Polish Business in British style – Michael Dembiński – Chief Advisor for British Polish Chamber of Commerce

Our guest is Michael Dembiński who lives in Warsaw and works there as Chief Advisor for British Polish Chamber of Commerce.  Michael is often present on Polish networking events in the UK as their organiser. Today we are talking about the role the BPCC has in Britain and also about what Polish entrepreneur can achieve by active networking. But first I would like to ask Michael few questions about his career and his UK history.

GREG: Hi, Michael. At first,  can you tell me a little about yourself? I know that you were born in UK, so tell me your history.

MICHAEL: I was born in UK. Both my parents are Polish. I was brought up in Polish, with Polish as our first language. I didn’t speak English, until I went to primary school. And when I was about six, in my first year at primary school I said to my first good friend, guy called Gary Clarke: ‘Gary, you speak Polish at home, with your parents, don’t you?’ And he said: ‘what?’. I said: ‘you know, there are two languages, there is the one, that you speak at home, with your parents, and it is called Polish, and then there’s the one called English, which we speak at school, and in the shops and in the street’. And he said: ‘what?’.

It was only there that I realized that I am not like other children,  that I have this second language and culture. All my childhood life there was  Saturday Morning Polish School, Szkoła Sobotnia. im. Mikołaja Reja, in West London. Polish scouts, Polish church, Polish youth groups, Polish student organization – all of that was always an important part of my background. And my wife, whom I met in some Graduates Association, has a similar background to me, but she is from Manchester. 

We got married in 1988, and when the changes occurred in Poland, we thought it would be right and fitting to move to Poland, when the opportunity arrives. My wife who is  lawyer, worked for Rayner De Wolfe in West London and they decided, that it would be interesting to set up an office in central Europe. My wife helped to set that up back in 1991, but then we had a family, children. So she left that job, but then I was offered a job in Warsaw in 1997. At that time, our children were four and a half and one and a half, and when I said to my wife that I have been off to a full time job in Poland, she absolutely agreed. And we moved in summer of 1997, so we have been here now for over sixteen years, and don’t regret it for a minute. It was a very good decision.

GREG: That’s very interesting story and very interesting conclusion, that you find Poland a very good place to live for you and your family after sixteen years. And sixteen years is not a lot, is it?

MICHAEL: Well, it’s enough to see our children growing up from nursery school right the way through to university. Our daughter is at Łódź Film School doing screen writing, now in her third year. And when we came, she was in nursery school. Also the fact that, I would say Poland educational system is superior to Britain, is important. So, that is proved by the OECDs Pisa survey, which ranks schools around the world, in terms of attainments in mathematics, science and in language, and Poland is one of the best performing countries in the world.

GREG: I believe so.

MICHAEL: And the education here is free of charge. In England it’s either rubbish or extremely expensive. 

GREG: The reason I said that sixteen years is not a lot, is the fact I’ve been in UK for ten years, and I still feel like not really at home. How do you feel in Poland. Do you feel home?

MICHAEL: Well, yes. My father was from Warsaw, my mother-in-law is from Warsaw. Coming to Warsaw in 1997 I first felt a little bit like you are on holiday, but now I feel like I know every single stone of this city. I feel it is my city. 

GREG: And how did your parents found themselves in the UK in the first place?

MICHAEL: My father was in the National Army (Armia Krajowa), in Warsaw uprising. At  the end of the uprising Germans took prisoners of war to a camp, which was liberated by the British army. So he found his way to Britain after the war. 

And my mother was from Eastern Poland (Kresy Wschodnie, powiat sadnieński) and along with the rest of her family, she was “invited” by Mr. Stalin to spend some time chopping down trees in the north of Russia in 1940. And with some of her family managed to get out to the west, with General Anders and his army.

GREG: So that’s how she found herself moving to UK. And is it there where they both met?

MICHAEL: Yes, they met in London. They married in London. Nearly 61 years ago they married.

GREG: They must have some set of memories? You know, significant memories from their childhood and…

MICHAEL: Well, it’s interesting because there were about two hundred thousand Poles who stayed in Britain after the second World War. A number of Poles returned home and they found life extremely difficult. My father was certainly told by his mother that there is no point in returning to Warsaw. 

