From documentary filmmaker to turning around a renewables company: Meet Poland's richest woman, Dominika Kulczyk

Since Kulczyk rescued it, Polenergia has kept building wind farms (complying with the Polish law), expanded into solar and is now exploring green hydrogen

Published: Apr 25, 2023 03:23:29 PM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2023 03:43:10 PM IST

From documentary filmmaker to turning around a renewables company: Meet Poland's richest woman, Dominika KulczykDominika Kulczyk, Polish billionaire businesswoman
Image: Levon Biss for Forbes
 
Perched on a bright orange couch in her office in London’s Michelin House, the eclectic former headquarters of the British tyre company, Dominika Kulczyk gesticulates wildly as she discusses a favourite subject. “I’m all about feminine energy,” says the heiress to one of Eastern Europe’s largest fortunes, wearing a red “menstrual dress” in support of her crusade to persuade Poland’s parliament to provide free sanitary pads in schools. By the time she gets to how the patriarchy is exacerbating climate change, she’s leaning so far forward she’s almost falling off her seat.

“Everything I do is something that I believe in. I don’t allow myself to doubt, really, and I’m trying to make it contagious,” says Kulczyk, 45, who moved to London seven years ago, three years after her divorce from the Polish prince Jan Lubomirski-Lanckoroński following 10 years of marriage. In 2020, she bought a $75 million, 25,000-square-foot townhouse near Harrods.

For most of her adult life, what she believed in was documentary films—she has produced more than 70 of them, with titles like Accused of Witchcraft (2017), Begging for Change (2019) and Fighting for Mercy (2023). But don’t mistake her for a self-indulgent dilettante. While over half of the world’s 337 female billionaires inherited their fortune, only 63, including Kulczyk, are actively growing their wealth. Getting involved in business wasn’t even what her late father likely wanted.

 Jan Kulczyk, who was Poland’s richest person, with a net worth of $4 billion when he died in 2015, had groomed his son Sebastian to take over the family’s investments, which were concentrated in oil and gas, real estate and brewing. Dominika instead busied herself running the charitable foundation she had started the year of her divorce. “I even heard, ‘Hey we’re making money; you’re spending it,’ ” she recalls.

But her father’s sudden death due to complications from a minor heart surgery set off a chain of events that led to her splitting from her brother and doubling down on the family’s failing renewable energy business, Polenergia. “I’m a person who believes that energy is all there is,” she says of her decision. “Everything is energy.”

Shares of the publicly traded independent electricity producer are up roughly fourfold since her gamble, giving it a market cap of $1.2 billion (she owns 43 percent).

The company just opened Poland’s second-largest wind farm, providing enough power for 183,000 homes—perfect timing given Europe’s frantic search for alternatives to Russian oil and gas. Today, Kulczyk is worth an estimated $1.9 billion. That’s down from her peak of $2.1 billion in 2021, but $500 million more than the fortune of her brother Sebastian, who declined to comment for this article.

Kulczyk’s journey to climate capitalist began in 2017. She was filming a documentary in Colombia when the CEO of Polenergia, one of the smaller pieces of the vast investment portfolio she and her brother had inherited, phoned her. A new law had made it almost impossible to build new wind farms in Poland, a core part of Polenergia’s business, and the company was on the verge of collapse. Instead of sinking more money into the heavily indebted business, Sebastian wanted to sell it. “I remember I was so mad! I was shouting like crazy,” says Kulczyk. “My intuition said: ‘Honey, you have to stop [a potential sale]! This is your future.’ ”

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Although the siblings were technically co-owners of Kulczyk Investments, Sebastian, 43, had been running the firm since 2013, two years prior to their father’s death. While she was given a seat on Kulczyk Investments’ advisory board, Kulczyk says she wasn’t allowed to attend the board meetings or “talk business” the same way Sebastian was.

“Somehow I had accepted that I had zero chance to co-create what was mine until this moment,” she says. Determined to save Polenergia, she made a deal with her brother. Instead of splitting everything 50/50, she would get the stake in Polenergia, near-worthless at the time, and Sebastian would get the rest of Kulczyk Investments’ portfolio, which included interests in the Polish chemical group Ciech and the oil company Serinus Energy. Polenergia was an enormous risk, but Kulczyk had a huge safety net: The roughly $1.4 billion in cash from the 2016 sale of the family’s 3 percent stake in the South African beer giant SABMiller, which still forms the bulk of her fortune.

From documentary filmmaker to turning around a renewables company: Meet Poland's richest woman, Dominika KulczykHands-On Heiress: Kulczyk in Nepal in 2020, filming a documentary about women being banished from their homes and forced to sleep in baskets while menstruating. The billionaire has made eight trips a year for nearly a decade for her docuseries, The Domino Effect

Tightening its purse strings, Polenergia managed to stay afloat. But its shares had taken a beating, and another test came quickly. In May 2018, the state-controlled power giant Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) offered to buy the company outright for about $170 million. It made sense to investors, and the stock popped. But determined to retain control and flush with brewery cash, Kulczyk countered with a higher offer that valued the company at $250 million. PGE backed off.

Still, she knew she couldn’t keep buying her way out of trouble. So, taking a page out of her father’s playbook, she brought on a partner that was “bigger and better” than Polenergia. In February 2021, she sold a 23 percent stake in the company to Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of Canadian billionaire Bruce Flatt’s Brookfield Asset Management, for $175 million. (Brookfield later bought another 9 percent of the company.)

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Since Kulczyk rescued it, Polenergia has kept building wind farms (complying with the Polish law, currently under review, that kept it from building near populated areas), expanded into solar and is now exploring green hydrogen. It booked a $70 million profit in the 12 months ending September 2022 on $1.7 billion in revenue.

Two giant wind farms it’s developing in the Baltic Sea with the $150 billion (2022 sales) Norwegian energy giant Equinor are slated to come online soon. Once complete, the project, which will cost the two partners about $4 billion, half of it debt, will generate the energy equivalent of about 10,000 barrels of Russian oil each day. A third, larger offshore wind farm that’s in the works but has no projected completion date yet will double that.

From a purely economic perspective, the war in Ukraine has been a mixed bag for Polenergia. On one hand, it has significantly goosed demand for alternative energy in Europe. On the other, the company says it lost about $50 million in revenue last year due to volatile energy prices and other market disruptions, and subsequent government price controls.

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Long-term, though, Polenergia’s prospects should be excellent. Poland, one of Europe’s most coal-dependent countries, saw renewable electricity generation reach a new record in 2022 as it scrambled to plug the Russia-sized hole in its energy supply. Wind power generation increased nearly 22 percent last year compared to the year before, while the country cut coal consumption by 2.7 percent and gas use by more than 20 percent, according to data from the UK-based think tank Ember.

Cleaning up Poland’s energy supply isn’t the only way Kulczyk is trying to push the country forward. In May, she plans to present a new bill to the Polish parliament that would require schools to provide free sanitary pads to adolescent girls. (Research from her foundation discovered that more than half have skipped school at least once because of their period.) The fact that young women feel such shame and miss school has big repercussions, harming their capacity to create anything “really important,” Kulczyk says. “And then we have a man’s world.”

But not if this billionaire has anything to say about it.

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(This story appears in the 05 May, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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