If entrepreneurship is a state of mind that forces you to follow your dreams no matter what, Roman Kala was a true entrepreneur, probably the biggest I know.
The story begins 84 years ago, in a small village, Miedzyrzec Korecki, Poland (now part of the Ukraine). I don’t know much of his childhood — he never talked about this period. When he was 15, the Nazis came and killed his father, along with other 1500 countrymen. He fled with his mother and the only brother to nearby Równe, but stayed there only for two years, when the Soviets came and kicked the Polish out from their homes. Thousands of people were put in a packed train and forced to head west towards Recoverred Territories (the land taken back from the Germans after the war). A few days later they reached Nakło where the remains of the family settled. A typical Polish war story.
He was 18 when the war ended. He spent the first three years of freedom in Szczecin, in the army. Mandatory draft, standard procedure in the uncertain afterwar times. The army wanted him to stay and become a professional soldier. But he didn’t even consider the offer. He hated having a boss and being told what to do. He came back to Naklo to start a tailor practice. More about that later.
Life as a private entrepreneur in communist Poland
What you need to realize is that these were “fun” times in the Polish history. The communists (supported by Soviet Union) took over after the war and set up some rules which might seem counter-intuitive to a Western world citizen. The commies hated the smart and the educated. A typical engineer had a lower salary than a worker reporting to him, so it made no economic sense to study. But what they hated even more was entrepreneurship. It wasn’t completely banned as in Soviet Russia or China but it was severely curtailed and full of restrictions. Not only the government fought the entrepreneurs but it also employed heavy propaganda in communicating the negative message to the society. The result was that the word “prywaciarz” — a private entrepreneur — became an insult in Polish language (it partly recovered its positive meaning only in early XXI-th century).
If you wanted to run your own business in communist Poland, you had to be either a cobbler, a farmer or a tailor. All other areas were restricted to state-owned companies. But even if you crafted shoes or clothes, you still had to compete on unfair terms with huge nationalised factories which had the benefit of scale (privately owned businesses were restricted to 50 employees) and did not have to worry about taxes (only private entrepreneurs had to pay government).
In these unfriendly times Roman started his private business.
Roman Kala on a table in his shop, 1960-ties.
He worked very hard, usually 10-12 hours a day including weekends. But working hard wasn’t enough. If you were to run a successful business in communism, you needed a wide network of friendly contacts. Getting ahold of canvas, sewing machines, and other equipment wasn’t easy–you couldn’t simply visit a shop and buy stuff. There was a shortage of nearly everything and state-owned corpos had a preference in acquiring stock. You needed to constantly monitor for bargains, travel a lot, take part in industry events and trade shows, know your distributors and play nice with them, in order to keep the materials flowing and the business running.
Just like in a startup, you had to account for ever-changing conditions. When communism fell down in 1989, everything changed. Most companies went out of business, state-owned monsters went bust, and thousands of new businesses appeared taking advantage of new opportunities. Roman’s practice was among the few that survived the turmoil. He managed to adjust again and made it in the way less restricted but also way more competitive free market.
He only stopped working twice: first time after he had a stroke in his early fifties. Second when he retired at 75.
When he eventually closed his practice in 2000, after some 50 years of work, he immediately started feeling lost and purposeless. His condition deteriorated. He always looked younger than he was but now it seemed as if he suddenly got 20 years older. I felt sad just looking at him. It lasted for a few months and then… something has dramatically changed.
He stopped visiting his family and became almost unreachable for two years. We’ve heard some rumours about his “new project”, but didn’t know for sure until he invited everyone to Inowroclaw, a small curort town in central Poland, where he built a house. Not a regular house, that is. He somehow managed to build a monster-four-floor-villa with a garden and finished all this work by himself (as it turned out later, he only paid the workers to build the walls). Yes, being a 80-year-old man he mounted 15 doors, 20 windows, tiled the kitched and three bathrooms, constructed balustrades on all balconies (by manually forming hundreds of steel balcony weldings), and painted the walls. He didn’t share his plans with anyone, but his wife (who promised to keep it secret) as he was very afraid of the embarrassment he’d feel if he didn’t make it.
He made it.
Roman on a balcony of his new house, 2007.
Two years before his death I asked him why he built that house. No one really understood his reasons. He had a place to live. He was retired. He had money. He could have travelled around the world. He answered that he very much wanted to build it. It was his dream. He said that proving to himself that he was capable of delivering this made him “very proud”.
He didn’t do it to impress anyone. He didn’t do it to break a news story. He did it for himself.
I remember my grandpa as a busy and focused man. His wife once said: “he was going to bed and waking up thinking of his customers”. He always thought he could do better. He set his goals higher than what he could physically achieve. He genuinely thought he was immortal, making plans until the last day. He lost to cancer at 84, but he succeeded in leading a life that was worth a blog post. Not many people get this far.
If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter for more: @michuk.