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Interview: Jan Olszewski – sometimes it pays to leave the family business

Jan Olszewski and his wife Margaretha, who is a partner in the business
Jan Olszewski and his wife Margaretha, who is a partner in the business

For Jan Olszewski it was all about respect. The second generation member of one of Poland’s most successful family businesses, Solaris Bus & Coach, the only way he felt he could earn that from his parents and for himself was leaving the family business.

“When I was working for the family business I had the feeling that I wasn’t getting the respect I deserve,” says the 35 year-old. He adds that even after introducing a new IT system at the family business and taking second place in Forbes magazine’s chief innovative officer competition, his parents were still not sufficiently impressed. 

“Then I decided to leave the business and from that moment on I got the respect from my parents.” After working for six years for Solaris and in between gaining an MBA from Bocconi University in Milan, Jan left to set up a restaurant in Berlin.

Jan’s parents were shrewd entrepreneurs who started making buses in Poland in 1996. Krzysztof Olszewski, Jan’s father, studied mechanical engineering in Poland but left in the early 1980s because of the introduction of martial law in his home country and settled in Berlin, where he worked for the German bus manufacturer Neoplan. Returning to Poland five years after the fall of communism to open a sales department for Neoplan, Krzysztof and his wife Solange soon got the entrepreneur bug and set up Solaris.

Today, the family business is among one of the biggest makers of buses and trams in Europe. More than 12,000 have been made at the company’s factory in the town of Bolechowo in western Poland, and they have been exported to around 30 countries around the world.

For any second generation member coming into a business with as much success as Solaris is was going to be tough. “My parents know how tough it was for them,” says Jan. “And I suppose they felt maybe their son needed to go through a similar path to achieve success. It wasn’t going to be handed to me on a plate. In some ways they may have felt that I needed to get my arse kicked, before I could truly be respected.

Jan says that the restaurant business was really where this happened. “I worked 14-hour days for more than a year, doing everything from the most menial jobs, to managing the accounts. It was incredibly hard work.”  Jan, who is a member of EY NextGen Academy, reckons that the experience of setting up the restaurant and making it work was something most next gens have little idea about. “I get the feeling that next gens say they did the menial jobs, but working in the warehouse of the family business for three months isn’t that bad. They should try setting up a successful restaurant.”

The restaurant continues to flourish, says Jan, but recently he’s come back to the world of family businesses and set up an online marketplace for business owners called Owners Place. The new company allows business owners to share and seek business opportunities from around the world in a secure and anonymous way, says Jan.  

“I was going to many family business conferences but felt that they weren’t providing an opportunity for family businesses to actually do deals together. The conferences might have been bringing people together, but business owners weren’t taking those connections to another level, either because they didn’t feel it was appropriate, or they felt that the conference wasn’t the right place to do so.”

Owners Place has already more than 50 members from 15 countries, says Jan, and continues to grow rapidly. Might not these efforts and setting up the restaurant be enough to convince his parents that he’s more than capable to making a worthwhile contribution to the family business? “I’ve earned their respect, but I’m also doing this for myself and it feels pretty good,” he says. 

So Solaris, if it choses to rehire Jan in the future, should be in pretty good second generation hands.

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