Building That: Poland vs. Obama
President Obama's lecture on how "you didn't build that" still rankles hardworking business owners and entrepreneurs. Offered for your consideration is an international example of people building their dream business in a country that in its recent past said that not only didn't you build that, but you don't even own it.
The country is Poland, and the company is Arrinera Automotive. As you'll read, it's evident that Obama's comment would sound just as ignorant in Warsaw as it did here. My e-mail question-and-answer interview with Arrinera's CEO Łukasz Tomkiewicz illustrates how Poland's free-market economy allowed him to pursue his lifelong passion of building a supercar. And like millions of American business owners, he doesn't buy "you didn't build that" either.
Established in 2008, Arrinera is a Basque and Italian derivation that translates to "truly streamlined." Their mid-engine Hussarya is a name that refers to Poland's powerful 17th-century Hussar cavalry. Arrinera is also building history, since it's the first ever Polish-designed and built supercar.
Supercar status is the automotive performance and design pinnacle, and the Hussarya is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One is styling, which in my opinion is distinctive in this era of lookalike mid-engine Ferraris and Lamborghinis. A major ail is its General Motors 6.2L LS9 supercharged V8. Delivering 650 horsepower, this all-aluminum engine is a world-class performer equal to any Porsche, Ferrari, or Lamborghini production engine. Spurring 2,860 pounds, this small-block powers 3.2 second 0-60 times, 11-second quarter-miles, and a 211-mph maximum, all numbers which place it solidly in the supercar performance category.
In addition to styling and performance, it has a premium leather and composite material interior designed for comfortable cruising on Polish motorways. Suggested list for the 175-inch-long, 46-inch-high Hussarya is $160K.
Under the former communist regime, Arrinera could never have existed. As Tomkiewicz explained, "[u]nder communist rule there would be no political permission to produce such an exclusive car, which would have been a contradiction of the communist idea of egalitarianism." He continued, "Companies were mostly state owned and nothing could have been done without permission." One automotive industry aspect is car shows, where management sees new vehicles and cultivates professional relationships. Under the communists, official travel permission was required, and it wasn't easy to get.
And even if Arrinera did get started, thanks to Communist Party cronyism, the Hussarya couldn't have been built -- literally, because there wasn't the parts support infrastructure. When Carroll Shelby built his first Cobra in 1962, any parts he needed, from engines to hose clamps, were a phone call away. In Poland, that didn't exist. Tomkiewicz commented, "There was literally nothing in shops except vinegar, and even toilet paper was a problem."
Arrinera is a small company. Tomkiewicz indicated there are ten employees, mostly freelancers, and it's involved with cooperating companies. The factory will be located in Gliwice, and they've partnered with SILS Centre for its production experience. Unlike Fisker Automotive's half-billion-dollar DOE credit line, Arrinera's initial capitalization is a modest $3 million. This is a capitalist example of companies and individuals freely associating to ultimately make a profit. And unlike Fisker's crony capitalism, the Polish government didn't fund Arrinera.
Tomkiewicz explained that attracting company investors was a challenge. "At the beginning," he e-mailed, "they were skeptical. Initial talks were challenging because it was a one of a kind project," particularly since Polish auto industry had zero history with this vehicle class. Investor trust combined with Arrinera team enthusiasm got the project funded.
After Lech Walesa's and Solidarity's victory over the communist government, Poland embraced a free-market economy, which Mitt Romney praised during his July visit. Tomkiewicz summed up the major economic changes that allowed Arrinera to be born. They were "[a] free market, access to innovation, information and advanced technologies, private capital and contact with people and companies." Note that he didn't mention government, or the fact that government was benevolent enough to build roads and bridges.
But what, if anything, did government do? "Obviously the [Polish] government is trying to make many things easier for business, but it doesn't have much to do with failure or success of Polish business owners," was Tomkiewicz's response. We could use a lot more of that thinking here.
Arrinera faces a lot challenges. Sales are projected to start in mid-2014 and initially will be in the EU, with plans for U.S. and Middle Eastern expansion. As for whether or not this was the "right" time to start building his company, surprisingly, the economic turmoil in Europe seems not to be a real issue. "There's been an increase in sales of luxurious/sports cars in the first quarter of 2012. We don't expect to be hit by the crisis," Tomkiewicz wrote.
To invoke another Obama phrase, let there be no doubt that Arrinera Automotive's staff has worked hard to style, design and build Hussarya prototypes. That's followed by track and highway testing to refine the car to meet their demanding performance and quality benchmarks. Included in their challenge will be selling, since there's no shortage of competitors in this market segment.
Arrinera's story illustrates people and their families who once lived and worked under economic tyranny. Given a capitalist environment, Tomkiewicz and his staff strived to pursue and build their dream.