My mother was 12 when she was deported. She didn’t know Poland in its current shape. My mother had only spent about three or four weeks in Poland in her whole life. The life of my mother and of the people who lived in Kresy in Eastern Poland had disappeared. It’s not there anymore, because of the comeback action. 

Warsaw is that’s why I feel a very strong emotional bound with the city. It is my father’s city, the city my father grew up with, grew up in. Whenever I go to the UK, I bring in books about Warsaw, prewar photographs, things like that and he’s very interested in that. He’s 91 now. 

GREG: That’s good to know he is still alive.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

GREG: The time you realized that’s not the case was certainly a strange discovery for you. So what happened next? You finished your primary school and then secondary school. I What sort of plans did you have in mind?

MICHAEL: Well I said that the schooling is interesting because West London was very cosmopolitan, even in the 1960s. One third of the children in my class were either immigrants or children of immigrants. I was the only Polish child in that particular class, but there was a Lithuanian boy, Yugoslavian girl, children from East Africa, who were fleeing, there were people like Idi Amin, there were children from India, Pakistan, from, from Jamaica. Already in the 1960s London was a very cosmopolitan city. 

I never felt any prejudice against myself or my parents, or Polish people in general. London at that time, was tolerant and I guess it to this day London is far more tolerant city than lots of other areas of the UK. And my secondary school, in those days, they still have the grammar school and  selective system. So, I passed my eleven plus exams, and found myself in a grammar school, that was a catholic grammar school, and most of the boys in that school were either Irish or Polish. I had a lot of Polish friends at grammar school.

GREG: Ok, and what did you do next? Did you found yourself a job in London?

MICHAEL: I went to Warwick University in Coventry. Four years there and then, and I did a post graduate diploma in journalism at City University and straight away from there I walked into a job at the confederation British Industry, the CBI. I worked there for four years as an information officer, and then as editor, and then managing editor of monthly magazine CBI News, a business magazine. That gave me a lot of insight into business organizations. My experience in the CBI has proved extremely useful here, at the British Polish Chamber of Commerce. It’s given me an extremely good understanding of business issues, and that interface between business and government.

GREG: You mentioned the British Polish Chamber of Commerce and I am very interested what this organization is all about?

MICHAEL: BPCC has existed since 1992 with four main objectives. It was found to support British investors who set up in Poland and Polish companies that work with those British investors. So if we look at the structure of the BPCC, we see a lot of business to business service companies. We see accountancy firms, law firms, recruitment firms, logistics and training companies. The bulk of our membership is companies, that service large corporations, big British investors here in Poland, like Tesco, BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Provident, Bupa.

It’s about forty or fifty very big UK investors employers in Poland who contribute significantly to the Polish economy. Next group that we work with are Polish entrepreneurs in UK. Back in 2006 we realized that there is an enormous migration of Poles to the UK. There is a lot of very enterprising people who were keen to set up their own businesses. You could see that the business environment in UK was more business friendly than in Poland. And there was a lot of various institutional support to help companies grow. 

Since 2006 we have been organizing, first in London and then with the help of Bartek Kowalczyk and PB link, meetings all over the UK to bring together Polish entrepreneurs. And this is very important, because – going back to my parents’ generation – many of my parents’ friends were entrepreneurs, who set up their own businesses in Britain, after the war, but unlike Polish professionals my father was a civil engineer, and he was a member of Stowarzyszenie Techników Polskich. Polish doctors, teachers, even actors had their own associations. But for some reasons Polish entrepreneurs, of that post-war generation, never got themselves together. And in a way it was a missed opportunity. They could have achieved something significant, had they met regularly, had they been aware of one another’s existence, had they swapped business cards. One thing that we have been very keen of doing and supporting is activities that bring together Polish entrepreneurs in UK and deliver to them high quality business information about starting of business, growing of business, finding finance for business, employing people, finding property for business, marketing, selling yourself, not just to other Poles, but selling yourself to British consumers, to British businesses, to British local authorities.  

