When Maria Wisniewska took over Poland's Bank Pekao five years ago, it was little more than a disorganized jumble of four former state-owned banks that had been merged by government fiat. Its computer systems weren't compatible and it was grossly overstaffed, with 25,000 employees spread across 564 branches.
Feisty, forthright, and as articulate in English as she is in Polish, Wisniewska quickly set to work melding the banks into a smoothly operating unit. How? By "taking the best features from each bank and integrating them into all of them," she says. Wisniewska slashed the workforce to 17,800 and spent much of the proceeds of a $100 million capital injection from the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development in merging and upgrading the computer systems and reorganizing the bank. In 1998, she oversaw the successful listing of the bank's shares on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. It was largely Wisniewska's dynamism that tempted Italy's UniCredito Italiano to take a controlling stake in Pekao the following year. Today, Pekao is Poland's most powerful financial institution, controlling one-fifth of the country's banking assets. German insurance giant Allianz and the EBRD are also major shareholders.
Wisniewska brought years of financial experience to the job. A graduate of the Economic University in Poznan, she quickly rose up through the ranks of Wielkopolski Bank Kredytowy, eventually becoming vice-president. She then became president of Skarbiec, a mutual-fund company. It was during her stint there that she came to the attention of officials who were charged with creating Pekao and preparing it for privatization.
Wisniewska, 43, has certainly met everyone's expectations. What's more, her tough style and cost-cutting ways have made her a star with Pekao shareholders -- especially the big ones in Munich and Milan -- who have watched the bank's stock price almost double since privatization.