Many Central European managers have found it hard to adapt to the tumultuous economic changes in the past six years. Not Zofia Gaber, CEO of Poland's Agros. The 56-year-old manager has turned her company from a state-owned monopoly food trader into a profitable $400 million food manufacturer listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Analysts say several multinationals have been eyeing the company.
Agros owes its transformation to Gaber's flexibility and marketing savvy. After earning a master's degree in foreign trade, she joined Agros as a clerk's assistant, rose through the ranks, and became managing director in 1986, when Poland's planned economy was on its last legs. When privatization started in 1988, she stayed at the helm to devise strategy for the era of competition.
Unlike other trading houses, which plunged into many unrelated ventures, Agros kept its focus on the food sector it knew. Gaber set her sights first on fruit juices, where the state cooperative, Hortex, seemed to have no game plan. Flush with cash, Agros snapped up five juice factories and developed its own brand called Fortuna, which comes in six varieties ranging from apple to pear. To push the product, the company launched a $1.5 million TV marketing campaign featuring Polish rock stars.
The gamble paid off. Fortuna now controls 25% of the market, while Hortex' share has plunged from 80% to 25%. To protect against imports, which have grabbed market share, Agros touts its local roots by broadcasting live concerts from cities where its juices are made. Gaber also hired pop star Kasia Kowalska to sing the Agros jingle on TV.
It's a far cry from the old days. But Gaber knows that marketing won't keep the company, which earned $15.8 million in profits last year, growing. She's moving into a new area: frozen foods. Agros shipped its first 100,000 ready-to-cook frozen dinners in late April. "People are looking for more free time. We think there is enormous potential," she says. If Gaber can continue to capitalize on changing lifestyles, she'll give the foreign food companies now operating in Poland a run for their money.