was an uninterrupted series of successes and that you had an insurance policy against a crisis.
I’d like a different set of questions.
(…) Lake Rożnów, as an important part of our region, is very important to me! I understand that better-off Poles are fond of travelling. It’s great because I do it myself (…). However, I don’t understand why we turn our backs on our local tourist gems, and Lake Rożnów is a good example of such an attraction.
Did you invent a wonderful solution for the world economic crises?
I didn’t have to invent a thing because this rule is public knowledge, you just need to be brave enough to apply it. A moment ago we talked about my courageous or risky decisions taken in recent years. Our operational strategy, our business philosophy, is based on this very rule: invest in times of crisis to harvest in times of prosperity. Unfortunately, I know from my experience that a large part of the market starts panicking upon hearing the very word “crisis” and start behaving against the rules. Despite the fact that in theory everyone knows that it’s a good time to invest, most people begin to economize and limit themselves to survive the tough times. Such a strategy breaks the rules and only fuels the crisis.
And you’ve never had first-hand experience of a crisis?
Of course I have! In my company the effects of the crisis looked slightly different. Instead of the expected high increase there was a medium increase, but we’ve never noted a production downturn. You just need to set your sights high. Then, even if we don’t reach the goals we’ve planned, what we actually achieve is good enough. And now what? I would have to live as a conceited man because I said in public that crises weren’t allowed to roam our production facilities. The spiteful will say that he shut down the plant’s gates before the crisis without using a remote (laughs).
Several entrepreneurs in Sądecka Land seem to think like you, have you all come to some agreement? This region is also described as a land that breeds millionaires.
I wouldn’t dare say that in all matters we speak as one, but recently we have been unanimous in the most important issues. We have had similar experiences because we have done similar things. And when it comes to millionaires, the statistics say that people who live here possess above-average business skills. I’ve had a theory of my own on the subject for a long time now. It’s just that the previous system didn’t manage to impose on us all the economic inventions of real socialism. State Agricultural Farms weren’t popular here, allowing us to maintain the traditional model of ownership. People worked in their own businesses, as we would call them today. This is how characters were shaped; people learnt responsibility and the basis of business instead of working for the State Agricultural Farms, where everything was common, that is it didn’t actually belong to anyone. My grandpa, whom I’ve already mentioned, employed over ten people in his greenhouses. This was unimaginable for other regions of Poland. Thanks to that, in the free market economy, all of those people did well and became successful in business.
Why does your region take pride in its uniqueness, its residents’ exceptional skills and resourcefulness, its attachment to tradition?
I don’t see anything wrong in underlining such qualities and values. For me it’s important that I’ve created my company in this region, that in Poland we produce world-class products and that we pay taxes here and employ over 1300 people. I remember the times when we admired everything that came from abroad because it was better, prettier, more reliable and longer-lasting. Does this mean that our old complexes should pass onto the future generations? I don’t agree with that and, if need be, I’ll speak up: my name is Andrzej Wiśniowski, my company produces the most advanced technological and designer products in its area of operation, which are renowned throughout Europe.
Why did you say that? Everybody knows it already.
I said it because it annoys me to hear only bad news in the media, which is only interested in some company when something goes wrong or when it starts firing its employees on a mass scale. When companies employ people the media are silent about it.
Why does it arouse such emotions in you?
Because every day you can hear that young people don’t have any career prospects in our region or even in this country and that they have to go abroad to seek their chances and do simple manual tasks for foreigners. It’s a widely discussed topic, so why so little is said about the fact that our engineers are no worse than their Western colleagues? Why is so little attention paid to positive information, for example that in our company all employees have contracts of employment and that we provide a good social care scheme? Politicians constantly repeat that we need to do something to keep young people from emigrating. We don’t speak about it, we only try to keep them here and bind them to the company in a very specific way. There is a vocational school next to our plant, so we have our own forge for professionals and young people can feel needed. It builds their sense of stability and predictability for the future, which today is not so common nor obvious. Most of all, these young people have a possibility to undertake traineeships in such professions as: metalworker, welder, electrician or electromechanical engineer. We have our own fleet of vehicles, so we also train vehicle mechanics. Such a HR policy is a part of the company’s strategy, which, despite the fact that construction industry is seasonal, does not fire its employees in the low season, as is often the case in other companies. In winter we organize training, machine maintenance and production of typical products. All those actions result in loyalty from our employees, who identify themselves with the company. Have you heard that our employees meet every day for a common meal? We have the biggest staff canteen in our region, or even in Poland, which daily serves over 800 meals.
