Artur Pollak, Prezes APA Group: “It’s worth trying and going beyond the usual patterns.”
What did the beginnings of your business activity look like? What was the hardest thing to do and what inspired you to carry on?
What inspired me to start doing business was my business trips. I had the opportunity to work professionally in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, France and Spain. I observed the Western European world and when I saw their technological solutions, I figured it would be wonderful to do such things in Poland. This’s when the idea itself was born. However, I had limited resources, so I started by providing services. The customers with whom I cooperated began to appreciate the quality of the service. They were the ones who set the pace for our growth. One well executed order was followed by another, with an even broader scope of execution. So, we grew organically.
After 7 years, I came to the moment I had dreamt of. We actually started to deliver our own technology. From the concept through risk analysis to full implementation of turnkey solutions. If I were to compare myself today with myself at the beginning of the business road, I can certainly say that my understanding of the process has changed. It is not technology that is the limit of development, but guessing and deep reflection on customer expectations.
We like to joke at the company that the one similarity we have with the giants of Silicon Valley is the fact that we also started in the garage. We have come a long way from a huge commitment to the process through its standardization. In the meantime, I graduated in strategic management. That’s where I realized that engineering knowledge is not enough to do business. Concepts such as: financial flows, debt recovery, risk management elements are extremely important. At that time, I really got to understand the popular truism that people are the greatest value in the company. At the beginning, you could work alone or in small teams that you have a direct influence on. And then team leaders take control, and trust becomes the most important currency.
Being a small company, we defined our mission and vision. From the perspective of a small enterprise, these definitions seem to be lofty. However, it is worth defining them at the very beginning. I dreamt of being a technology leader at the time. Those were the days of Apple’s greatest success in global markets. You could see that scaling up business on a large scale is possible. It’s not easy to understand what this scaling really is. To achieve success, we had to start investing in our own products. Apart from providing services, we were looking for imperfections in the solutions available on the market. We started to make our own products, which covered the niches we found.
What are your forecasts for the Polish economy in the light of recent global events?
I keep wondering and discussing with many people around me what the world will look like after the pandemic. And I have mixed thoughts all the time. On the one hand, we know that any pendulum returns to its original state after swinging to one side, and on the other hand, the changes we observe are so deep that they will probably bring us to a completely new track.
It’s like with the Chinese Three Gorges Dam, which blocked the flow of three rivers and changed the axis of the Earth. An increasingly probable scenario indicates that we will not return to pre-2020 after the pandemic. Looking at the aviation, office and tourist business, we can see that the confusion in these markets will not allow us to return to the previously developed quality. Within a few months, Polish society has changed significantly by accepting new digital technologies, even though we have denied them before and said that they are not so necessary. We live our professional life in a smartphone, we maintain relationships with people through messengers and we accept social limitations.
There is growing talk of a negative future scenario where the introduction of a vaccine will not fix the world situation at all. We know how strong the anti-vaccine and various types of skeptic movements are. Bill Gates said we’re only at the stage of the first pandemic. Let’s stay with China for a while. People have been wearing protective masks there for decades. They have been through various local epidemics, which have helped them function very well as a society now during the global threat.
The freedom of the Western civilization may already remain constrained. What will this result in then? That life without modern technologies will become practically impossible, and certainly very inconvenient. Certainly, one of the most rapidly developing branches in Poland will become telecare. It is also of interest to the APA Group engineers. Recent studies indicate that in some highly developed countries, the number of telephone-based doctor’s advices over the Internet has increased tenfold. Today, technology makes us “teleport” to the doctor from our own home. I, myself, was brought up with the “G-Force” series, in which by means of a command spoken to your watch you could do things that at those times were considered impossible. Today we have lived to see exactly such inventions, which are no longer a fantasy from a fairy tale, but a smartwatch worn by every second person we meet. The technological turbo-acceleration of recent months will have a direct impact on the shape of products and services delivered to the market and the direction in which the global economy will go. The key is to observe trends and enter new areas accordingly.
What prospects do you see for your company within the next three months, six months, a year?
As I observe the world becoming digital, I assume natural growth of the organization. We design modern building automation systems and industrial processes, popularize digital energy management and telecare based on the Internet of Things. We’ve actually been preparing for what happened for 20 years. It’s like the Oxford coronavirus vaccine. It was not invented six months ago and brought to mass use in a few months. It has been tested over the last few years on other varieties of the virus, so today it can be said that it is properly prepared and safe for humans. I concur with the words of Ludwig Pasteur that fortune favors the prepared.
