Business

The teenager who smuggled computers through the Iron Curtain

A young Tomasz Czechowicz Image copyright Tomasz Czechowicz
Image caption A young Tomasz Czechowicz was no stranger to driving a long way

As communism was collapsing across eastern Europe in 1989, an 18-year-old Tomasz Czechowicz was combining partying with running an illicit business. And doing a lot of long-distance driving.

A keen computer enthusiast and electronics student, Mr Czechowicz realised that there was a huge pent-up demand in Poland for personal computers. But because of the communist regime, there were hardly any to buy.

So Mr Czechiwicz, who lived in the south-western Polish city of Wroclaw, hatched a plan to start smuggling computers from the then West Germany.

First thing every Saturday morning, he would drive into East Germany, taking a four-hour car trip to the then still-divided Berlin, before sneaking into West Berlin, which was an exclave of West Germany.

Now 45, and one of Poland's richest businessmen, he says: "I went with my mate in a battered old Maluch [Fiat 126], and we had to drive around Berlin to get in from the western side."

The two friends would buy second-hand computers in West Berlin, such as Commodore Amiga 1000s, before driving six hours to the Polish capital, Warsaw.

They'd then have a big Saturday night out in Warsaw, before selling the computers - at a 50% profit - at a Sunday morning street market. After that, they would take four hours to drive back to Wroclaw and their college studies.

Image copyright MCI
Image caption Tomasz Czechowicz is today one of the richest men in Poland

Mr Czechowicz says that this was the routine "every weekend".

"We were soon selling about five computers a week," he adds.

But it wasn't just computers that Mr Czechowicz and his friends carried back to Poland each Saturday, he says. "It was the new-found - and highly significant - knowledge that [West] Germans couldn't get rid of the their ageing hardware fast enough."

And at the same time, Poles were craving Western computers. Mr Czechowicz realised he could satisfy both needs.

So as the communist regimes of eastern Europe started to fall, Mr Czechowicz and two friends set up a business called JTT and flooded Poland with used Commodore 64s.

'Making it up'

JTT grew quickly, using the money it raised from initial sales to buy ever more computers from Germany.

Mr Czechowicz also raised funds by selling stakes in the business to friends and family members, keeping a 40% share for himself.

Image copyright Sascha Steinbach
Image caption Poles wanted to get their hands on computers, and Mr Czechowicz was happy to help them out

Staff were taken on, including Mr Czechowicz's sister, who very conveniently spoke German, and a warehouse rented.

Within a few years, JTT started assembling its own computers, and selling more than one million a year. Seven years later, JTT had annual revenues of 394 Polish zlotys ($100m; £68m) and 400 employees.

However, things did not run completely smoothly, and Mr Czechowicz says he woke up one day and realised he didn't know how to run a company.

"We were making it up as we went along," he says.

Problems with accounting, a tax row with the government, and various supply and delivery issues had arisen, and Mr Czechowicz - who had the chief executive role - realised that he didn't know how to deal with them.

Image copyright GERARD MALIE
Image caption As communism fell in eastern Europe, Mr Czechowicz was already embracing free enteprise

He had to admit to himself that natural wit and playing the system could only take him so far.

So Mr Czechowicz decided to walk away from the daily running of JTT in 1996 and go back to school, doing an MBA with the University of Minnesota, which was running courses at the time in Warsaw.

Two years later, he used his savings to launch a private investment firm called MCI Capital, which he set up to invest in Polish technology companies.

Tough boss

Fast forward to today, and MCI Capital has investment assets of more than 2.3bn zlotys. And it has expanded out of Poland to invest in companies in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Israel, Russia and Turkey.

Firms in which it has a stake include Israeli car-hailing firm Gett, German online auction house Auctionata, Polish online grocery store Frisco and Swedish mobile payments business iZettle.

Image copyright Frisco
Image caption MCI's investments include Polish online supermarket Frisco

Mr Czechowicz, MCI's chief executive, floated the business on the Warsaw Stock Exchange in 2001, but maintains a 53% stake. His personal wealth is estimated at $147m (£100m).

An avid marathon runner, he is said to be a hard taskmaster as a boss.

One Warsaw businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, says of Mr Czechowicz: "I like him, and would buy the stock, but I would never want to have him as a boss."

Other commentators say that he has a reputation of not suffering fools.

Mr Czechowicz says: "Everyone [at MCI] knows what is expected of them, and they either do it, or they don't."

As MCI continues to grow, he says he is particularly pleased to invest in technology firms in Poland and the wider region.

"Innovation and entrepreneurial spirit need nurturing," he says.

"Our investments... help power the next wave of Poland's - and the wider region's - transformation into a truly digital economy."

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