Catching up to grandfather. Interwiev with Rafal Lipinski, CEO SEEN TECHNOLOGIE Sp. z o.o.
When was the idea to start a company born?
Since I was a child, I dreamt of owning my own business . The year 1989 was a time in Poland, when the dormant potential of thousands of young people was triggered. I started the business in 1990, with a good knowledge of languages and a lot of family contacts abroad.
This enthusiasm was passed on to me by my father, who, as a university lecturer, always dreamed of having his own business, I think. When setting up the company, I also wanted to continue the pre-war family tradition – I wanted to “catch up” to my grandfather, who was an engineer and innovator. He owned a factory of boilers and central heating installations, gasworks in Łódź and, from 1920 onwards, the P&L aircraft factory in the city of Lublin.
Where did you get the resources necessary for the launch and initial operation of the business?
Soon after graduating from the university, I went on an engineering contract to Kuwait. As a result of a few unforeseen events (so basically by sheer luck), I became the youngest contract manager in the communist Poland. I made over $10,000, all of which I’ve invested in the company.
How was business being conducted during the birth of Polish capitalism? How did your beginnings look like?
The beginnings were objectively very difficult – although at the time everything looked great and the whole world seemed to be at our feet. We started by supplying environmental protection equipment and electronic products. The reforms implemented by Mr. Balcerowicz, the finance minister, made the market unpredictable. For example – within a few months, the wages of our workers in the transformer factory expressed in dollars (and all production was intended for export) increased more than fivefold.
Why exactly did you choose this particular sector of business? Do you consider running a business in this industry to be a bull’s eye?
This was a natural consequence of my education, and that of my brother, Erasmus. I have also tried my luck in other sectors of business, without much knowledge, but usually also without spectacular success.
How did you imagine being an entrepreneur before you started your business?
As a young business student, I did not understand the rules of the game, especially the realities of the “Wild West” post-communist Poland. We lost a lot of time, money and enthusiasm in trying to participate in privatisation tenders or to win large public contracts. To no avail. I imagined that success in business would result from a series of “lucky shots”, but it turned out that it was usually the result of hard, systematic work over years.
Who are your company’s customers? What are the main issues when dealing with customers? Do you believe in the principle “the Customer is always right”?
Our customers are both public and private investors, who build environmental facilities. We offer industrial facilities and installations based on technologies and technical products of high quality and complexity, so the decision-making process is spread over many levels of management. At each stage, it requires an understanding of the customer’s needs and problems and, consequently, the ability to solve them. We are looking for high-tech areas of business where there is less competition.
How does the state make it easier or more difficult to become and stay an entrepreneur?
Contrary to the common belief about the power of entrepreneurship in our society, it is state policy that is decisive in shaping social structures – including the role of private business. The willingness of young people setting up their own business to work hard, make sacrifices and take risks derives from the way entrepreneurs are treated.
Can business be done anywhere or only in capitalism?
The proverbial “deal” probably can be made anywhere, as was evidenced by the many small business owners in the communist era, but business in my industry and on the scale of SEEN is only possible in the right economic environment and respect for private property, i.e., the so-called capitalism.
Have you ever had any crisis situations, where you wanted to give up your business and do something else?
Managing a growing company in a rather unstable market, which Poland was for years, relied on crisis management. But it is also important to realise that this is a temporary condition that can be survived and even allows you to become stronger. Undoubtedly, the knowledge I gained at the IFG Management Institute also gave me confidence. In my early years, I was also fortunate to have excellent mentors among our partners – experienced salespeople and managers from global corporations, finding satisfaction in educating us and achieving mutual success.
If you could turn back time, what would you change about the way you ran your business?
I feel that the success we have achieved has come at too great a cost. A human cost. Over the years, while trying to be the best and to build the company, we were working over a dozen hours a day – pampering clients, neglecting our loved ones. Many have paid a high price for this, leading to the break-up of their families and often to addictions.
What are the biggest failures that you have suffered and which had taught you the most? What is your approach to business failures?
Unfortunately, I am afraid it is very difficult to learn from others’ mistakes. This is why failures make for good lessons – but it is not possible to experience all failure scenarios in business. So the most important skill is to estimate the risks properly and to be able to step back, say that ‘enough is enough’ and consciously accept losses.
Undoubtedly, the most painful failures always came from disappointment with people, loss of the trust put in them.
What aptitudes, personality traits, knowledge and skills should an entrepreneur have to succeed in business? Which do you consider the most important?
Arguably, there are many such qualities and thus many pathways to success. I see two key ones: the so-called ‘hunger for success’, which we used to perhaps more aptly describe as ‘cunning’, and efficiency or effectiveness (in management, decision-making, evaluating people or implementing strategies).
Is entrepreneurship a job, a vocation or a kind of madness? Is business a win-win or a bloodthirsty race in the end?
Acquired qualities are not enough for business. I am afraid that it is difficult to ‘create’ an entrepreneur, even in the best business school, if he or she does not have innate predispositions. And this is probably why the effectiveness of generational succession is so low. Our children have watched us over the years making the climb and often do not want to experience it a second time. In a way, rightly so, because business is a constant struggle, a fight – although according to the rules that we define for ourselves. This element of divinity is a huge threat that we know not everyone can resist, pushing the boundaries on an ad hoc basis.
Does the entrepreneurial status ennoble? When does the entrepreneur feel fulfilled?
The satisfaction from success is something people want to experience in different ways. For some, it is the awareness of being the best, the greatest, the ‘number one’, for others it is the money and the resulting pleasures. Sometimes it is popularity. For me, it is the social position, so yes, ‘ennoblement’. It is the resulting empowerment which can be used with the money earned to help others and to achieve certain important things, the urge to act on which we have been nurturing for years.
Environmental engineer, graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology. In 1990 he established SEEN, a company with subsidiaries in 6 countries, which was transformed in 2007 into SEEN Holding. With over 300 engineers, the Group is a leader in environmental protection. He was awarded the title of Silver Engineer, Employer of the Year and the Knight’s Cross Polonia Restituta.
Last Updated on October 30, 2023 by Anastazja