Poland’s wealthiest switch places

Not long ago America’s “Forbes” magazine declared Michal Solowow the world’s richest Pole, with a fortune estimated at $2.4 bln.Gazeta Wyborcza contends he is no longer the richest man in Poland. The banker and financier Leszek Czarnecki is worth $3.9 bln, the newspaper said. Czarnecki, Solowow and the other three Poles on the magazine’s list of the world?s 946 billionaires ? Roman Karkosik, Jan Wejchert and Zygmunt Solorz-Zak ? have made their fortunes largely on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, whose combined value has tripled in four years. Many have become sponsors of sports teams or bought sports facilities.Meanwhile, Gazeta Wyborcza says Poland has six billionaires, not five. It says “Forbes” failed to include Ryszard Krauze, whom Gazeta Wyborcza says is worth $2 bln. He also made much of his fortune on the stock exchange, Gazeta Wyborcza says.Czarnecki started his first company, Europejski Fundusz Leasingowy, in 1991 in Wroclaw. The leasing company, which leased cars, computers and factory machines to businesses, filled a gap in the Polish market. Czarnecki sold it 10 years later for 900 mln zloty or $330 mln. Then he created a financial group, Getin Holding, consisting of a bank, insurance companies and leasing companies. His shares have jumped 130 percent since September 2006. During this time Solowow’s fortune has doubled ? but it wasn?t enough to keep pace with Czarnecki, Gazeta Wyborcza said.  In his hometown Czarnecki is known for plans to build the country?s second-highest building ? a 220-meter Sky Tower.Like Solowow, he is a sports enthusiast but prefers scuba diving and climbing to Solowow’s car racing. The two men also are the same age ? 45. Solowow started his first construction company soon after graduating from college in Kielce, in southeastern Poland. He put about $10,000 he had saved during his studies into creating a company that he sold in 2002 for $44 mln.That year he was already on “Wprost” magazine’s annual “100 Wealthiest Poles” list.His management team specialized in buying near-bankrupt privately owned companies, making them profitable, then listing them on the stock exchange.Solowow turned Barlinek, an ailing wood-processing company, into one of the world’s largest floorboard producers. Other Solowow companies include the ceramics producer Cersanit, the housing developer Echo and the daily Zycie Warszawy.Thousands of investors on the Warsaw Stock Exchange have made money by buying shares in his companies because there is a feeling they are almost certain to go up. Solowow is also one of Poland’s top race-car drivers. His took second place in the 2006 Polish rally championships and third in the European rally championships.     Poland’s four other billionaires also enjoy sports, mainly as sponsors.Krauze, best known for owning Poland?s biggest software company, Prokom, is active in three.Prokom’s basketball team just won its fourth championship in a row. Prokom also owns the soccer club Arka Gdynia and a tennis complex in the Baltic Sea town of Sopot, where one of two Polish World Tennis Association tournaments takes place. Although Prokom is the most visible part of Krauze’s $2 bln empire, it’s just a small slice of it. The Baltic coast-based entrepreneur also invests in construction, pharmacy and oil and gasoline. Karkosik, owner of several steel and chemical companies, is sponsoring a motorcycle racing team from his native Torun. He is also worth $2 bln. And Wejchert’s ITI has bought a major stake in last year?s soccer champion, Legia Warszawa.  ITI owns TVN, the third most popular television station in Poland. It has helped push Wejchert?s fortune to $ 1 bln.The second most popular broadcaster, Polsat, is the company at the heart of Solorz-Zak’s $1.5 bln fortune. “Forbes” listed Sololow in its March 2007 edition as being the 407th richest man in the world. The other four Poles ranked between 488 and 799.Having four Poles on the list isn’t impressive when compared with the number in other countries, of course. Spain, which has about the same population as Poland ? 40 mln ? has 20 billionaires, for example.But Poland is playing catch-up because it?s had only 18 years of capitalism.The Warsaw Stock Exchange has been the prime factor in the fortunes of Poland’s five billionaires and many other wealthy Poles.The exchange started in 1991 with five newly privatized companies. Now it lists 309 companies.The biggest is Orlen, with annual revenues of 45 bln zloty or $16.6 bln.The former state-owned oil and gasoline producer and distributor has a major share in the Polish fuel market and has expanded its business to nearby countries. Another big company on the exchange is Telekomunikacja Polska, Poland’s Number 1 phone and Internet-service provider, with 10 mln customers. France Telecom owns 47 percent of the concern, which the Polish government privatized some years ago.   The government owns an 84 percent stake in another big player on the exchange, Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo, which provides natural gas to homes. Next year another state-owned company, the electricity provider Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetyczne, should go public. Polityka magazine says it’s the third-largest company in Poland by value. The most important index of the Warsaw Stock Exchange is the Warszawski Indeks Gieldowy or WIG. It represents the value of all listed companies.The last four years have seen unprecedented growth in the index. In fact WIG tripled during this period, reaching a peak of  66,951.73 points on July 4.

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