The expat eye

Human resources
As international investment eventually started to trickle and eventually flood in after the political transformation of Poland in the 1990s, so did the expatriates or “expats” – the foreign professionals bringing Western know-how and contacts to the nascent Polish property scene

So, who better to better to ask about what has changed since those early days than some of the expats who arrived back then and are still working on the market today? Except… they are no longer expats – by virtue of the fact that they are still here. Generally speaking, and according to the dictionary definitions you can look up, an expatriate is someone, who is often educated and with certain skills, who goes to work temporarily in another country, but unlike an immigrant, doesn’t stay there on a permanent basis or assimilate with the locals and their culture. I, for one, having been here for over two decades, would never call myself an expat – which might seem ironic, given my miserable failure to learn Polish so far. You can also find in some of the same dictionaries a secondary definition of expat: someone who has actually been expelled from their mother country. However, none of the people interviewed for this article fall into that second category; although it does seem that some expats have (sort of) been sent here not entirely willingly. In line with the first definition, it would be better to describe the interviewees of this piece as ‘ex-expats’, since they have all settled here for good and are very happy to have done so.

Jonathan Cohen, who is now a senior partner and director in the building consultancy at Colliers International, arrived in Warsaw from the UK in 1997. How did he end up here? “A stroke of fate, really,” he recalls. “I was 28, working in the UK as a quantity surveyor and realised that if I wanted to work abroad then that was probably the best time, before I had family ties. I originally thought about China and asked my boss whether there was a possibility of working abroad (my old company had many overseas offices). He pushed back, but then went on holiday for a few weeks. In his absence, a memo appeared announcing the need for a QS in the firm’s Warsaw office. Not quite China, but on the way. I expressed an interest and was offered the job. If my boss been in the office, he would have binned the memo and I’d probably still be working in Leeds.”

Ian Scattergood, now a partner in the office agency at Cushman & Wakefield, was originally based in the UK when he turned up in Warsaw in 1998. He’d spent many years working as the development director for Diageo in the UK, who owned Burger King, and was responsible for real estate, construction and franchising for part of Europe and the Middle East. As he remembers: “This included the CEE region, except little was happening there because of legal disputes. A few months after I’d left Diageo to do my own thing, they called me to say the disputes were settled and they needed help developing in Poland and would I be interested? So I flew over in 1998 with the original intention of helping them organise things, train people and then go home and leave them to it. However, it became clear fairly quickly that this arrangement wasn’t going to work so they asked if I’d consider staying here more permanently. I’ve always enjoyed a bit of adventure so I said, ‘ok, let’s give it a go’ and so I started my career in Poland.”

Home office pioneers

Ian spent the first few months living in the Warsaw Sheraton while looking for an apartment. According to him, there wasn’t much choice, but from the handful of options he had, he chose a small apartment near the British Embassy that the company rented for USD 4,000 a month. And the first office he had was in a house: “The office market then was also more expensive than today and revolved mainly around villas and apartments, although modern office developments had just started to appear around that time, like Atrium, Warsaw Financial Centre and what I still call the ‘Daewoo Tower’ (Warsaw Trade Tower). The first office I had was in a house in Saska Kępa, near the German Embassy, but that was too small, so my team quickly moved into a couple of offices above the Promenada shopping centre. This was handy because there was a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Pizza Hut downstairs! After that we all moved to the Rainbow Center in Praga, before moving my team out again, this time to some offices above the Domino’s Pizza near Hala Mirowska on al. Jana Pawła. That location was great because we had this Ukrainian street band always playing outside as well as the flower market, which is still there,” he recalls.

Mark Twomey, the managing partner of real estate headhunting firm Tara HRC, relocated from Dublin to our region in 2001. “Shortly after finishing university in Ireland I started working in recruitment in Dublin; the company immediately sent me to the CEE region to bring IT candidates back to Ireland at the height of the boom. I ended up transferring to the Prague office in 2001 and spent five years working there. I was later approached by another Irish company that wished to expand into Poland following the EU accession, so I decided to embark on a new adventure in Poland. It was at this time that I really started working within the real estate market,” he tells us.

