31st Mar 2020

Poland's richest entrepreneur dies

  • A long and canny business career (Photo: Kulczyk Investments)

Poland lost its richest businessman, philanthropist and person strongly associated with the country’s transformation from Communism to the market economy on Wednesday (30 July) when Jan Kulczyk died after complications following minor heart surgery.

Kulczyk started on his path to fortune as an intermediary in the privatization of the largest state-owned companies in the 1990s.

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Today his energy and infrastructure company has assets on five continents. His personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes at €3.62 billion.

Kulczyk started his business while Poland was still under communist rule, investing money from his father.

His first company Interkulpol imported used agricultural machinery from Germany to Poland. A few years later he became the first authorised Volkswagen dealer and earned his first big money selling 3,000 cars to the security services.

He had contacts, good business sense and spoke several languages – something that made him stand out in the beginning of the 1990s.

These skills enabled him to become involved in privatization; buying shares of state-owned companies and then participating in selling them to foreign investors.

The major deals included the buying of minority stakes in Tyskie brewery, insurer Warta and national telecom provider Telekomunikacja Polska SA which he later sold to huge players like France Telekom or SABMiller PLC.

This earned him both a lot of money as well as accusations that he was selling off national assets.

Political controversies

The political climate around him changed in 2002 amid an investigation into the malfunctioning of the biggest state oil company, PKN Orlen.

The investigation revealed that Kulczyk’s influence in the company was far greater than his five-percent share warranted.

He became a symbol of the too-close relationships between business and politics and a central character in rightist media conspiracy theories.

Politicians became more hesitant to make deals with his company so he started to look for business opportunities abroad and became involved into oil exploration in Africa, South America and Asia. Soon after he was doing businesses with India’s richest man Lakshmi Mittal.

Today Kulczyk’s investment vehicle, Kulczyk Investments, is led by Kulczyk’s son, 34-year old Sebastian, who took over the business in 2013.

Kulczyk’s latest idea was to invest into the modernisation of Ukrainian energy plants to sell cheap Polish coal to Ukraine and then buy cheap Ukrainian electric power.

He claimed it would be a win-win situation: Poland helps Ukraine with modernisation and gets cheap energy in return.

Polish stock exchange reacted strongly to the news of Kulczyk’s death. Shares in his chemistry company Ciech fell by 5.3 percent; shares in Serinus Energy by 2.2 percent.

The philanthropist

Kulczyk was also well known as a philanthropist funding Polish sport, young people’s education, culture and heritage.

A 20-million-zloty donation allowed the Warsaw-based Museum of the history of Polish Jews to be finished.

“He was a great entrepreneur with successes in Poland and abroad. It is impossible to write an honest history of Polish transformation without mentioning his involvement,” said Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland’s first post-communist finance minister.

“He is irreplaceable,” said Lech Walesa, a former president and hero of the of the Solidarity resistance movement.

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