Janusz Szlanta stands out among Polish execs. At 47, he has proven successful enough at home to begin looking for opportunities abroad. He became a managing director and co-owner of the Gdynia shipyard, located on the Baltic coast, in 1997. Then, together with two friends and new bank financing, he spent $29 million to buy the declining Gdansk shipyard, where the Solidarity movement was born in 1980.
Szlanta now presides over Europe's eighth-largest shipyard operation, and he plans to invest in Finland's Masa-Yards, a Baltic Sea cruise-ship builder. That would make him Poland's first major foreign investor--just as Poland is negotiating its membership in the European Union.
Buying Gdansk, where Lech Walesa emerged as a national leader, was no sentimental journey. The yard's decline began even before the communist era had ended; its workforce had dropped from 12,000 to 2,700. But Roman Kuzminski, deputy Solidarity leader at the yard, thinks the page has turned under Szlanta. Gdansk now employs 3,100 and has orders stretching to 2002. Kuzminski calls Szlanta's international ambitions "an investment in the future."
The Gdynia yard was also in rough shape when Szlanta arrived, having lost $28 million the previous year. Banks refused to lend to it. Szlanta shifted bulk-carrier construction to Gdansk, so Gdynia could concentrate on more profitable container ships. It proved a wise move: Sales hit $400 million last year. Even after heavy capital spending, Gdynia declared a profit of $9.5 million.
Now, Szlanta wants a 20% to 25% stake in Masa-Yards, noted for its advanced technological capabilities. His intent is partly to diversify production and gain expertise, but Szlanta is also eager to expand outward from his home base. "The shareholding in Masa-Yards will lend credibility both to Gdynia and the Polish shipbuilding industry," he says.
Szlanta's early pursuits were far from shipbuilding. After studying electronics in Krakow, he worked as a researcher for 11 years before being appointed governor of Poland's Radom province in 1993. He went into banking two years later, when he was named director of Bank Rozowju in Warsaw. The bank managed the shares of the Gdynia shipyard, and Szlanta was elected chairman of the yard's supervisory board in 1997.
Szlanta, a married father of four, is still going full steam ahead. In an industry ripe for consolidation, he wants to make Gdynia No. 1 in Europe. Not bad for a scholar-turned-governor-turned-banker who has only lately turned to the sea.