And what were their first impressions? Ian Scattergood recalls several amusing aspects (or perhaps not so funny, if you were on the wrong end of them) of how expats had to adjust to their new lives here: “In every respect, Warsaw is now unrecognisable from the city I arrived in back in 1998. Back then if you tried to pay with anything except cash, they laughed at you. Today, all I need is my phone’s Apple Pay. Back then it was the mafia that had BMWs and we all drove basic Opel Astras – because anything else would just get stolen. I did the vast majority of my driving around Poland in such a car, with no air conditioning and on single track roads where the tarmac was so rutted by trucks that to overtake was a dangerous roller-coaster ride. Nowadays you can’t move for Range Rovers, Porches, Ferraris and Lambos, which can be driven on a network of modern highways,” he says.

Mark Twomey of Tara HRC

Strangers in a strange land

As for the real estate market itself, the sense you get from our ‘permanent expats’ is that they almost had a feeling of exhilaration at working in this new and strange environment – and the opportunities it gave them: “Those were amazing times. The market existed, but as I had never worked internationally before, it took me to time to understand it – and it worked quite differently to the UK,” says Jonathan Cohen, who goes on: “I was amazed by the opportunities I had to work on major projects, such as the Warsaw Financial Center. There were very few international players at that time, but their number was growing. Most were owner-occupiers, the fast-food giants and hypermarkets, but international banks and professional services wanted western standard class A office space. At the time there was a drastic undersupply of modern class A, so rents for prime space were high and this attracted Western developers. We had very little contact with local players, I guess principally as there was a mutual lack of understanding of how we could add value and where value needed adding. Things seemed to be far less regimented than today, I guess as a result of the market being less mature and the lack of seasoned, home-grown professionals with international institutional experience. Advisors and decision-makers alike were learning as the market developed and the market was very forgiving, given the fundamentals at that time (high rents, low investment costs, high yields).”

Mark Twomey finally arrived in Warsaw in 2006, which he describes as a fascinating period. “Poland had just joined the EU and was seen as a land of milk and honey by foreign investors. This was before the Global Financial Crisis, when banks were lending like it was going out of fashion,” he says, while adding: “It was a weird mix of experienced real estate people and people who had access to capital but no real experience in real estate or indeed experience with Poland and its processes. There was an existing market, for sure, but things just seemed to really skyrocket after EU accession. New companies were entering the market every week and hiring real estate people, but the candidate market was very small so it became a battle to get the best candidates. I remember some of the salaries being offered were ridiculous. It was at this time that we also saw a large wave of real estate expats enter the Polish market. I think all expats would agree, they were fun years to be an expat in Poland!”

Much of Ian Scattergood’s early employment here was as a construction and project manager, where he also found himself in a very different world than he was used to and one full of surprises. “It was a very difficult environment to work in. The whole administrative system was hard to understand, how to get a WZ or a building permit. In the UK, the rules were clear and if you followed them you had a good chance of getting what you wanted. Here there was more ambiguity and flexibility about what the rules actually were and how to get the permissions you needed. I would often be told that what we wanted to do was ‘impossible’ and ‘not going to happen’, but after many such occasions I realised the secret was just to wait a few days because more often than not, these apparently terminal obstacles disappeared as quickly and suddenly as they had arrived. A lot of the people in my team were technically very good and hard-working, but they found it difficult to see the big picture and to get things over the finish line. They were used to being managed, not to managing things themselves and they were very reluctant to take on any more responsibility than they were comfortable with – which wasn’t much. What was needed was a lot more micro-management, which I didn’t enjoy because I’m not really that kind of manager. On the building sites it wasn’t much better. Contractors were small and had little experience of fast-food. The building sites were so disorganised and full of rubbish that you wondered how anything was ever going to get done – but, as usual, if you left them to it they turned out to be quite ingenious at pulling things out of the bag. It’s worth pointing out that things have improved immensely in the intervening years,” he recalls.

