5 minute read

40 years in Finnish-Polish business: Spondeo interviews Markku Ekholm

Markku Ekholm was nominated as a CEO of Suomen Unipol in the spring of 1993, after working 10 years in the company. It means that 2023 marks his 30th year as CEO and his 40th year in Finnish-Polish business. Tuomas Asunmaa, the CEO of Spondeo, asked Markku about his experience of working with Poles and changes observed in Polish business during the last four decades.

Tuomas Asunmaa: Markku, this is quite a unique story about Finnish-Polish business. When was your first time in Poland?

Markku Ekholm: I have been traveling to Poland regularly since 1985, around 7 or 8 times a year, so it must be around 300 visits in total. In the past it was easier to calculate as everything was stamped in the visa.

How was it to do business in the 1980s during communist times?

At the time, trading in chemicals was, in my understanding, different to most other sectors, as it was very organized and significant for the whole economy. For example, CIECH had the most skilled employees – including both education and language skills. This also meant that they had an exceptional number of women working there. The culture of trading was in order back then and promises were kept. We initially had more challenges on the customers’ side – we had to convince Finnish buyers that the quality, production stability and so on are better than the reputation of Poland at that time; it was only a few years after martial law was declared.

How was Warsaw back then?

Well, there were of course money changers in every corner. Outside of the Palace of Culture and Science there was a huge trading market – farmers selling their products out of trunks, etc. Everyone was buying stuff as there was hyperinflation and money was burning in pockets, so it was better to buy something real. We also ended up importing soap and washing powder from Finland to Poland after the stores sold out of them and the government issued a tender. We also imported plastic bags from Finland to Poland to the Pewexes selling foreign items for foreign currency. These inflation figures we have now are nothing compared to the 1980s and 90s.

Has much stayed the same?

Of course! Polish hospitality has always been there. Even though times were tough and Poland was much poorer, it was always nice to visit – Polish people really make the country! Also the food has always been great, although the menu is getting a bit lighter nowadays.

Was it easy to operate as a Finn in Poland?

For me it has always been easy to deal with Polish people. During the 40+ years of our company we never had any court issues with the Polish side. In the early 1980s there were lots of people in the working environment who remembered the war, knew Finnish history in WW2 and the common enemy we had. They were happy that at least someone managed somehow with Russia. Remembering that time and how it was in Poland, we Finns should appreciate where we are. We also tend not to know how Poland was before the war – it was a developing country with a stock exchange and everything. This background is behind the current fast growth of the Polish economy.

Did the pandemic and war bring back any memories from the past?

Some things are similar – like of course the price changes, it is getting a bit out of control now, and in our sector the demand is also high as clients want to get rid of Russian products. Logistics is also difficult, but it is not like back when communication was tough, telex lines were not working, mail was being opened and the phones were off or tapped – sometimes they even said “we are listening, but keep talking.” On the other hand, business has always been good in Poland.

Do you have any tips for those who are thinking about the Polish market 40 years after you?

Nowadays there is certainly tough competition in all sectors. You need to do your homework and be competitive no matter what you are planning to do in Poland. It is also no longer a place where you can look for huge cost savings in labor, but you can find a great market and business opportunities. I have never regretted that my link to business is Poland.

Suomen Unipol is a Finnish company founded in 1979 by Markku’s father Jorma and Jussi Mäkynen. The business imported more than 3 million tonnes of pro ducts from Poland to Finland and traded almost everything from dynamite to aspirin, with the main focus on industrial chemicals by leading Polish suppliers.

Are you interested in entering Polish market? How about boosting your sales or acquiring talent in Poland? Look no further!

Spondeo is a dedicated Finnish-Polish-Ukrainian team of sales experts and talent acquisition professionals who specialize in consulting, sales, remote recruitment, and go-to-market projects in CEE and Scandinavia.

Growing in the Polish market can be challenging, but we are here to help! Don’t hesitate to visit our website: www.spondeo.pl

Tuomas Asunmaa


+48 514 615 048