The last day my grandfather went to the market was in Słupca. I visited him to take a photo of him. He told me that people would miss him – recalls Bartek Berthold in an interview with TVN24 Biznes, who, together with his wife Marta and mother Małgorzata, continue the family business by running Burza Śnieg – a company producing and selling bedding. Just like Kasia Nejman and Anna Borecka from Siostry Plota, whose goal is to revive basketry, one of the oldest crafts.
The wicker shop in Warsaw’s Praga Północ district was a kind of therapy for Kasia Nejman and Ania Borecka’s grandfather. Mr. Sylwester simply liked people. He ran it for almost 30 years, but recently he has been contributing more to this business. In 2020, he decided to close it.
– So my sister and I organized a sale. We were visited by many people who decided to support crafts. It was, among other things, conversations with them that made us decide to keep basketry alive and continue running my grandfather’s shop – says Kasia, co-founder of “Sister Plotą”, in an interview with TVN24 Biznes.
He reminds that until World War II, Poland was number one in the export of woven products. Currently, the number of craftsmen engaged in basketry is decreasing.
– We want to resurrect this oldest craft, because it is magical and generational. Two years ago, a basket was found that is over ten thousand years old. It is worth knowing that they are still made in the same way as then. There are no machines that weave baskets. We always use secateurs, awls and hands, he explains.
Kasia points out that the basket maker’s many years of experience is not included in the price of the product. – If you are a lawyer who has been practicing law for fifty years, it takes fifteen minutes to check a legal act. When pricing this job, you don’t say that the lowest national price is twenty-five zlotys, then just give it a tenner and it’ll be fine. A lawyer expects much more, he says.
It doesn’t work that way in basketry. – You have fifty years of experience, you make a basket in an hour, you still don’t charge much more than the lowest national wage. A person who studies makes a basket for, say, three hours, so he or she earns the minimum wage divided by three. This is not encouraging, which is why this craft is dying out. Should I tell high school students: listen, be craftsmen, and in ten years you will earn the minimum wage? This is absurd – he says.
Kasia Nejman shows that on the other side, at the end of this chain, there is a customer who is accustomed to the price of a basket from the cepelia era. – And the question is, if basketry starts to be fairly valued, will it survive? How much can we pay for a basket? – wonders.
– It certainly doesn’t make it easier that it has an interest rate of 23 percent VAT. In our case, the main cost is manual labor, and this cannot be deducted. I often come across opinions in the comments that “a private citizen is a fraud”. And if he is a fraudster, let him pay higher, for example ZUS. Then, if you listen to the conversations in the yard, it turns out that the proverbial “Mr. Władek” from the grocery store increased the prices of apples. Fraud. And if someone comes into my store, I’m a “thief who increased the price of the basket,” he describes.
In her opinion, such opinions did not take into account that the final price of the goods is influenced by all costs incurred by the entrepreneur, such as: Social Insurance Institution, rent, tax, electricity, gas. – The increased price of the basket usually does not increase my earnings, and often quite the opposite – he explains.
He points out that the craft was struggling with problems much earlier. He gives the example of Władysław Wołkowski, who was born in 1902 and weaved in the 1950s. – His designs look as if someone had woven them yesterday and left them in a design gallery. A talented artist who was already saying that mass production was overwhelming us and killing us – he recalls.
That’s why small, family businesses are more about passion and mission, because, as Kasia says, “the financial plan wouldn’t work out.” – We have a stationary store and an online store, we cooperate with craftsmen from all over the country, we create our own projects. We organize workshops for companies, integration meetings and hen parties. We also published the book “Wicker. Beautiful things you will weave yourself” – she lists.
It’s hard for her to count how many hours she works a day. – Actually, I feel like I just never leave work. And most often I still dream about her – reveals Kasia Nejman.
“I’m leaving the stage and then I’m going to pack the bedding packages”
In TVN24 Biznes we talk to another family that has been trading for many generations. – My great-grandfather, and my mother’s grandfather, was an excellent pre-war tailor. He traded fabrics. He sewed suits and coats – recalls Bartosz Berthold, co-founder of “Burza Śnieg”, a company producing and selling bedding.
Bartek’s mother, Małgorzata Berthold, started in 1989 by selling clothes at the marketplace. Today, she is the owner of a sewing shop in Kleczew, Greater Poland.
– She worked with her father-in-law, who also went to markets and sold bedding there. Apparently all the customers loved it. At the age of 83, he decided that it was over and he would no longer work like that. The last day my grandfather went to the market… it was in Słupca. I visited him to take a photo of him. He told me that people would miss him because he had regular customers. They appreciated the quality and the fact that they could always talk to him, says Bartek.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused Bartek and his wife Marta to lose their jobs. At that time he owned three pubs in Poznań. She, in turn, worked at the Animation Theater.
