Economic dislocation is the driving force of business, and for Poland's Pol-Inowex it is also a very good way to make a living.
That is because the company has specialised in tearing down and moving factories that have been driven out of business, relocated to cheaper countries or been made obsolete by better technology. The business gives Pol-Inowex a good view of the economic trends transforming the European Union, particularly after the admission of Poland and other low-cost central European countries in 2004 and 2007.
Bartosz Swiderek, the son of the company's founder, Jerzy Swiderek, and Pol-Inowex's vice-president, says that about three-quarters of his work consists of shipping factories from west to east as owners seek to take advantage of cheaper labour. And by west to east, he means not just from western Europe to central Europe, but also from Europe to Turkey, Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
“We sometimes transfer everything, leaving only the concrete walls,” he says.
Paradoxically, the economic crisis, which shut factories across the continent, has not been a particularly lucrative period. Banks are warier about providing the financing to pay for relocations, and cash-strapped companies try to use surplus workers to undertake the tricky job themselves.
“Before 2008 we had a lot of factories closing because of the movement of technology and because factories were in good locations in the heart of cities where the real estate they were sitting on was worth a lot of money,” says Mr Swiderek. “Now we are dealing with factories that have run into financial trouble.”
Pol-Inowex got its start in 1988, producing parts for sugar beet plants in Poland and East Germany. Those factories did not have the hard currency to buy expensive parts in the west and so turned to lower-cost local manufacturers. After German unification, the East German sugar plants were all taken over by West German companies, which used much more modern equipment. That created a business opportunity in moving that equipment to where it could be used, and the German factories turned to Jerzy Swiderek.
“For companies in Germany, this machinery was outdated, but in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary or Iran it was just fine,” says Bartosz Swiderek.
Until 1995 Pol-Inowex dealt only in relocating sugar plants, but then an Iranian customer who had also bought a milk plant asked them to tear down and ship that factory too. That opened the door to a much wider range of business.
Sugar factory moves now account for less than a fifth of the work done by Mr Swiderek and his 100 workers.
Recent projects include shipping a cement factory from Berlin, where it was no longer needed after the end of the construction boom that saw the German capital rebuilt, to Moscow, where it was needed for the Russian capital’s grandiose revitalisation. Some of the parts were so large that they had to be moved by heavy transporters originally used to carry SS-20 missiles.
In Iceland, Pol-Inowex had to use most of the island nation’s cranes to pack up cement silos and ship them to Russia's Kaliningrad province on the Baltic.
As countries become more developed, it becomes increasingly difficult to make easy generalisations about the direction of investment flow. Mr Swiderek recently supervised the move of a chemical plant from the Netherlands to Jaslo in south-eastern Poland, and is now looking after the move of part of that factory to Italy.
But no matter what the reason for the move, the job is often a tough one, as the company’s crews can be berated by workers distraught at losing their work and seeing their traditional places of employment backed on to trucks or barges and shipped away.
“Our workers have to be resilient,” says Mr Swiderek. “Sometimes we are given local helmets and uniforms and told not to speak Polish so that the local workers don’t know what is going on.”
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