The old collides with the new

But what was it that expats actually brought to Poland that was so lacking here that some of them could demand and receive high salaries? “I think transparency was the biggest issue, especially for international companies. There was a certain level of scepticism about Polish companies and even employees. It was at the meeting point between the Poland of old, where some things were achieved with brown envelopes, and the new Poland, where the highest ethical practices were insisted upon by Western HQs. Most foreign companies had expat management, so the Polish employees quickly adopted Western business standards and ethics. When you look at most of the top Polish real estate guys today, they were all understudies of really good expat managers back in 2006,” explains Mark Twomey. However, in terms of recruitment, ‘expat’ didn’t necessarily always mean ‘quality’, as he admits: “That’s not to say that every expat manager was perfect, they weren’t. Some were sent to Poland to be kept out of the way of HQ business, almost exiled. In fact, there’s an expat rugby club in Budapest called the ‘Exiles’! Others were sent as young managers to learn their trade for a few years before being rotated back to HQ to take up their management positions there.”

Jonathan Cohen of Colliers

How, then, did working here affect their own careers? Jonathan Cohen feels that it’s impossible to compare who he is and what he does now with the person he was when I first arrived in 1997. “Poland, being such a dynamic place, allowed me to do things that I could not have imagined back in the UK in terms of diversification and advancement. In the UK, consultancy was incredibly traditional and restrictive. Here, we had to work outside our comfort zone, in terms of the language and technical competence, which is the best way to develop. I became a project manager, not by design, but because my client asked me to personally manage his project. In truth, I was not equipped to do it, but learned along the way and continue to learn to this day. The same thing applies to business management. In the UK advancement was a very slow process and there was no way I could have become a director at 33 at the same firm back there.”

Mark Twomey’s career trajectory, meanwhile, took a decisive twist three years after he arrived in Poland: “I decided to take a leap and established my own recruitment firm that was exclusively dedicated to real estate. Like any small business, it has not been without its challenges, but after twelve years I’m happy and proud that together with my colleagues we have established ourselves as a trusted partner for our clients. Recently I realised that we have helped almost 400 real estate professionals in Poland advance their careers. I have the Polish real estate market to thank for allowing to me make that move, as I don’t think I could have done it anywhere else. I also got amazing support from clients, many of whom I can call my friends today.”

Poles in position

After working as a construction and project manager for various companies and a bank, Ian Scattergood eventually joined CBRE and then DTZ, which was later merged into Cushman & Wakefield, where he now works exclusively in leasing. When these major consultancies came to our part of the world, they were among the most Western operations around – and as a rule were never headed by Poles. But this is certainly not the case anymore. As he explains: “The development of homegrown talent has been great to see and was, of course, the natural and inevitable thing to happen. We are in Poland after all. Nobody would ask a French company whether it is appropriate for a French person to be running the company, so why ask it here? I’d say for the first ten years I was here, it seemed right for expats to be in many of the higher management positions, but for the last ten years or so, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with that because there was talent here that wasn’t being given a chance. Of course, you need to look at the whole management structure – if an expat is still in the top job, is that a locally generated problem or is it because the regional manager in, say, the UK or USA, prefers to have an expat reporting to them?”

All of this begs the question: once their skills have been passed on to the locals, is there any point in even having expats around anymore? “I’d say homegrown talent is now sufficient. There are some superb Polish managers here, my own bosses included! That said, I think we still have a role to play, although nowadays it’s not so much that it’s needed, but that it’s useful. Any good team should be diverse enough to be able to handle a range of different situations and that requires a mix of people. Different ages and experiences, different backgrounds, different characters and ideally different nationalities too. In the same way there are Polish clients that are happier dealing with a Pole, there are still foreign clients who are happier dealing with a Brit – and it doesn’t really matter whether we agree with that or not, that’s just the way it is for all sorts of reasons. We have improved this over the years, but there’s a lot more to do, both in terms of people outside Poland being comfortable with Poles inside international companies, but also, and probably more so, with Polish companies embracing ‘expats’ within their teams as more and more of them expand internationally,” insists Ian Scattergood. Well, I hope for my own ex-expat sake that he’s right.