Rafal Brzoska: the “Locker King” seeking to conquer Britain
Polish entrepreneur Rafal Brzoska’s company almost drowned in debt before being rescued and refocusing on its big idea – automated postal boxes. He is relishing a scrap with Amazon to corner the market.
Poland’s prime minister once joked that Rafal Brzoska is “a dangerous guy”, says Bloomberg. The entrepreneur known locally as “the Locker King” is certainly a changemaker. Having revolutionised parcel delivery in Poland with its automated lockers, his company, InPost, is now planning rapid expansion across Europe – with a particular focus on the UK. In the process Brzoska, 44, aims “to steal Amazon’s parcel crown”, says The Times. One gets the impression that the pugnacious Pole is relishing the prospect of a fight.
A simple but effective idea
Brzoska’s idea is simple. “I took something as simple as a PO box… and automated it,” he says. But the result is both more efficient and greener than door-step parcel delivery. The concept has proved a hit in Poland where InPost’s smart lockers – which allow customers to open boxes by digital keypads or via an app on their phone – have become “the default delivery method”. The aim is to place the lockers within “slipper distance” (say, 350 metres) of shoppers’ homes, to prevent an unappealing trek. But the logistical advantage of banking them together is clear. “The average parcel home-delivery driver will maybe deliver 70-80 parcels during a daily shift,” says Brzoska. “Ours will do 1,000 parcels a day.”
To his admirers, Brzoska epitomises the “crafty spirit” and “sheer bullheadedness” upon which Poles pride themselves, says USA Today. He has long been “a poster child” for the nation’s startup scene. Still a child when the country’s Communist regime fell, he was swept up in the ensuing “disorienting mix of optimism and tumult” as a teenager. In 1993, his parents gave him cash to invest in the Warsaw Stock Exchange; two weeks later, the fledgling bourse nose-dived. “I lost 90% of my family’s money,” recalls Brzoska. But within years, he had rebuilt the nest egg.
During his third year at Krakow University of Economics in 1999, Brzoska ploughed $6,000 of his own money into a bulk mail business (known as Integer) that later evolved into InPost. The company flourished so quickly that he was soon taking on Poland’s state postal service, offering cheaper delivery of phone and electric bills. In 2006, he floated the company; by 2012, it had grabbed a 35% share of Poland’s letter business and had become the fastest-growing private postal operator in Europe. Yet, within four years, “the walls were closing in on Brzoska”, says Forbes. Overstretched, “he had $65m in debt and was frantically trying to find new investors while staving off the repo man”.
The white knight that turned up – the US private-equity group Advent – was more interested in InPost’s new locker venture than its dying postal business, and the revitalised company has never looked back. Refloated in January on Amsterdam’s Euronext exchange, it was valued at €8bn, raising Brzoska’s private fortune to around $1.1bn, says The Times. The race is now on to conquer Britain, where Amazon has already installed boxes in around 5,000 locations. InPost is initially targeting denser city areas such as London, Manchester and Birmingham. The company has signed deals with Tesco, Lidl and Morrisons, to promote “twin-tripping” (shop and pick up your parcel) and with TfL for installations at London Tube stations.
Brzoska’s attitude to competition – inspired by previous fights with postal heavyweights – is bring it on, observes Forbes. “I told my team: ‘I am a Scorpio. I will survive… because Scorpios are always like this, fighting until the very end.’”