I am having dinner with Leszek Waliszewski in Wentzl, a chic restaurant in Krakow, Poland. As we settle down to the main course of roast duck, Olivier - the restaurant owner who once was Madonna's chef - solicitously attends to our needs.
At first glance, Waliszewski - the 47-year-old director of Delphi Automotive Systems Corp.'s Polish operations - is one of a group of baby boomers who prospered in his nation's post-Iron Curtain rebirth. But it is doubtful that Waliszewski will ever take his good fortune for granted. Twenty years ago he languished in prison, a Solidarity organizer swept up during the communist crackdown.
His captivity has given him a long-term perspective. Auto sales in Poland have slumped 23 percent this year, but Waliszewski is not easily shaken by short-term market fluctuations. 'It seems strange now that we are worrying because the auto industry has hit a comparative slump this year, given the growth we had in the 1990s. I think 20 years ago what we have today we could only have dreamed of.'
Two decades ago, Waliszewski was a young, university-educated engineer. He was working for the Polish automaker FSM in the town of Tychy, when the Solidarity union gained followers in the shipyards at Gdansk. 'One night, the factory at Tychy decided to go on strike - people just stopped working,' Waliszewski recalled. 'I was elected onto the strike committee. I made contact with other FSM plants in Poland and eventually with Lech Walesa, the leader of the strikers in Gdansk.'
The Solidarity movement quickly spread through Poland, and Waliszewski became local chairman for the Tychy plant and its 9,000 workers. Almost a year later he was chairman of the Katowice region, and was a close ally of Walesa.'We tried to campaign peacefully for things to change, but when martial law was declared, I was arrested and spent a year in prison.'
He says he learned a lot in prison. 'Political prisoners were kept separate from the criminals. There were a lot of dynamic people - professors, teachers, engineers, scientists and doctors - who were imprisoned and were no longer available to their country. The hardest thing for me was that my wife was pregnant when I was arrested, and I missed the birth of our second child.
'I think I learned a lot about myself when I was in prison. I became a stronger person. For one thing I learned to cope with stress, maintain hope and work with other people.'
The Solidarity movement, he said, was a blessing. 'Suddenly from the grayness and helplessness, people started to believe they could change things.'
His prison term would have been longer, but Waliszewski was given an alternative: a one-way exit visa. When he was exiled, Waliszewski chose the United States. He was hired by General Motors, working at the Arlington assembly plant in Texas. He joined Saturn Corp. in 1986, less than a year after it was created. Nine years later, he joined Delphi and returned to Poland as country director. Over the past five years, Poland's auto industry has enjoyed exceptional growth. Delphi now has five plants and a new technical center in Poland.
This year, auto sales dipped 23 percent compared with last year's record of 640,000 vehicles. Waliszewski believes the Polish economy needed a breather. 'I think the country has grown almost too fast in the past five years.'
Rising gasoline prices and a new excise tax on vehicle purchases also have reduced demand. The local market might be down, but Poland remains a good investment with relatively low wages and a highly qualified work force. The country's location next to Germany, Europe's largest vehicle market, gives it a ready market for suppliers' auto components. Moreover, Poland is ideally placed to serve consumer markets in east Europe and Russia.
Delphi was not slow to realize this. It has invested $150 million in Poland and now employs 4,700 workers at plants that make shock absorbers, canisters, heat exchangers, half shafts and wiring. It also boasts a new technical center in Krakow.
Did Waliszewski imagine this 20 years ago?
'We had hopes then,' he said. 'It is amazing what we achieved. I was only 27, but most of the Solidarity leaders were that age. The older men remembered what happened under Stalin and let us take the lead because we had no such memories, no such fear.'