"Some days I feel like committing suicide or murder. But I'm never ever bored," confides Wanda Rapaczynski, the 54-year-old president of Polish media giant Agora (AGHI ). It's not easy being in the media business in Poland, where competition is tough and relatively few people read newspapers. Yet Rapaczynski, a former psychologist turned banker turned publisher, has emerged as one of Central Europe's most successful entrepreneurs over the past decade.
Rapaczynski has built Agora into one of Poland's largest companies, and the biggest media group by far. Its flagship newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, has a circulation of 465,000, more than twice its nearest rival. Agora also boasts a stable of 14 radio stations and an Internet portal. Net profits last year topped $40 million, 31% more than the year before. The company has consistently been one of the best performers on the Warsaw bourse since its flotation two years ago.
Agora has grown so big since its launch in 1990 that Rapaczynski is now looking to expand abroad. "We have the money, we have the balance sheet, we have the expectations," she says. "But there are very few acquisition targets in Poland big enough to be interesting." She's already looking at radio stations elsewhere in Central Europe. She also plans to spend up to $370 million pushing Agora into billboard advertising and television in Poland.
HOSTILE BID. It was the launch of Agora that brought Rapaczynski, who had left Poland during the Communist government's anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, back home. After stints in Italy and Sweden, she settled in the U.S., where she worked as a psychologist and then, after graduating from Yale School of Management, became head of new product development for retail banking at Citibank. In the late 1980s, several of her closest childhood friends set up Gazeta Wyborcza and turned to her for advice. She initially provided it by telephone from New York. "But it became impossible for me to concentrate on two things, Agora and Citibank, at once," Rapaczynski recalls. So she gave up the bank and moved back to Poland, where she became president of the company.
Initially, Agora focused on the newspaper. But by 1995, the company was ready to diversify. That same year, Rapaczynski took Agora into radio. Then two years later it bought a 12% stake in Canal+'s TKP television station. It sold that stake earlier this year because, says Rapaczynski, it was too small to make commercial sense.
Rapaczynski also broke new ground earlier this year when she launched one of Poland's first hostile bids: She made an offer for AMS, the country's largest billboard advertising firm. The move failed. But Rapaczynski says she is still committed to moving into that market, which accounts for 9% of all Polish advertising. She also wants to move again into television. "We have to look at TV," she says. "We've got to figure out how to get in." The trouble is that Poland only has two commercial stations and, says Rapaczynski, "God only knows when they'll give out more licenses." Rapaczynski says the next three years "will be our biggest test" because Poland's economy is stagnating and there are limited opportunities to grow by acquisitions.
One reason for Agora's sterling success to date has been its ability to hire and retain staff. The company has always had a special "community culture," says Rapaczynski. When the company listed in London and Warsaw two years ago, it gave share options to more than half of its 3,000 staff. "We have many employees worth several million dollars," says Rapaczynski, whose own fortune is reckoned at about $30 million. "But they still work until 10 every night," she adds.
Rapaczynski claims she is a much better cook than company president. She also says she is "a conservative, cautious person." But, given Agora's success to date, that sounds like an overly modest assessment. The company has plenty of money to spend and will no doubt expand as aggressively in the future as it has in the past. That should help the quick-witted Rapaczynski stave off the boredom she dreads.