REUTERS SUMMIT/-Polish entrepreneurs come of age with global acquisitions
* Growing number of Polish firms expanding globally
* Expansion backed up by strong growth at home
* Poles bring newcomer's drive to foreign markets
By Christian Lowe and Marcin Goclowski
WARSAW, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Polish companies are buying into foreign markets long dominated by Western multinationals, driven by growth at home and a hunger to prove they are no longer Europe's poor relations.
Twenty-four years after Communist rule ended in Poland, its companies now have the scale, knowledge and self-belief to expand abroad, chief executives and government officials said at a Reuters Eastern Europe Investment Summit this week.
"We are building our economic power as a country," said Zbigniew Jagiello, chief executive of PKO BP, Poland's biggest bank. "I hope that ... before 2025 we'll see a Polish company which will be a multinational, known worldwide."
Two or three years ago Polish firms had almost no significant presence abroad. Executives from Canadian firm Quadra FNX recalled that when Polish copper miner KGHM approached them about a takeover, they had never heard of the Polish firm and doubted they were serious.
Since then, there has been a run of foreign acquisitions, and there are more on the way.
The Warsaw stock exchange, which had the most new listings in Europe last year, is in talks to merge with its smaller regional rival in Vienna. Polish insurer PZU is trying to complete a deal to buy firms in Croatia and Slovenia.
Asseco, a software maker, has operations in Israel, the United States, Japan and most European countries and says it plans to list on the Nasdaq, though it would not say when.
Inglot, a privately owned cosmetics firm set up 25 years ago by Polish chemist Wojtek Inglot, has stores in dozens of the world's swankiest shopping malls, including outlets in London, Paris, New York and Milan.
Polish bus maker Solaris says it is now the third-largest supplier of buses in Germany, which in turn opens opportunities for other Polish businesses; PKO BP has just established a leasing operation in Gothenburg, Sweden, to support Solaris, which is one of the bank's clients.
After persuading the sceptical Canadian mining executives it was serious, KGHM completed its $2.96 billion acquisition of Quadra last year, the biggest-ever deal by a Polish firm.
"KGHM is becoming a global firm," Deputy Treasury Minister Pawel Tamborski, who oversees the state's 31.8 percent stake in the firm, told Reuters. He said he wanted it eventually to buy more assets, provided it chooses carefully.
NOT ALL PLAN SAILING
Since most big Polish firms only started life in the early 1990s, after the command economy was dismantled, it is only now that a generation of businesses is big enough and have a sufficiently professional management to head abroad.
Earlier attempts had foundered, some say because the Polish executives were not ready.
In one case, KGHM bought mining interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, but was unable to extract minerals, defeated by political risks in the war-torn country. It applied to liquidate the operations in 2009.
Another factor in Polish companies' favour is its reasonably large domestic market of 38 million people, which fuels the biggest economy in central Europe. It has grown for the past two decades, unbroken by the global crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Polish gross domestic product was still growing 4.5 percent a year in 2011. It has slowed since but avoided recession, and growth is accelerating again.
As a result, while companies elsewhere were forced by the downturn to retrench and shelve their investment plans, Polish companies were able to keep growing.
Polish entrepreneurs say the fact that they are outside the mainstream of established multinationals gives them an edge.
PKO BP boss Jagiello said he saw many of his clients doing well abroad. "Some of these Polish entrepreneurs have an innovative approach when they enter foreign markets," he said at the Reuters Summit.
"If you are in the same environment for a long time, that means your eyes do not see the opportunity. Also, you tried to do something a few years ago and you failed. A newcomer doesn't know about this, doesn't have this knowledge, and does it."
Adam Goral, chief executive of Asseco, said his firm did well in emerging markets because its executives knew better than its Western competitors the kind of problems its clients were dealing with.
He said this phenomenon was helping his firm expand in Russia, where it is providing software services for banks, and was helping it land new business in Ethiopia.
Goral said that when he started out in business in the 1990s, his monthly salary was equivalent to $20 a month. "If I was abroad, I had to think twice if I could afford a baguette or not," he said.
"We (Polish entrepreneurs) ... wanted to show outside Poland that Poland exists and it matters. And it happened." (For other news from Reuters Russian and Eastern Europe Investment Summit, click here) (Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits) (Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Pawel Bernat and Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Will Waterman)