copyright: TETE (Tomasz Tomaszewski)
How can we win a little more, but also share something with others along the way – an interview with Rafał Sonik.
WO: Rafał, when people think of you they think of quad rallies, when in fact your started out as…a skier. What role did mountaineers and the Kasprowy Wierch mountain play in your life – both professionally, and in the area of sports?
RS: In a way I was raised in the mountains because for many years, from fall to spring, I would spend all my free time there. These were not the best times politically, our everyday reality was not very attractive, but when my friends and I met in the Tatra mountains we were surrounded by all this beauty, we were in the center of it all: beautiful peaks around us in all their winter glory (in those days we had real winters), but also fascinating people from all walks of life, each with their own experiences and their different stories to tell. This created a sort of intimacy between many of us, an intimacy which has lasted for years, despite the fact that so much time has passed. Kasprowy is a sort of Polish tower of Babel, it’s our only mountain peak that is a challenge both to skiers and to tourists, and of course it’s significantly different from all other skiing slopes. For years, very different people met there: presidents and Communist dignitaries, even Nazi dignitaries before them, but also very simple people, who thought a day on Kasprowy could be a nice way to spend a Sunday, hiking, a simple pleasure. All you had to do was get to Kuźnice, stand on line for the lift, and go up. Kasprowy was a melting pot – people who were interested in each other met there. Today we can still go there and meet people we knew, some we were friends with, others we competed with in skiing or in other sports. We often go a year or even longer without seeing each other, but when we meet, we feel as if we had seen each other yesterday. It’s a great feeling, though nostalgic, of course, because we are all getting older.
WO: Kasprowy was also exceptional because you had to put some effort into getting there, use every opportunity you could. What was so attractive to you, what drew you back every time?
RS: I think the reason we kept coming back was our sports activity: some of us were professional skiers, others only skied for fun, but all of us felt this was a time that seemed to be exceptional, extremely different from everyday life, we felt privileged to be there. Please remember that I came of age during Martial Law, when for most people Kasprowy was very hard to access, or was even banned, completely off limits. And, as always – the harder, the more forbidden, all the more interesting. I remember when those in power at the time were searching for people who did not have permission to be in the border zone or even in Zakopane itself, and we were hiding from them in Kuźnice many times, buried in mounds of snow on the roof of the ski-lift building. I once found a piece of rope with a metal ending and a cinch. Unfortunately, I no longer have it, over the years I lost it somewhere, but it was surely meant for a fight, maybe a scuffle with the ZOMO (riot police).
WO: Can you imagine, or maybe you have had this experience, that this type of attractive place that draws people can be created in the context of something business-related, an area linked to work, and not just fun?
RS: I think that yes, you can create this “magic spot”, for example at niche start-ups, which are very ambitious and targeted at market opportunities that no one – or that only few – can see.
WO: What do you need to make such a start-up work? Some people think this is so challenging that giving up is the only solution…
RS: If, in any area of life, you give up when something is difficult, you will never succeed. I think you can be happiest and find the most satisfaction in life when you’ve undertaken something that seemed undoable, or at least extremely difficult, but you did it.
WO: What came first – the fascination with a mystical place, which Kasprowy mountain was to you with all its inaccessibility, or the possibility of earning money in an incredible place, and enjoying it, having fun, at the same time?
RS: What started it all was the possibility of going back to Zakopane, and then to Kasprowy mountain. When I was fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen years old of course I had to ask my parents for permission every time, but I also had to ask them for money. The amounts of money I needed were quite significant for them, and with time I realized that I didn’t have the right to expect them to cover these expenses, that I needed to take into account that at some point they may refuse to help me financially. This was the moment we just spoke of, when I realized that the most interesting and most attractive challenge was doing the hardest thing, so, in my case, liberating myself from the constraints of my parents’ finances. At the time what drove me was the thought of what I could do to make sure my parents did not have to worry about money, to lift that burden from their shoulders. They knew that what inspired me and what made me happiest cost them a lot of money, and this was very stressful for them. I found that in a quite simple, natural way – maybe with a little luck and coincidence – I could make this work, I could combine my passion and a way of making money into one. As a teenager I started fixing and selling skis, and all the money I made from this was spent on skiing. I started paying for my own ski trips.
