How was Poland’s largest logistics operator built? An interview with Tadeusz Chmielewski, Chairman of the Board at ROHLIG SUUS Logistics S.A.

How was Poland’s largest logistics operator built? An interview with Tadeusz Chmielewski, Chairman of the Board at ROHLIG SUUS Logistics S.A.

When was the concept of starting a business conceived? Where did you get the funds required to launch and initially operate the business?

Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to run my own business. However, I had no fixed agenda of what I had to do every year to get closer to my goal. I have already worked hard when I was young – already at college, I have often gone abroad to earn some money doing casual work; I was a labourer in the Netherlands where I operated a forklift for the first time in my life.

I was lucky because when I started my career, many Western companies entered the Polish market. I had the opportunity to learn management standards from experienced managers. I happened to get to a Polish branch of the German logistics company Röhlig, and very soon started to develop their operations on our market. I was lucky, this was the right place and the right time – in 1999, one of the shareholders of the Polish company, Elektrim, was selling its assets. I bought them straight away, and in 2006, I had the opportunity to buy out the rest.

There was a time when I had an opportunity to resell my part of the business for very good money and just reap the benefits of it for the rest of my life. But I knew it wasn’t for me, that I could do better than that. I was ready to take responsibility for the fate of the entire company; I wanted my business to grow. I risked everything; redeemed the shares and created the SUUS brand. It was one of the best decisions of my life. SUUS is now Poland’s largest logistics operator and one of the largest in CEE.

How was it to do business in the times when Polish capitalism was born? What were the beginnings?

The logic of capitalism was that it was Western capital that was taking over Polish companies. I have managed the opposite…

There are many stories circulating about rapacious foreign corporations, but here, again, we deal with a luck factor in my story. I came across a great mentor, an experienced manager, who helped me develop and guided my career. As a 31-year-old, I became a Managing Director for Poland. Obviously, I had to prove my suitability for the position. I did well and quite quickly theory followed my business practice. I have completed my MBA and also took part in the Management Skills Improvement Programme held by the Canadian International Management Institute and Harvard Business School Publishing. I’ve always believed that it was very important to keep learning, improving, and revising your knowledge and skills. Pride goeth before a fall, while believing in one’s own infallibility and refusing to accept new experiences and concepts, can be extremely detrimental to running a business. That is why continuous self-development constitutes one of our corporate values. We invest heavily in the development of our people, because our success depends on their competence and knowledge.

Why this sector specifically, and not any other? Do you consider running a business in this industry to be a bull’s eye hit?

I have learned the practical basics of business like many other Polish people; working abroad to earn some money doing casual work. In the Netherlands, I met a man who distributed flower bulbs all over the world. This was my first encounter with very interesting aspects of global logistics. All processes were those days much more difficult than they are now; there was less technology involved and more relationship issues, skills of gathering information, reaching the right people.

Besides, logistics still require out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills. I enjoyed the fact that we had an actual impact on our clients’ businesses, that we solved their problems, that we helped them become more competitive. It’s a great industry sector and it attracts great people.

Have you ever had any crisis situation that made you consider giving up your business and doing something else?

The essence of logistics is mostly dealing with crisis situations… The last few years in particular have given us all a hard time. If it wasn’t for a great, committed and hard-working team, we wouldn’t have managed to grow that much. But I assume that crises and failures help us grow and learn. The ability to draw conclusions and to deal with them, determines a strength of a person. Without them, we would not be where we are now.

I never wanted to give up, but there was a point when I could have backed out and lived comfortably. It’s just not for me; I like to work and I like challenges. But SUUS is not the be all and end all. We are a family of entrepreneurs and we are also involved in pleasure & leisure projects as part of our family business. Just to mention Wine Avenue, which is distributing great wines and spirits addressed to HoReCa industry and speciality shops, but not only.

Food quality, sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency issues are also very close to my heart. I believe they are crucial to the quality of our life. The love for cooking and good food is passed down in our family from generation to generation. That is why there is a new venture, Karma House in Gościeńczyce, that I have become involved in lately – an organic farm housing a botanical garden and a culinary academy, where we hold cultural events or events that support personal and professional development. This is a space we have revitalised ourselves – planting several hundred species of plants, restoring water retention basins and fauna. This project gives me a lot of satisfaction as well.

What is the mission and what is your vision for the future growth of the company? Is there still anything to be achieved?

Over the past few years, our concerns have primarily focused on ensuring our customers with stability and a sense of not having to worry about their cargo. Difficult times verify business relationships. Our record-breaking results prove that we rose to the challenge. We are practitioners – we can help our clients streamline their operations and reduce their costs of operation. This is why we felt that it was a good time to develop supply chain building, auditing or logistics consultancy services under the SUUS Advisory brand. We are now also focusing on relationships with our key partners – carriers. We want to help them grow their business in these difficult times.

Naturally, we don’t stop; we have an appetite for more. We have achieved very good results, growing organically – we are working on acquisitions, including overseas. We want to strengthen our position in Central and Eastern Europe, and we have the competence and capabilities to become the market leader.

If you could turn back time, what would you change about the way you run your business?

