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  Kolaja and family
Thomas Kolaja '96, with wife Lisa, daughter Madeleine and son Jonas

Alumni Profile: Thomas Kolaja '96

Kellogg grad helped create new economic mindset in post-Communist Poland

By Ed Finkel

In his early 20s, Thomas Kolaja fell into an exciting but daunting opportunity as a Fulbright Scholar in Warsaw, where he proposed researching how a new law permitting joint ventures between Polish and foreign companies was affecting the chemical industry.

Upon arriving in September 1990, about a year after the Berlin Wall came down, Kolaja, a 1996 graduate of the Kellogg School's Master of Management in Manufacturing program, discovered that the University of Warsaw professor with whom he was supposed to work suddenly had taken advantage of an opportunity to spend a year in the United States — leaving the young student without a supervisor or project.

The university was unable to help him, so Kolaja networked with other "Fulbrighters" and was referred to the newly formed Ministry of Ownership Transformation, which was privatizing some 8,000 formerly state-owned enterprises.

"The average age of the staff was 25, and half the people there had parachuted in from the U.S. or Western Europe to help with the huge task," Kolaja says. "I asked if I could interview the folks working on the privatization of the chemical industry, or possibly even work with them since I had funding for the year and not much to do. I was told that no one was working on the chemical industry privatization, and that if I wanted to, I could run it."

Although Kolaja feels lucky for "being in the right place at the right time," the challenges were hardly enviable. "We were doing something that had never been done before," he says. "The economy was crashing as market forces took hold, financial data didn't make any sense since there was hyper-inflation, and no one could quite decide [on] which privatization methodology" to use. Several were employed simultaneously.

Among the successes Kolaja helped to engineer were the sales of the chocolate factory Wedel to Pepsi, a "huge" paper mill in Kwidzyn to International Paper, along with a bevy of detergent factories, gas producers, breweries and other industries.

"All of these companies have become leaders in their segments and are still very strong today," he says. "The other interesting thing is that the experience gave birth to the private equity market in Poland. Most of my colleagues from those days at the Ministry now run the major private equity funds in Poland."

But Kolaja's career took a different turn, in the direction of consulting giant McKinsey & Co., where he joined a five-person office in 1993 and helped to establish management consulting as a viable field in Eastern Europe.

"My career has involved spending a lot of effort to convince people to do things they have never heard of before," he says. "Back at the Ministry, we had to help people envision what it would be like to work for a private company and get them to agree to being owned by foreign capital. At McKinsey, we convinced people that paying huge amounts of money for ideas, rather than physical goods, was actually in their best interest.

"It was a pioneering time, because the advisory market was quite new, and no one in Poland had ever paid for the kinds of services we wanted to provide."

But the outpost office gradually built its reputation, first with Western clients who wanted to enter the market and then with Polish banks. During his McKinsey tenure, Kolaja returned to the states to attend the Kellogg School's MMM program.

For most of the years since, he has been a partner at CII Group — a 35-person firm recently renamed Kolaja and Partners — where he joined former McKinsey colleagues in restructuring large manufacturing companies. He has served in a series of senior interim roles for clients, including COO of the largest paper mill in Poland for Anglo American, CEO of the country's largest Internet holding company, and vice president of operations for Carlsberg Okocim, the country's third-largest brewer.

The firm has decided to move away from pure advisory services and focus on restructuring firms through interim management, a task for which Kolaja says his Kellogg education has prepared him.

"The MMM program has been very useful in providing a number of the tools we use," he says.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University