– We had to look for new business solutions. The pubs were closed, the theater was also closed, you couldn’t play for the public. We have lost our source of income, and we have children and the bills won’t pay themselves, says Marta Berthold.
Her husband adds that he employed over thirty people at that time. – This meant that not only were we not making any money, but we were generating huge losses. We decided that we would join our mother and start selling her bedding online. This is how the joint project “Snow Storm” was created. It happened in a week. In a different situation, we would probably have been preparing for this for half a year. If we calculated it again and put it into Excel, we would probably be making decisions by now. And then the decision was made with the heart, he explains.
They currently employ four people in the sewing room and want to remain a small company. – Even if I wanted to expand my business, I have no one. It is difficult to recruit employees. However, every person who considered themselves a tailor did not have such skills. She was inaccurate and the quality of her work was terrible. I was looking for someone to work in the sewing room for half a year, says Małgorzata.
He explains that this situation was influenced by the change in the education system in vocational schools. – People have no place to learn good crafts. No seamstress sews comprehensively anymore. One sews buttons, the other sews something else. And so on, fragment by fragment, he emphasizes.
Marta explains that in their sewing room, the product is sewn from start to finish. – We are small and it is not possible for one person to sew in zippers, another to finish with an overlock, and another with a straight seam. The problem is that we need the comprehensiveness of one person who can handle everything, he explains.
Moreover, in the company, as they say, they also take care of everything themselves. – We are the ones who reply to e-mails. We know about every case of every client. We answer phones and listen to our clients’ personal stories. There are still people who place orders by phone, Marta points out.
For her, this company is a passion that she once looked for on the stage. – I returned to the theater, I still play. November and December are the hardest, because we have thirty Christmas performances each. I leave the stage and then go to pack the bedding packages. And it really is my passion. I am creative, Małgorzata knows technologies very well and has tested products, and Bartek is fantastic from the business side – she says.
The Walmart model. “The whole small business had to close down.”
We asked Waldemar Skorupka, a strategic advisor with over twenty years of business experience, to comment on what family, craft businesses are struggling with. In an interview with TVN24 Biznes, he emphasizes that market conditions are difficult, even with maximum commitment and hard work.
– One of the largest retailers recently opened its 10,000th store, and I talked to a local entrepreneur who had to close his own store. He couldn’t compete with him. The day before, I was reading a book about South America and the rainforest. I remembered, among other things, the sentence that for a monoculture to develop, a diverse forest must die, he says.
Another example is Walmart. Waldemar Skorupka explains that it has developed in the United States and is the largest trading company in the world because it decided to enter small towns with its centers.
– In a region where ten thousand people lived, he was building a store. This resulted in Walmart taking over one hundred percent of the trade, the entire small business had to close down. People who previously worked in their own stores eventually had to either move out of town or work at Walmart. The next step was that this reduced the middle class in a given region. It created a large group of poor people because the money from the profits flowed to the Walmart center, he explains.
– The long-term effect is that the middle class of small businesses, shoemakers, shops and greengrocers in Poland will disappear. We must remember that we decide with our money what society will look like in the coming months and years. If we send all our money on products from China, China will become richer. Poland will become poorer, he notes.
In his opinion, “we look at the economic factor and fifty cents can make us buy something or not.” – Let’s not look at the costs of buying a given product. This is a tragic case, says Waldemar Skorupka.
Prof. Ph.D. Jan Klimek, president of the Katowice Chamber of Crafts, in an interview with TVN24 Biznes, draws attention to another aspect. In 1989, out of 800,000 companies in Poland, there were 550,000 craftsmen.
– Now there is no mandatory obligation to associate, but we say that there are about 300,000 craftsmen. It is also worth paying attention to other data. At the beginning of the transformation period, there were 197,000 students of vocational schools. Currently, there are 65,000 of them. This means that 140,000 talents have disappeared. We have committed a sin of omission because we allowed ourselves to destroy vocational education. And these are people who later create jobs and pay taxes – he emphasizes, pointing out that this is the reason why Polish crafts are not in the growth phase.
As he adds, “the problem is the gray zone.” – We estimate that it is around 19.5 percent, which amounts to nearly PLN 490 billion per year. It’s about labor costs, which are so high that companies with several employees are unable to earn enough to cover the costs and maintenance costs, explains Klimek.
Main photo source: Private archive of Sister Plotą, photo: Hylewicz Maja