No one can turn back time, so there’s no point in thinking about it. Everyone makes mistakes, myself included, but they allow you to grow. My mistakes have helped me become a better person and entrepreneur. I owe my success not only to my work. I was fortunate to set up a team of people who were passionate about creating and developing what had started over 30 years ago. It was largely thanks to them that I was able to grow the company. 

What are the biggest failures you’ve experienced that have taught you the most? What is your approach to business failure?

It is not seldom that fear of failure paralyses even those people who are very smart. That is why I will say it one more time – because it is very important – failures make us stronger. Those who don’t experience them – won’t learn a thing.

What type of leadership style do you prefer?  How do you feel about the fact that the fate of many people depends on you?

It is the role of the Chairman of the Board to spark enthusiasm in others. I should first of all support my people with my experience, help them when they need it, inspire them. The worst thing I could do is to go for micromanagement. This takes the initiative away, takes the joy of working and limits decision-making. I trust people, I do care that my colleagues want to take matters into their own hands, that they are not afraid of making decisions and, most of all, that they work well together. Good relationships within the company are very important. The issues we face in logistics are often very stressful. People work very hard. The management style or atmosphere in the company should help them cope with difficult circumstances, rather than adding to the stress.

What aptitudes, personality traits, knowledge and skills should an entrepreneur have to succeed in business? Which of them do you consider to be the most important?

The gift of winning people and building partnership-based and long-term relations is crucial. I’m a happy person, because I’ve always managed to get the right people around me – co-workers, bosses, and friends. If you want to succeed, you need to be able to build a good team.

Nor will you get far without the ability to trust people. If I choose the best business partners and colleagues and want them to support me – I have to trust them. Otherwise, it just won’t work.

Hard work and strategic thinking come in handy, certainly. I played chess as a child, then bridge in high school and at the university. These games develop not only your mind but also analytical and planning skills. But the best strategy will fail if it is not supported by good relations with others.

Does being an entrepreneur commands respect? When does an entrepreneur feel fulfilled?

This engine never dies. I feel fulfilled, but I still have an appetite for more. If I am no longer willing to achieve new goals; if I no longer have new ideas, then I will become a poor manager and entrepreneur. I am always looking for new ventures. But I also feel a great responsibility for not letting down the people who trust me. Many people at SUUS have been with me for decades. They believed in me over 30 years ago and they still believe in me. This is a great privilege.

Should an entrepreneur be modest or the opposite? Or does it depend on the type of business one runs?

It’s like saying that an entrepreneur should be a dark-haired man… Everyone has their own way of doing business that suits their character. But I think it is very important to build good interpersonal relations; some kind of humility and diligence. Humility in the context of being aware of one’s own limitations and that sometimes it is worth listening to others. I have good intuition, but I also know how to listen to people.

People say that entrepreneurs work 24 hours a day? How true is this? Is work-life balance even possible?

I have also always tried to find a balance. I made sure to always spend some active time with my sons, to be present in their lives. We have often built our relations based on sport. It helps to shape one’s character, to take care of your health and the right balance. It’s very important that you don’t just lose yourself in your work and take care of your body and soul.

Albert Einstein once said, “Try not to become a man of success. Rather try to become a man of value.” What are your values in life and business? Can business be responsible, people-friendly and green?

SUUS is a family business. I “borrow” it from my children, but I also brand it with my name. I translate all my private life values into business. We invest in relations; we always try to be fair to each other, our customers, and partners. We share the good.

The same applies to our approach to the planet and sustainability – I want my children, and soon my grandchildren, to have a good life. And that also means an obligation to care for our environment. With our new warehouses, we are committed to the highest environmental standards; we are counting our carbon footprint; we want to set ourselves emission reduction targets this year; we have many measures planned. I have a strong sense of responsibility for this area. It is no longer legitimate to ask whether business should be responsible – we should rather constantly raise the bar in this regard.

Tadeusz Chmielewski Chairman of the Board at ROHLIG SUUS Logistics S.A. Tadeusz Chmielewski has been involved in the TSL industry for more than 30 years. He started out his career at Röhlig Polandin 1990, and four years later he took up the position of the Managing Director. In 2003, he became the Chairman of the Board, and three years later, as a result of buying out the shares, he became the sole proprietor of the enterprise. In 2009, he rebranded the company, renaming it ROHLIG SUUS Logistics, and implemented a new business strategy, thus initiating a dynamic growth that continues to this day.

Today, ROHLIG SUUS Logistics employs more than 2.000 people in 30 branches located in Poland and abroad. The company is one of the largest and fastest-growing logistics operators in Poland, with sales revenues in 2021 reaching almost PLN 2 billion.

In addition to the logistics sector, he is also involved in projects related to industrial property market, including both warehouse and office facilities.

He also supports a line of business that deals with new technologies and start-up projects providing products that can be applied in modern supply chains.

Tadeusz Chmielewski is a graduate of the University of Physical Education in Warsaw. He is also an MBA graduate of International Business School at Kozminski University in Warsaw. He developed his managerial skills during the Annual Management Skills Improvement Programme – Management 2005™, organised by the Canadian International Management Institute and Harvard Business School Publishing. Since 2001, a member of the Polish Business Roundtable Club.

Last Updated on April 17, 2023 by Anastazja Lach