APA Group in 2020 is a company that has “incubated” solutions that were not created ad hoc a few months ago because the pandemic forced them. We can boast of products that have been awarded many times in terms of quality in numerous competitions, and their effectiveness is appreciated every day by the largest corporations in the world. We’re currently focusing on foreign expansion. Poles can be proud of e.g., the gaming sector, which has gained great recognition outside our country thanks to such companies as CD Projekt Red or Techland. We want to transfer Polish technology in the area of Industry 4.0 and modern building automation systems. Our Nazca 4.0 platform has a mission to become one of the world’s leading tools in the industry, and the “made in Poland” label is meant to mean the highest quality.
What would you like to change or improve in order to do better business in Poland?
Despite the huge amounts spent by successive Polish governments and self-governments throughout the country, products from Western Europe still win despite their often-poor quality or limited functionality. “Polish” still in the mentality of entrepreneurs and large corporations is synonymous with a secondary-grade product. We win in world rankings of IT companies, our specialists work in the most innovative companies in the world, and yet Polish solutions are still not purchased by Polish entities. If I were to wish myself and other entrepreneurs something, it would be the incentives to buy Polish technological thought.
Our Western neighbors have shown that by stimulating their own market, the whole world can be dominated technologically. After all, the biggest automotive companies are German. The largest manufacturers of machinery and equipment are Germany. They have this already coded into the mentality that it is worth buying from each other. We still miss it in Poland. We have only started building economic cluster structures. Breaking through national tenders with Polish products is a very difficult task. This does not give us a single additional point in our assessment, and often we have the impression that we are assigned negative points in relation to foreign entities. Unfortunately, my recent observations are that it is easier to succeed in Europe than in Poland itself. There they trust us more than we trust each other here.
What is the worst thing that you think could happen to your company in a market environment? What are you afraid of?
It may sound immodest, but I have no great fears of the crisis. We’re prepared as a company. Design work is simply standard for us. We have worked it out by carrying out tasks all over the world – in China, USA, Africa. Adapting to the ever-changing reality is a natural thing and does not create a sense of threat. It’s also not a reason to panic and function like the building’s on fire. I am proud to say that today we are well prepared. What I’m really afraid of is social change, which we can’t predict today. It may turn out that next spring, it will be very difficult to function socially, unforeseen challenges in the area of human resources will arise. Factors we have no control over and which we are not yet able to determine and which will change a lot.
What is the hardest situation you’ve had to face in business?
The crisis of 2008 was a very difficult experience for us. As a Polish entity, we provided services to foreign corporations and it turned out that we had no work for six months. It was a huge heartbreaker for us. Not just for me, but for all the “appers”. The worst part for us was that we worked as a sub-supplier and had no influence on the management of the whole project. All we could do was stand by and watch the companies go bankrupt and pull the whole chain of bankruptcies. Eventually, we kept the whole team together. However, based on this experience, we are now always working with the specter of crisis in the back of our heads. We came out of this unscathed, but that taught us advanced risk analysis in the area of cooperation with contractors. Paraphrasing the popular joke, when we predict the effects of a potential project, we do not ask how much you can earn, but how much you can lose on it.
What is leadership to you?
There’s no simple definition of that. At least after years of running a company, I wouldn’t dare to trivialize this subject. This is both setting the direction by defining the company’s mission and vision and selecting the right people for the team. Leadership also means making the defined goals widely accepted by the organization. It’s inspiring, but also showing the barriers and ways to bypass them. Being a leader is never about playing one role. It has many layers. On the one hand, you explain to people “what, where and why” and support their individual goals. On the other hand, it is a constant search for niches, opportunities and ways to survive. I had the opportunity to participate in several cruises as a crew member. Observing the people who were steering, I can safely say that the often-used metaphor of the ship and the captain, as companies and leaders, is very accurate. When you sail a ship, you have to set a course, but you are dependent on the ocean, the wind and the available resources. The captain tells the crew where they’re going, selects them according to their qualifications. It’s the captain who has to take care of safety and react in unusual situations – like the Somali pirate film captain Phillips played by Tom Hanks. The leader must look at what is invisible to the rest of the crew and detect threats early enough.
For me, personally, being a leader means leading your people through constant, endless change. Business isn’t about doing a hundred meters run. It’s a marathon at least, if not an ultramarathon. I’ve already run several marathons. In the course of these phases, one goes through different phases: euphoria, breakdown, hope and full focus. Sometimes a man doesn’t even have the strength to enjoy success because he knows how far he still has to finish. A leader is a person with a lot of ballast, but not giving up. Winning a battle is not winning a war. The cultural circle in our part of Europe functions in such a way that after turning 60 you want to retire and cut off coupons from what you have worked out. But when you look at the U.S. market, where people in their 80s start a business or become president, when they repeatedly go bankrupt and get up, constantly starting over and over again, a completely different perspective appears. A true leader must have this perspective. Your people always need assurances that it’s going to be okay and you’ll fight for them till the end.
What are the secrets of managing such a large organization?