And the fourth area of what we are engaged in is helping British exporters with getting into the Polish market. Britain has a big trade deficit with Poland. If you look back at last year Britain sold to Poland about four billion Pounds worth of goods. Poland sold to the UK about eight billion Pounds worth of goods. So there is a four billion Pounds trade deficit. And why this is? 

It’s mainly because British companies have never been given this message that central Eastern Europe with Poland as its most important market is 93 million consumers, who have joined the European Union, since 2004.

We have been in the last eight or nine months actively going around UK, meeting British exporters, supporting them here in the Polish market and looking for Polish importers, distributors, wholesalers and agents that they can work with. And we can see fruits of our work that is paying off, because last year Poland’s imports were roughly flat. They were just 0.7% up onto 2012. But if we look at imports from UK, they were up 7.1%.  UK was the fastest growing export. After UK second place was China, 6.5% growth, third place USA, 5.3% growth, Germany, 1.5% growth, and then other European countries like France, Italy, Holland. Britain last year has started this long process of catching up with its continental competitors.

GREG: So what these facts are saying to a small business owner in UK?

MICHAEL: Our target is not so much the small business owner. It’s more the medium size manufacturer. The so called mid tiers that we identified a few years ago. There’s about eight or nine thousand medium sized companies, who are noticeable in Poland by their absence. If you look at Germany you’ll see that German Mittelstand has been extremely active in Poland, either as an investor or as an exporter. There is a lot of German products that you can find anywhere, from food to chemicals, to engineering. Similarly with Italy, France, Spain, Sweden… But British medium sized companies have been rather reticent about entering the Polish market. There is almost an opportunity ignored. 

If we look at agricultural machinery, for example, we’ll observe that since 2004 Polish imports have increased four times, from 41 million Euro to 181 million Euro last year. This is a huge increase in imports. This is a huge opportunity. Germans just snapped it up with 68 million Euros worth of agricultural machinery from Germany in one year. Britain – 780 000 Pounds. But it’s a tiny fraction, around one and half percent of what Germany sold to Poland in terms of agricultural machinery. It’s not that British agricultural machinery is poor quality. It’s not that it’s too expensive. It’s just that British manufacturers haven’t bothered to come to Poland, to knock on farmer’s door, to say: ‘we have got some really good potato planters and strawberry picking machines’. 

So our job is to go to these companies and tell them they are missing out a huge opportunity. Now it may not be as easy as it was ten or twenty years ago to enter this market, but at least you should be there, competing with your German, Scandinavian or Italian rivals.

GREG: In one sentence: it seems to me that British Polish Chamber of Commerce observes the markets and tries to balance the imports and exports between the countries. Is that correct?

MICHAEL: Well, it’s correct. I must point out that it’s excellent work that we are doing. This is being supported by the British government, that has realized, maybe a little bit too late, that it is punching below its weight. 

Britain is the world’s sixth largest manufacturing country, when it comes to exporting it’s eleventh place, after Belgium. Belgium exports more than Britain does, and the British government has realized that there is something wrong in the way that it supports its exporters. So, it’s the strategy is, that between now and 2020 British embassies around the world will focus on high value opportunities, such as aerospace defense, high speed rail, nuclear power. 

But when it comes to supporting small and medium size enterprises this is best done by Chambers of Commerce, by the private sector rather than by administration. The British Government is saying to the embassies: ‘right, you know, we will focus on these high value opportunities, and we will find private sector partners, mainly chambers of commerce, who will deliver support services for small and medium size exporters’.

Poland was in the first wave of countries, identified by the British government. Twenty countries around the world, that offer a lot of opportunity for British exporters, and there is also a strong local chamber of commerce. Last summer Kane Clarke came to Warsaw and officially opened the British Polish Business Centre, and now this is the headquarters of the British Polish Chamber of Commerce. It’s also the place where the BPCC trade team works. There is fifteen people here, seven full time, and a lot of interns doing research. Fifteen people who are working hard to help British exporters coming to Poland find them importers, distributors, wholesalers, agents, to help British companies find their feet on the Polish market. 

But this is work carried out by the private sector for the British government. So we get paid by the British government but we have to produce results as well. We have to help to do service deliveries for the British exporters.

