WARSAW, JULY 14 -- Lech Grobelny, who often conducted business without benefit of shirt, shoes or a previous night's sleep, was Poland's answer to Donald Trump.
He made money. He constantly advertised himself in the press. He owned a yacht. He was often seen with a beautiful young woman. And he bragged all the time about how smart he was.
When Poles were frantic late last year to change zlotys into dollars, Grobelny obliged them and opened Warsaw's largest chain of money-changing shops. When Poles wanted a hedge against hyper-inflation, Grobelny obliged them and opened a private bank offering 180 percent interest on six-month deposits.
By this summer, however, the zloty had stabilized, the money-changing business had gone sour and hyper-inflation was gone. With his profit margin evaporating and his depositors starting to come in for money, Grobelny told his staff in June that he was taking a two-week vacation abroad.
This week, in a discovery that has produced post-Communist Poland's first financial scandal, it became clear that Warsaw's most famous entrepreneur is not planning to come home.
Grobelny's employees sent a letter to the Warsaw prosecutor saying they had no idea where Grobelny was or what he had done with the 32 billion zlotys (about $3.2 million) that 10,000 depositors had put into his "Safe Savings Bank."
The Grobelny affair has been held up as "an example and a warning" that the Solidarity-led government must take immediate steps to protect investors who are unfamiliar with the risks of capitalism.
Stefan Bilinski, a deputy in the parliament, said this week that as the government introduces capital markets and sells off shares in state-owned industries, it must protect the public from swindles.
"There must be a system of safeguards in the form of government guarantees. The government cannot allow the uncontrolled issue of various shares," he said.
Last December, when Grobelny was promoting himself and his bank in full-page newspaper advertisements, a number of public warnings were in fact issued. The National Bank of Poland said that depositors could not count on the law forcing Grobelny to pay back their money.
The "Safe Savings Bank," under the law, was not really a bank. Grobelny simply signed contracts with individuals, promising money and interest at a certain date. There is no law to prevent, guarantee or regulate this kind of business.
On Marszalkowska Street in central Warsaw Friday, employees refused to answer the door at Grobelny's bank and money-changing emporium. Hundreds of depositors -- many of them pensioners clutching Grobelny contracts in their hands -- milled about in front of the locked-up office. They grumbled, cursed and exchanged phone numbers. Many wept and a few fainted.
Barbara Rozenik, a railway worker who in February deposited $1,000 at 180 percent interest, was one of those who wept. The money was her life savings, she said, adding that "there is nothing anymore that keeps me in this country. I have had enough."
The tabloid press in Warsaw quoted unidentified sources as saying that Grobelny has gone to South Africa. Other sources said he has sold his three Mercedes Benz cars. His neighbors said that his girlfriend, whom Grobelny nicknamed Zabcia (which means Froggy), disappeared at the same time he did.
In an interview late last year, Grobelny cut a memorable figure, especially for a financier. On a freezing November afternoon, he sat in his chilly office wearing neither shoes nor shirt. He said he hadn't slept in two months. He was drinking Courvoisier brandy from a tall glass and chain-smoking. His chubby fingers massaged a calculator as he talked.
Among other things, he said that the future of Poland depended on free enterprise, but that the newly elected leaders of Poland didn't know anything about it.
"The Poles are not stupid," he explained. "Over all those years of Communist rule, they have learned how to hide their incomes. The government calculated that Poles have only a few billion dollars in savings, while I think that they have at least $40 billion."
Bankers here have acknowledged in recent months that Grobelny was right. Poles do have more dollar savings than was previously thought. Since the first of the year, when the zloty could be converted to the dollar at a stable rate, dollar reserves in the central bank have increased far above expectations.
There are, however, at least $3 million that did not find their way into state banks.
The Warsaw prosecutor, invoking a law dealing with "illicit acquisition of property," launched an investigation this week to find out what Grobelny has done with that money.