So it’s a family business…
I wouldn’t dare say that the entire company is one big family, but we are definitely a good team. A very numerous one because, besides those people working in the plant, there are of course our distributors and business partners. They constitute a very important element of the entire undertaking, and for many of them we are a chance for them to have their own business. It’s a reliable partner system, in which both parties can enjoy considerable benefits. It’s important because, thanks to our business offer that they can show their customers, we not only build a strong bond with them but we also strengthen their sense of economic stability and safety.
Do you appreciate comparison between sports and business?
Such comparisons often perfectly fit the nature of our operations. Competition in sports and business has many things in common. In both fields one needs to have a certain set of qualities, such as: consistency, determination, ambition, a will to fight, and all of these to consider victory.
Was this the reason why WIŚNIOWSKI became the official partner of the Polish national football team?
I’ll put it this way: where there’s football and the emotions it arouses, there is our target group, so in marketing terms it was a natural decision for us. We bound ourselves with the national team in a difficult time, when there were no successes and the fans were focused on criticising the team and being frustrated because the lack of satisfactory results. There’s no point in hiding the fact that many people were quite surprised that we had decided to, let’s say, take a risky move like that. But we’ve explained already that sometimes one just needs to take a risk because, in the long run, it often pays off. I wish you didn’t see the faces of those sceptics when we won the match against Germany and other qualifying games. Many asked how had I known that it was the time to bet on the national football team.
And how did you respond?
What kind of answer you would like to hear?
Only an honest one.
So I could respond in accordance with what I’ve already admitted today, that it was the effect of cool head: invest in times of crisis to harvest in times of prosperity. It wouldn’t be true because Poles always support their team, no matter the score and the number of disappointments it provides them. A true football fan never ceases to be one, even if the team loses the match and he claims to all that he is not interested in the team any more. The risk of failure but, at the same time, fast recovery, is intertwined in both sports and business competition. This is why such comparisons are close to my heart. I feel it because my company also represents Poland in Europe and all over the world.
So why do you need the HERON hotel overlooking Lake Rożnów?
The answer is very simple: Lake Rożnów, as an important part of our region, is very important to me! I understand that better-off Poles are fond of travelling. It’s great because I do it myself, I appreciate the value of travel because I believe that it widens people’s horizons and makes us more open towards others. However, I don’t understand why we turn our backs on our local tourist gems, and Lake Rożnów is a good example of such an attraction. In recent years admitting to spending free time at Lake Rożnów has been a bit frowned upon, or so I’ve heard. People are ashamed to say that they spend their Sunday kayaking. At the end of the summer the residents of Sądecka Land tell each other how they spent their holiday, they try to outdo one another by listing various tourist attractions, but nobody admits that they spent their time relaxing at the lake. How can you appreciate a sad beach in Gródek more than holiday in Croatia even, not mentioning the Mediterranean beaches?
Are you surprised by people’s decisions?
Of course I’m not, because Lake Rożnów in recent years has earned its negative publicity, but I’m irritated by the condescending tone we, the inhabitants of Sądecka Land, use when we talk about that place. Now I’m going to ask a question to the public: What have you done in order for Rożnów Lake to cease to be associated with negative publicity and, like many years ago, started attracting tourists who enjoy being outdoors and the attractions which this beautiful spot offers.
And you have decided to be one of the first people to answer such a question yourself, by constructing a hotel at the lake?
Let me add: I’ve seen those same smirks as when we bonded ourselves to the national football team. Wiśniowski has gone mad! Who will come to a hotel at a lake that’s dying? I don’t agree to put it like that. Indeed, many years ago we stopped taking care not only of the water and banks but also the entire area of the lake. But does it mean that we should allow it to become expendable?
Lake Rożnów, as a tourist attraction, is in crisis. So you wanted to say that one needs to invest in a time of crisis to harvest in the times of prosperity?
You said it. And I would probably be crazy if I treated my engagement in matters connected with the lake as a strictly commercial project, expecting a fast return on the investment; let’s leave it, at least for now. There is something else, and forgive me if it sounds a bit lofty, and that is corporate social responsibility. I feel responsible for that place because I feel responsible for the development of the entire region. If I can influence the restoration of the region’s former glory, attracting tourists, then I try to do that. It won’t come as a surprise if I add that those are not all of my plans connected with the revitalization of the lakeside area. The hotel itself created about 70 new jobs. Since the rule of the communist party, when forty holiday accommodation centres were operating there, no new job had been created. We have made the first step to change that and I’m glad that there are others who, seeing the potential of this place, have decided to invest their money in it.
Interviewer: Wojciech Molendowicz