GREG: It sounds like you do your work in terms of economy and help the governments to communicate with investors and British companies that don’t know how to find new markets. They can rely on your help and you will direct them. 

You said that you also support Polish businesses in the UK, and I am very interested in that. You mentioned that you see the networking organizations or events are very beneficial to Polish businesses and can you tell me, why do you think is that and what people could achieve by networking with each other?

MICHAEL: I think the first thing is to break out of the certain mindset, which is quite common place in Poland; which is based on mistrust and on an adverse scenario approach to business, that ‘I win, you lose’. 

The British approach is far more open. It is based on the concept of ‘win, win, win’. And to to that you have to forget about networking in the form of ‘kolesiostwo’ or ‘układ’ (eng. some kind of deal that is not necessarily legal), as they are commonly called in Poland. 

I think networking is a very positive and open part of marketing yourself, and marketing your business. For me it’s one of the great pleasures, coming over to the UK to Polish business events. The formal part there are presentations about business finance, about law, about VAT, things like that. But then people get together over a glass of wine, and the business cards start coming out. And then people say ‘Hey I need this right now. I need this service. I have been looking for someone who does this’. Someone else says ‘well you know, I want this done’ and all of a sudden things start clicking and new business contacts are made. And over the years, these contacts get stronger and wider, and deeper, and this is extremely helpful. 

I am sure that some economic student in the UK has done some research about diasporas and entrepreneurship in Britain. Indian or Irish, or Jewish people get together informally, talk to one another, support one another. 

And that kind of sharing of experiences is extremely useful. The idea that an entrepreneur sitting on his own in his garage, thinking of a new product and working fourteen or sixteen hours a day to get it out without any support, without knowing anyone it must be incredibly difficult. Being able to share information, experiences and contacts really does help a business to grow.

GREG: So the problem here is the lack of trust and when I speak to young entrepreneurs or even established entrepreneurs who are not interested into joining any membership or joining any groups, they often say that’s a waste a time for them. And also they say that they don’t have to share with anyone because someone might steal their ideas. What would you say to these people?

MICHAEL: I think the business climate is quite different. The fear of theft of an idea rather reflects someone’s own insecurity and their ability to carry that idea out. If you really do have a good idea and you are prepared to put in hours to make that idea fly, you shouldn’t really be worried about sharing it. Obviously, you have to be cautions of whom you share it with and why? But you should also have an agenda. 

You have to have in mind ‘I am telling you this, because I am expecting in return a little bit of information that may help me grow this idea’. Social trust is the key. 

The idea of ‘fair play’ is English and it comes from England. In Polish it is also known as ‘zasada fair play’. The idea the gentlemen’s word is his bond is very important. This is one of the key cornerstones of what made London a great global trading center.

Many years ago I was talking to my former Polish diplomat, who worked in trade in one of the big Polish trading organizations and he was telling me about a day in the 1960s, when in the morning he had struck a deal with a large UK commodity broker for buying several hundred thousand tons of rubber on behalf of the Polish government. The Polish government needed to buy rubber and they have done this deal, they shook hands on it and then, later that morning, the news started buzzing that United States of America was at war with Vietnam. And instantly commodity prices started going up and up, and up, and he picked up a phone to this guy, with whom he had done the deal earlier. And he said ‘well I guess this deal is off, because you can get a much higher price for this rubber than you could get from the government of Poland’. The British guy said, ‘No. We shook hands on this deal, we signed it, so the deal is still on. My word in my bond’. 

That is extremely important, that sense of trust not based on a piece of paper or on a contract. One of the great differences between doing business in Poland and the UK is that sense of spirit of the law. 

My point is that the whole motion of business in UK was always bent around that trust. In Poland there is more friction. You need to spend more time with lawyers, you need to spend more time going over contracts. You need to spend more time getting this checked with the regulator rather than just getting on with it.

GREG: It’s funny when you said that the word is more important sometimes than any written contract. I am not saying that it wasn’t more important, but it’s enough to build the trust and what the Polish businessmen very often complain about in the UK is the lack of stamps….

