Poland's richest man dies during heart surgery

By bne IntelliNews July 29, 2015

Wojciech Kość in Warsaw -


Poland's richest man, Jan Kulczyk, who made his fortune early in the country's privatisation drive, died unexpectedly aged 65 on July 28 because of complications during heart surgery.

The billionaire's death was announced by Kulczyk Investments on July 29. The vehicle was the latest incarnation of the Pole's long financial career, which kicked off even before the fall of Communism in the 1980s. Privatisation deals during the 1990s were the real basis of his riches, however. Following a hiatus at the start of the new century after a series of controversies, Kulczyk was recently trying to reinvigorate his business activity in Poland, with energy, brewing and chemicals at the forefront. 

Worth an estimated PLN16bn (€3.86bn), 65-year-old Kulczyk was undergoing what was described as “routine” heart surgery in a hospital in Vienna when complications set in. No further details have been released. Divorced from his wife, he leaves two children, including his son, who become CEO of Kulczyk Investments last year.

The tributes were swift to arrive. Former Polish president Lech Walesa told national TV that Kulczyk was irreplaceable. "It will be hard to organise some things without him," the former leader of the Solidatrity union said. Kulczyk had recently suffered a heart attack and was not in good health, Walesa added, noting he was also "absorbed in his work, in all the problems".

Middle man

Born in 1950 in Bydgoszcz, and a lawyer and manager by education,  Kulczyk pushed out on his own in the 1980s before the free market emerged, when he secured a deal as sole importer of Volkswagen cars to Poland. Later, his modus operandi was essentially as a middle man for Polish privatisation, buying up state companies to offload them to foreign investors. 

He was involved in some of the biggest deals of the time. He delivered telecom TPSA into the hands of France Telecom. It is now the country's biggest telecommunications company under the Orange brand.

With time, Kulczyk’s business interests started to outgrow Poland – not least because he became embroiled in controversy because of his middle man role. At the turn of the millennium, Kulczyk’s ambitions to play a leading role in PKN Orlen, the state-controlled refiner, blew up amid allegations that he had been in touch with former Russian spies interested in grabbing a share of Poland's energy market. Although nothing was ever proven against him, the embarrassing spectacle of being forced to testify before a hostile parliamentary commission convinced Kulczyk to shift most of his business interests outside of Poland.  

Instead of hobnobbing with Polish politicians, Kulczyk instead turned his formidable social skills to his fellow London-based billionaires. Rather than invest in Poland, he began to take an interest in Africa, piggybacking on some energy investments led by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, and undertaking other direct investments of his own on the continent.

“Who knows what I’d be doing if not for [the Orlen scandal]. Maybe I wouldn’t be playing Indiana Jones in Africa,” Kulczyk told Gazeta Wyborcza in 2009.

No place like home

A Switzerland resident, Kulczyk's interests in his home country were minor in comparison to his heyday: a company building and operating part of the west-east A2 highway or taking a position in the ever-fledgling renewable energy market. However, since the turn of the decade, he had returned his focus to Poland.

At the time of his death, he had a 3% stake in the international brewery company SABMiller, following the sale of Kulczyk-owned Polish beer producer Kompania Piwowarska to the international giant. Another recent acquisition was a majority stake in chemical company Ciech from the state last year.

However, he maintained his international focus also, with recent investment tilted towards upstream oil and gas exploration. Out of Kulczyk’s 10 standing investments, six were in upstream oil and gas companies, such as Serinus Energy carrying out exploration in Ukraine, Tunisia, and Romania, Orphin Energy doing the same in Africa and Asia, or San Leon Energy looking for shale and conventional gas in Poland and Spain.

The stock exchange market’s initial reaction to the news of his death was negative, with shares of Ciech and Serinus Energy dropping more than 5% and 2%, respectively. The share price of logistics company Pekaes also dropped.

Kulczyk’s might have been keen to return home, as his purchase of Ciech suggested, but he was soon reminded what it means to be a big fish connected to Poland's scandal-ridden political dealings when he put his head back above the parapet.

The businessman was reported as featuring on the secret recordings obtained from private dinner conversations amongst top political and business figures last year - dubbed the “Waitergate” tapes. Kulczyk was reportedly recorded meeting Pawel Gras, spokesman for former prime minister Donald Tusk. The chat at the table is said to have concerned the privatisation of Ciech.

Another recording featured Roman Giertych, a rightwing politician turned lawyer, negotiating with journalist Piotr Nisztor about not publishing a book Nisztor was working on that was supposedly casting a bad light on Kulczyk’s father.

Kulczyk’s sudden death is unlikely to hit his empire too hard, as he had formerly moved aside at Kulczyk Investments in favour of his son Sebastian, who became CEO last year. The billionaire, who divorced his wife Grazyna in 2006, is also survived by daughter Dominika, who is active in the company as well.

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