When Wojciech Czernek began his career in Polish retail back in the early 1990s, the sector was undergoing a transformation. “It was a time of dynamic change in the Polish economy and a time when international retailers entered the Polish market,” he says. “As you can imagine, it was really something very dynamic and magic.”
Almost 30 years later, he has reached his dream job in retail as CEO of Baltona, a Polish-based firm that operates duty-free shops and local restaurants at airports in its home country and elsewhere in Europe.
For Czernek, it’s a company that’s very important to people of his generation. “This is an iconic brand that was established in 1946. It was a great opportunity to join the team and lead it,” he says. “We have a saying that we are traveling with Baltona from the past into the future and, actually, that’s what we do.”
“Baltona is ready to face any challenges because there’s a great team of professionals with vast experience behind it who are very dedicated to the company and to the brand.”
In February 2021, less than a year after Baltona was acquired by Polish Airports State Enterprise, Czernek hit the ground running and set out on a modernization and restructuring journey.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Czernek and his team were able to focus on the restructuring process at Baltona. The first step, and the most important, was to stabilize the financial situation and regain financial stability after an extremely challenging pandemic operating environment.
Once this had been achieved, the next step was to use the expertise from all areas of the business to redesign the whole organization, with the aim of concentrating on the customer experience. Thanks to making modernizing a priority, Baltona is now at the end of the restructuring process.
“We will use the outcome of a redesigned company to replan and rebuild our existing retail stores and cafes at the airports,” Czernek says. “Plus we have a pipeline of new expansion projects, which will come through within the next 18-to-36 months.”
“We will use the outcome of a redesigned company to replan and rebuild our existing retail stores and cafes at the airports.”
Adjusting to the new reality for travelers is a continual process for Baltona, as the company operates a range of travel retail shops and beauty stores in countries including Poland, France and Romania. Expansion into the food and beverage sector, with restaurants under the brand Travel Chef and cafes under the Cavarious brand, also plays a central role in the wider enterprise.
Combining knowledge from food and beverage, retail and business-to-business partnerships to come up with new business concepts to satisfy travelers – so they can say Baltona is the best companion on their journey – is a challenging but inspiring ambition for the company.
Now that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is in the past, and Baltona has rebuilt business areas from logistics to commercial and HR, they’re well-prepared for future challenges and industry shocks. After pandemic-related challenges and war in Europe, Czernek believes it’s difficult to predict what could come next.
“I would rather say that we are looking where our strengths are, so that we can face all the challenges that can happen,” he says. “And I believe our strength is our team and their competencies.”
The people who work for Baltona see the brand as being meaningful to them and believe it’s an iconic brand. Czernek also thinks it’s a huge responsibility to lead the company, as many people who joined Baltona in 1984 are still working there today.
“Baltona is ready to face any challenges because there’s a great team of professionals with vast experience behind it who are very dedicated to the company and to the brand,” he says.
Like virtually all other businesses, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed Baltona’s relationship with its partners. While both sides faced a huge crisis, Czernek says this helped to re-establish relations in a new way, supported by both KPIs as well as the core values that Baltona holds.
“There are obvious values, starting with trust, going through to responsibility, kindness and added value,” he says. “The contract and relations are not just between you and me; there’s something on top, some added value to that relationship, so we can say, ‘OK, this is the added value of our partnership’.
“We try to make a win–win negotiation strategy.”