MICHAEL: Yeah.

GREG: So how can you consider this as a confirmation or as a receipt, if it’s just written on the paper and someone signs it, and there is no stamp underneath or anything like that. People treated it just as a piece of rubbish and put it in the bin because they don’t believe actually is the receipt or the agreement. So this is what they laugh about very often. They say that the paper means nothing without the stamp. In  Poland it is quite opposite, isn’t it?

MICHAEL: You are absolutely right and it’s not just Poles who say this. Germans do it as well. Germans and Belgians doing business in Britain also find there is not enough rules. They get lost because they don’t bump into some regulation that says, you can’t do this or some bureaucrat who says, you can’t do that. 

In the UK you are allowed to do what you want, unless you are explicitly told, you can’t do it. Those differences in attitudes, the difference in the legal systems leads to a difference outlook in attitudes and in culture.

GREG: That’s very interesting insight. I would like to go back to the support you do offer to entrepreneurs and small businesses in the UK, because my impression is that, you don’t have many medium size or big size Polish businesses in UK – most of them are small businesses, and you mentioned that you offered them support as well. Can you tell us, what kind of support is it?

MICHAEL: Mainly in the form of meetings. There is a program, that we are working on with the British embassy here, with the UK TI team, to support inward investment from Poland to the UK. 

Now at the moment, in terms of large Polish investments in Britain, it’s one thing that’s in one hand. It’s companies like Canpack, from Cracow packing and manufacturing plants in Lincolnshire or Morpol, which has a company that does salmon processing in Scotland. But, generally we are seeing interest in Britain as a place to set up IT businesses. And existing Polish IT businesses are looking to invest in Britain in places like Tech City, so called Silicon Roundabout in east of London. 

But coming back to Polish entrepreneurs who are already in Britain, most of them are in that micro scale, having about one to nine employees. Certainly it will be excellent to start seeing them grow to become small businesses which employ between ten and forty nine employees. 

There are already medium size businesses, that employ between 50 and 249 employees. There are companies like that in towards the lower end of that. Mainly in the food processing sector, sector that has been set up by the Poles in the UK. 

So it will be very good to see companies growing in size. And I think, until that critical mass is being reached, with most of the work being really evangelising, it is going around the country, supporting local organizations, which can bring together entrepreneurs, and to do it locally, regionally, nationally.

Working with Bartek Kowalczyk PB link we are doing a number of events around the UK. I am also going to be in London tomorrow for an event organized by the Polish professionals. We have been working with them for many years. The Polish City Club in the city of London and other organizations like that, that bring together professionals and entrepreneurs are certainly worth supporting. And this October, we will be supporting Bartek on the first nationwide event: the Polish entrepreneurs’ first congress in the UK. This will take place in London, and we hope to see about two or three hundred of Polish entrepreneurs gathering there. Once we can get this going on the national level, it becomes easier to talk to organizations like federations of small businesses or CBI to get them to notice Polish entrepreneurs as a group within the UK. 

And this kind of institutional support is extremely important to make the British public and the British institutions aware, that there is a large number of Polish entrepreneurs in Britain, who are contributing significantly to the British economy. This is very important in the whole rhetorical campaign against migrants that it is very important from our perspective as a chamber of commerce, from the business point of view, that Britain remains within the EU, that we have a strong Britain and a strong EU. 

The best way to silence voices saying that there are too many Eastern European migrants in UK is to use strong economic arguments confirming that Poles are contributing massively to the British economy. It’s an argument, that is very difficult to undermine. 

GREG: Would you say that it is important to the Polish businesses to get together, rather than going and joining other British existing organizations?

MICHAEL: I think they should absolutely join the existing British business organizations as well. When you are looking at marketing yourself or your business,  you should bear in mind, the cost of setting up a website, the cost of doing flyers, and brochures, of putting stickers on the side of your car and your building. But certain proportion of your marketing budget should be spent on business networking. 

When we look at our chamber here in Warsaw, we see that the chamber members, who make the best use of their membership fee, are the ones who keep coming to everything that we do. We do over the year in Warsaw alone about eighty events. Those companies come to all of our business mixers, breakfast seminars or afternoon teas with ministers or conferences and forums. Not only do they gain a lot in terms of knowledge, but they also raise their profile, simply by being at the right place at the right time, being able to offer their business card, by being noticed. 

