The Insider View - Warsaw

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Local experts act as guides to doing business in Poland’s capital city

COMMERCIAL ENVIRONMENT

The tenth-biggest city in the European 
Union, with more than 1.7 million 
inhabitants, Warsaw has developed rapidly 
since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 
heralded its socioeconomic liberalisation. As well as being the country’s most populous 
metropolitan area by far, the capital is also its wealthiest, ranking fifth in the EU for GDP 
per capita. The average salary in the city is more than 
twice the national mean and its 
unemployment rate is the lowest in Poland at 3.7 per cent. The province of Mazovia, 
which surrounds the capital, is Poland’s most 
prosperous region, contributing 20 per cent to the nation’s income and attracting 30 per 
cent of foreign investment. Aleksander Solski ACMA, CGMA, finance 
director for Unilever in Poland and the Baltic states, says that Poland has experienced 
enormous changes over the past 25 years in its 
transition into a modern market economy. “It was the only country in Europe that went through the recent global financial crisis growing its GDP every year,” he says. 
Many people regard this period as the best for Poland since the 16th century.” Solski underlines Warsaw’s economic 
importance. “It’s a place where many multinational companies have set up their 
head offices, not only to run their Polish 
operations, but also to manage their entire 
central and eastern European business,” he says. Although the country has enjoyed two 
decades of uninterrupted economic growth, 
the brain drain of educated citizens to western Europe that started when Poland 
joined the EU in 2004 shows little sign of 
slowing. A recent survey found that almost 
half of Polish students are thinking about 
emigrating after graduation to seek better 
employment opportunities and higher wages. Commenting on the research, Janusz 
Czapiński, an eminent social psychologist, 
told national daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita: 
“Our economy lacks innovation in the 
creation of new jobs for the 21st century. This is the reason that our young people are looking for work abroad. Until this changes, 
the trend will not stop.”

DOING BUSINESS

Poland’s concerted efforts to appeal to 
foreign businesses in recent years are 
reflected in its rapid rise up the World Bank’s 
global “Ease of doing business” table. It is the 25th-ranked nation overall this year – a dramatic improvement on 76th in 2009, when only Greece ranked lower among the 
EU member states. “Warsaw business people value 
professionalism and follow the core rules of western business etiquette,” says Beata 
Mierzejewska, assistant professor at the 
Warsaw School of Economics. “Trust is also 
important. Anyone doing business in Poland 
should aim to develop social relationships 
with their associates as a step towards strong 
business relationships.” It’s important not to underestimate the 
challenges of operating in the city’s 
sophisticated commercial environment, according to Solski. “When the country was emerging from communism, there were loads 
of easy wins. These are now long gone. If you 
come here thinking: ‘They know nothing; I will teach them,’ you’ll fail,” he says. “You 
need to arrive humble and be prepared to 
fight in a competitive market.” But Solski stresses that foreign entrants to 
the market should not be deterred and will find potential local partners receptive to new 
ideas. “Poles are open to new opportunities 
and eager to take on challenges, adapting well to the changing world. They are open to 
trustworthy partners. Younger people here 
tend to be more flexible and broad-minded, 
as they have often had international 
experience during their studies.”

Mierzejewska offers three tips for 
commercial success in Warsaw:

Network, network, network. Build social 
relationships with potential business partners 
and people they trust.

Seek out start-ups and boutique advisory 
firms, led by ambitious and well-educated 
people. Trust them and don’t be afraid to give 
them a chance to work with you

Stay abreast of global business trends, as 
they find their way to Warsaw quickly.

MANAGEMENT CULTURE

Large organisations in Poland have 
traditionally been hierarchical in nature, with bureaucratic cultures predominating, 
especially in the public sector. But the 
country’s exposure to businesses from 
western Europe and the US over the past two decades has helped to reshape modern Polish management culture. Firms in Warsaw have 
been particularly inclined to adopt less 
formal, devolved structures, for instance. Solski says that the capital’s management 
culture has been shaped by foreign executives 
who arrived in their thousands during the 
1990s, accelerating the transfer of commercial 
practices from the West. But he reports that a 
new generation of homegrown leaders has 
since emerged – expat managers are 
increasingly being replaced by highly skilled 
and driven locals. “Poles are ambitious, hard-working and 
hungry for opportunities. It’s relatively easy 
to ignite them for new challenges – especially 
if you’re an authentic leader,” says Solski, who 
notes that there is a “war for talent”, as Polish 
companies compete with foreign firms for the 
country’s brightest candidates.

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