Ignacy Z. Soszynski founded a small perfume business here six years ago that has blossomed into a multinational company, plugged a hole in the shortage-plagued Polish market and earned its founder a reputation as one of the best private entrepreneurs in all of Eastern Europe.
Among communist authorities, however, such a performance is not necessarily well-received. "I was not, and I am not, a capitalist," Soszynski recently pleaded in a telex message to the government's Ministry of Internal Trade, which is threatening to liquidate his firm. "I would like to ask for tolerance for my successes, not punishment. . . . I don't have any feeling for property."
Such declarations were supposed to be unnecessary after Poland opened its economy to foreign-sponsored private businesses a decade ago and followed in 1981 with a plan for far-reaching reforms of the socialist system. Officially, the government of Wojciech Jaruzelski has embraced the idea of private investment and the use of profit-oriented principles to replenish the country's marketplace.
Soszynski's case, however, appears to be a prime example of how a populist backlash has increasingly limited the nominal reforms. Many workers have come to resent the unequal living standards that have resulted from private entrepreneurship and the linking of state salaries to efficiency. To satisfy them, Jaruzelski's government has promised to crack down on what it calls "the super-rich" -- and hardline communists have zealously embraced the campaign.
The result has often been a chilling message to investors about the rewards of hard work and efficiency. With shrewd marketing, Soszynski nurtured a skeleton operation in a rented house into a cosmetics and food-processing conglomerate, Interfragrances-La Foret, with branches in five Polish and three Western European cities, nearly 1,000 employes and total sales of more than $40 million annually.
The response of authorities has been to initiate a criminal investigation against the entrepreneur and begin an administrative review of whether to seize his company for being "contrary to the national interest." Although a prosecutor in Poznan, the western city where the company began, finally concluded last December that Soszynski could not be charged with an offense, the threat of liquidation by the internal trade ministry remains in effect.
Soszynski readily acknowledges the underlying problem. "I am not only probably the richest man in Poland, but also in Eastern Europe," he said matter-of-factly. "At least, there is no private taxpayer in Eastern Europe who pays as much as I do. But in Poland, there is a lot of hatred for people with riches. It is a very unpleasant existence."
Hundreds of private investors and merchants in Poland recently have shared his experience. Soszynski's story, however, is exceptional both for the astounding success of his firm and the bravado with which this tall, silver-haired Pole has sought to practice capitalism in a socialist system.
"There are never barriers to doing something, only difficulties," he said jauntily in a recent interview at the Interfragrances shop in Hanover, West Germany. "And it is the difficulties that makes it interesting."
Soszynski has in fact spent much of his life riding and crashing on the Polish government's successive waves of seeming welcome and repudiation of private initiative. Twice in the first five years after the communist takeover of Poland at the end of World War II, he founded private perfume companies, only to be nationalized as quickly as he succeeded.
"There were green lights given to private business at various times then, but lights that never really lighted up," he said of his early experience. And he added, wryly: "In those days, people believed what the authorities said."
After studying for a degree in chemistry and briefly trying employment in a socialized firm, Soszynski finally left Poland in 1963 and spent more than 15 years founding and operating perfume companies in France and Morocco. Finally, he was once again nationalized, this time by Morocco's King Hassan. When he returned to Poland in the late 1970s, he said, he was already a millionaire.
His capital made him an ideal candidate for the government's effort beginning in 1977 to lure expatriate Poles and other foreign investors to the country to found private businesses. The program was meant to help with shortages of consumer goods and services, increase exports to the West, and introduce a measure of capitalist discipline and efficiency into a badly lagging economy.
As it happened, Soszynski's new perfume company opened business in a rented house in Poznan in January 1980, only months before the nation's consumer market collapsed in the crisis that led to the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity. As Poland staggered through 16 months of national conflict followed by martial law, the Interfragrances firm boomed by supplying goods that had vanished from state shop shelves.
Soszynski was soon supervising the production, import and export of preserves, spices and perfumes as well as cosmetics, and he charmed Polish consumers with the handsome packaging and the efficient service of a growing chain of Interfragrances shops. Fifteen shops are now open in Warsaw.
State cosmetics and food-processing firms, he said, turned to him in desperation for imported supplies the government could no longer pay for, and for the marketing of products they could no longer sell. "At the time, the state companies thanked us for keeping them alive," he said. "Later, after the crisis, they decided our help was an offense."
Interfragrances' error simply may have been to grow too big, too quickly. Its sales increased 15 times in four years, and as subsidiary factories opened around Poland, the Poznan firm opened shops in the Netherlands, France and West Germany.
Though he lived in a large villa outside Poznan, Soszynski said he tried to be inconspicuous about his wealth. For several years, he drove a tiny Polish-made Fiat to work each day before finally switching to a BMW. "I tried not to make people envy me," he said. "Besides, it's not easy to spend a lot of money in Poland."
Eventually, however, communist activists in the area began to complain at public meetings about Interfragrances growth and its owner's wealth, and the provincial prosecutor in Poznan launched his criminal investigation. Authorities have charged at various times since then that Soszynski didn't invest enough hard currency in his firm, made too much money in his dealings with state companies, or simply grew too big to serve the national interest.
"It's clear that with the current political program, no private enterprise will be able to exist," Soszynski said with an air of resignation. "I will eventually give up my enterprise to the state."
Quickly, however, he added, "Of course, if they do not liquidate me . . . I can see expanding to Bulgaria and Hungary, to Czechoslovakia, . . . even the Soviet Union. That's a big possibility for us. I will work on as long as there are markets to supply."