WO: OK, so now we’re in a moment in time where Rafał Sonik starts going to the mountains regularly, and he thinks that he has achieved some sort of stability with these trips. He starts to mix business with pleasure…
RS: Well, it wasn’t real stability, because I didn’t have a stable, steady income, it was seasonal, and based on what I did or did not do. At that time my business was a “case by case” basis. If I had made a mistake at any stage, if I were unable to discipline or organize myself, the income would not have been stable in the least; in fact it would not exist at all.
WO: And the most important lesson learnt from that time, a lesson that has stayed with you since then, which you consciously or unconsciously use to your advantage? Are there times when you, as an adult, running a serious business, say to yourself “this is a little like that time years ago”, only the money has changed, or the stakes – in sports, business, or even private life – are different?
RS: I think definitely most, if not all lessons, come from that time. The most important thing I have learned at the beginning of my road is to bet on high quality. At that time the situation I was in made me understand that the higher and better the quality of what I am doing, the higher the probability of success. Lots of people were selling average-quality skis, or were not fully prepared for their jobs. I was one of only a few who focused on reliability, on high-quality, precise work – at the time it was not even a conscious decision, more of an instinct. I wanted my customers to get the best that was available at the time. And because of this I had a really interesting situation once, on the Slovakian side of the Tatra mountains, in Chopok. One day around fifty people were on line to go up the mountain, and more than thirty of them had skis they had bought from me. This was in 1986, maybe 1987, everyone was a lot older than me, which meant they were demanding customers, not novices. They had high expectations and needed good, high-quality equipment.
WO: Did teamwork come into play at the time, or did you act alone?
RS: From the very beginning I worked as part of a team. As I said, my job was seasonal, so I bought skis in the spring, and sold them in the fall and winter. In order to be able to sell an increasing volume of high quality equipment I had to go to the ski markets in Warsaw, Katowice, and Kraków in November, December, and January. This was not something I could have done alone. I had to transport the equipment from Kraków to Katowice, or to Warsaw, collect what was left after sales were over, control my accounts, so from the very beginning I employed quite a few people. Another issue was preparing the skis for sale: in order to be able to fix a few dozen, then a few hundred, and finally even two thousand pairs of skis between the spring and the fall (this is how many I was selling!), I had to make use of virtually all ski repair shops that could do what I needed to be done. At the beginning I did this myself, but later on I used repair shops in Szaflary, Zakopane, Szczyrk and Bielsk. It was amazing that for the first time in their history these repair shops did not have to close every spring, because I gave them the opportunity to grow. After the ski season was over, they finished their work for individual customers and started working for me only, for about six months, from April to October-November of every year. For the first five-six years, from 1980 till about 1986, I bought more and more used equipment, fixed it, and sold it. Later on, until the end of the 1980s, I also bought a lot of new equipment for sale. I became quite a big wholesaler, offering mostly sports accessories, clothes, track suits, and later also electronics.
WO: Do you remember someone from that time who made the biggest impression on you, good or bad, who caused you to do things differently, maybe to do them better, or to stop doing something altogether? Someone who was a mentor (even if you did not realize it at the time), someone you could trust?
RS: No, at the time I didn’t have any mentors. I was personally and solely responsible for the whole “production” cycle. However, I did have a partner in my main area of activity, which was renovating the equipment. I found and chose him myself, his name was Witek Lercel and he was older than me and far more experienced. For years, he ran a workshop in Kraków on Skłodowskiej-Curie street, and he smoothly went from running his own shop to working with me on a bigger scale. I am still friends with Witek all these years later, and working with him taught me a lot.
WO: Good, let’s move on in the story. Rafał Sonik closes a certain period of his life. The sports business is going full throttle, but you have another start-up in mind. At some point you become an entrepreneur in the real estate business, closing deals with the greats, like McDonald’s and BP. Did this not conflict with your previous work, which was a blend of business and passion? Did you find you we able to do things you didn’t like, and do them well?
RS: Life is great, but even if it’s wonderful you can’t only do what you like to do. Luckily, the things I did not like to do were often somehow connected to what I did like, to what I wanted to do. But in all activities that are a closed business or economic cycle there are things you like, but also things you dislike. For example, I never liked accounting, or work that was not creative. When, in the mid-90s, we were preparing a contract with BP, I did not do any of the operational things because I thought they were not creative. I also wanted to use my time to the fullest, and I was sure my coworkers would do the work better, quicker and more precisely than I would.
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