I wouldn’t want to say, how much a company should spent on marketing itself within membership organization. Whether it’s 10% or 30% of a budget there should certainly be a reserve made for joining and making use of business organizations.

GREG: So it’s a part of marketing. It’s not just something that we have to think as extra expenditure for nothing.

MICHAEL: Especially, when you are looking at a entrepreneur who is typically an owner-manager, the person who owns his business and runs his business. That person represents himself and his business, when he goes to a meeting and the format of our business meetings, when after three or four high quality presentations we introduce ourselves, going round in the circle. Everyone has an opportunity to spend thirty seconds talking about themselves and their businesses. That is a great marketing opportunity, and it’s after that the most fresh business connections are made. 

GREG: You are taking part in these events, you are seeing these people introducing themselves and networking. What would be two or three thoughts that you would like to say to the people who own these small businesses in UK?

MICHAEL: I would say, the first one is to network as aggressively as  you can, to be physically present. The value of the face to face meeting is a lot greater than seeing someone’s brochures or advert in a newspaper, or banner on a website. Obviously, they are all important, but face to face contacts are of far higher values. So that’s number one –  networking. 

Number two is to think outside the Polish community. UK has a very diverse and open economy. There are many people in the UK, who would be potential clients of the Polish entrepreneurs if only the Polish entrepreneurs reach out to them.

I remember an event that we did two years ago in Scotland, where to a huge surprise of many people in the audience we had a lady from Glasgow City Council talking about the goods and services that as a city council it procures from small and medium businesses. And Polish entrepreneurs were shocked by how open and how easy it is. In Poland there is a conviction: ‘przetargi publiczne są ustawione i nie mam szans’ (eng. public procurements are arranged so I don’t have any chance to win). But this is not the case in the UK. It is relatively easy for a small business to register with their local authority, as a supplier of anything from pencils with a logo printed on it to translations services, to construction and renovation services – painters and decorators.

Very small businesses can start in public tenders. The main thing is to register yourself. When Glasgow City Council needed one of its buildings repainted inside, forty or fifty entrepreneurs have registered for this particular type of work. And the first person to come in with the best quote wins it. Whether they were born in Poland or in the UK, it doesn’t matter. The point is that it is open, it is transparent and it’s predictable. That’s how it works.

So the message number two is to sell as broadly as you can, sell to the local Scottish community to the  Pakistani people living in your community, don’t just think in terms of Poles. 

The third message is that there are a vast amount of support mechanisms available in the UK for entrepreneurs. Coming to the UK many Polish entrepreneurs think: ‘nie ma sensu żeby udawać się do urzędu bo oni i tak mi nic nie dają’ (eng. it’s pointless to ask for support from the government because they do not provide it). In Britain there are organizations that will help, Business Gateway for instance.  You find also the European Enterprise Network, which is very helpful. We have very good relations with them. This type of organizations they do exist and there is much they can do, not necessary talking about the financial help but in terms of mentoring, in terms of wider networking. There is more support you can get as an entrepreneur in UK, than you can get in Poland. Make the most of it. 

MICHAEL: Great, thanks for these three messages. I think people find it useful and will think about their approach. Maybe there is something that has to be improved or changed. Now, can you just remind us of upcoming events for this year? 

GREG: I think the best thing is to have a look on the PB link website. But certainly in the middle of March there will be an event in London. Towards the end of March there will be an event in Edinburgh. There will also be events coming up soon in Manchester and in Leeds. And as I mentioned there will be the congress in October, for the first time, bringing the Polish entrepreneurs from all over the UK, to one venue in London.

MICHAEL:  Will you be present in all of these?

GREG: I should be, yes.

MICHAEL: Great. So message for people who want to speak to Michael personally: go for one of these events. Michael, thank you very much for your time today and talking to me. I am sure many of our readers will enjoy this and will find this information very helpful. So, thank you.

GREG: I hope so. Many thanks.


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