I’m not sure if this will come across as a surprise to anyone, but we’re not a big company. I’d rather call us an agile organization. I never had plans to create a large organization in terms of structure or headcount. At APA Group, we focus on speed and dynamics. Sticking to the naval analogies, we’re acting like we’re in regatta. By doing design work for different, often completely different corporations, we adapt to the needs of the market. We are more commandos, a spec-ops unit which is equipped with great technologies and has unique human super skills. Our biggest advantage is the ability to quickly rescale and create efficient work with teams operating anywhere in the world. In one breath, I can name the places of our recent activities: Changchun, Wuhan, Chattanooga in Tennessee, Cassino, Manchester, Madrid, Hamburg, Marseille or East London in South Africa.
What do you think of artificial intelligence?
From the point of view of mass customers, artificial intelligence has been recognized as something of a breakthrough and dangerous. And in fact, it’s just one of the technologies that we can’t see, can’t hear, but it works in the background. Like cables hidden in a wall. The effects of artificial intelligence should not be feared, but we should learn to profit from them. What does it give us? Saves electricity by automatically switching off the lights in rooms we don’t use, captures fraud in banking systems and helps farmers to predict the weather. The AI is not a terminator or any other sci-fi monster from a movie. It’s a transfer of decision making from our brain to automated systems. Human psychology says we can’t control more than 7 variables. The world, on the other hand, provides us with so many stimuli that we had to create other tools to help us in our daily lives. Mikey Walsh wrote in the “Algorithmic leader”: An algorithmic leader is someone who can adapt his decision-making process, management style and creative input to the complex requirements of the machine age”. The real power is not determined by how many people report, but by how effectively you manage to connect people. Hence, decision making and responsibility is on the side of man, not machine. Machines only help.
What technological trends will determine the future of business?
In the past, to get to Paris we had to buy a map, plan the stops, and today we enter the destination in Google and we get everything ready. Such a situation stimulates a whole bunch of other businesses, advertisers, etc. What will happen in the near future is the integration and ability of social use of technological tools. Move them from the world of computing to other branches. Spectacular growth of various businesses is yet to come. Elon Musk talks about the development of Mars, but in fact there is a question of colonization of the moon. How the future will look is analyzed by methodically prepared trendwatchers. APA Group cooperates in this area with one of the most talented of them in Poland – Adam Przeździek from Mediafeed.pl.
Is there any advice from an authority that has changed your life?
I’ll tell you about some basic advice I received, which was offered to me by my uncle, and a well-educated person, whom I have greatly respected all my life. He always told me that it’s worth trying and going beyond the usual patterns. But he also said that you only have one name and that it is worth doing everything you do within the limits of social respect. I am very grateful to him for that.
Who are the people from whom you have learned most in life and business?
Of course, I had the opportunity to meet outstanding people along my way. However, I won’t point fingers at anyone, because I have learned from many people and I would be afraid that I might miss someone. But I will say that I am inspired by women. I admire the fact that they are able to do things effectively with very limited resources, and at the same time maintain an appropriate level of empathy, emotion, and support relationships. The learning process is a continuous process. I’ve learned a lot from young people recently. They prove that the world has changed for the better that they have a completely new offer for the market, a fresh perspective and competence. We, the so-called “old ones”, were afraid that they wouldn’t bring any value to our companies, but that’s not true. You just have to open your eyes wider and prick up your ears.
What is the best and most inspiring book you have read recently?
It’s the “Algorithmic Leader” as previously mentioned. Its author is a futurist. I find myself in this book. I have quite a rich imagination, but also a lot of bad experiences on my account. Reading books or watching films, especially those about the future: documentaries or Sci-fi; I wonder if the ideas presented there can be brought to life today. The area I’ve been working on for years gives me the opportunity to evaluate. Even if we are not able to realize a solution, this model of thinking can be extremely inspiring. It allows you to look at your company’s processes in a different way and adjust your actions.
What are your values in life and business?
First of all, don’t hurt anybody. Be number one in technology. These are my main principles. Their common denominator is always the man. Whether we’re talking about a client or a colleague. Success at all costs is not an option. Therefore, I’m openly saying I’m a tough player and I know where I want to go, however, I’m doing it with the idea of the blue ocean. I want to change the world, not compete and wage local wars. I want to create, not copy. That’s why we at APA Group deal with technologies widely regarded as innovative.
What makes you feel better? What are your proven ways to fight stress?
I don’t think I ever stress out. Why? I like what I do. Of course, there are situations that are troublesome. I assume that as long as I can do something with my own hands, influence the situation or have the means to fix it financially, I am not facing a problem. The real problems are things we can’t control. We must always be aware of the consequences they have, but they can never block us in action. However, there’s no hiding the fact that my approach is probably influenced by my passion for physical activity: tennis, running and formerly karate. Physical activity helps us breathe deeper, and by doing so think better.
Last Updated on December 9, 2020 by Karolina Ampulska