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Door to Door in Warsaw

June 2, 1995
© 1995 The Baltimore Sun Company, all rights reserved

A personal favorite of the author's, filed from Poland, summing up—at street level—the struggle in the East Bloc to adapt to free market economics

WARSAW, Poland

His first week on the job, Grzegorz Maltanski wanted to quit.

It made him queasy knocking on all those doors, bothering all those strangers behind their dead-bolts and peepholes, trudging through the gray high-rises where the elevators broke and the stairwells stank of cigarettes and boiled cabbage. Better perhaps to have stuck with his studies and become a priest, then he'd be calmly listening to confessions instead of peddling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

But then he made his first sale, and life got easier. Six weeks later he's still at it, comfortable at last on Eastern Europe's frontier of the hard sell, a realm where Avon is calling, Amway is organizing, and Mr. Maltanski's company, Electrolux, is literally vacuuming away the cobwebs of the Cold War.

Ranging across Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and to a lesser extent Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, competing sales forces are going places they haven't been since before World War II.

Raw recruits accustomed to the low wages and even lower exertion of jobs with state-run concerns are now learning the harsh realities of business—commissions, cancellations, long hours, pushy bosses, wary customers

"Many people we had in the beginning were not so much interested in earning their money," said Christer Gladh, general manager of Lux Poland, the nation's Electrolux distributor.

"They did not realize that people in capitalist companies also had to work, and sometimes work very hard," said Mr. Gladh, a Swede called in from Pakistan to whip the Polish office into shape. "They saw a lot of their friends surfing from company to company. We had a lot of employees, but not many salesmen."

Now he has six salesmen, six young men in pressed suits, with golden Lux logos gleaming on their pocket pens and tie tacks. A year ago they were a teacher, a tailor, a researcher, two aspiring businessmen and, in Mr. Maltanski 's case, a 29-year-old theologian and family man wondering what career to pursue after having given up ambitions to the priesthood several years earlier.

From this base Mr. Gladh hopes to build a Polish sales network of 500 people with 40 branch offices. But if he is to be successful it will take more performances like the one Mr. Maltanski gave on a recent morning in the tiny living room of the Chmielski family, on the eighth floor of a high-rise in Warsaw.

As he removed a bulky Lux Royal demonstrator from its huge Samsonite case, Mr. Maltanski was a study in deft motion, shooting his cuffs, hitching his pants, using his hands and eyes, the very things Mr. Gladh has been teaching in the morning sales meetings.

The daily meetings can be embarrassing. If you're not cutting it, a snapshot of your smiling face pasted on a blackboard soon lags behind the photos of your colleagues as they're moved further across the board with each sale they make.

Such worries were far away as Mr. Maltanski reached the heart of his demonstration. He whisked the roaring Royal across a few square feet of the Chmielskis' thin carpet, then poked his hand into the machine to retrieve the dust bag, like a magician reaching into his hat. Moments earlier he'd shown Boguslaw Chmielski and his three daughters that the bag was empty, displaying it from every angle and even pulling it inside out.

He briskly shook the bag onto a small blue cloth, with a popping noise like that of a wet dog shaking itself dry. A huge ring of dust tumbled onto the blue cloth. Then another. Then a third.

The girls gasped. Mr. Chmielski's jaw dropped, and he crouched on the rug for a closer look inside the machine, thinking perhaps it was some sort of trick.

But, no, everything seemed in order. And when Mr. Maltanski repeated the results a few moments later by vacuuming a couch cushion, the eldest daughter exclaimed with a blush, "It's amazing. It's like we haven't been cleaning at all."

As if on cue, the youngest daughter then sneezed. Mr. Maltanski took a moment to mention the harmful health effects of too much household dust. Twenty minutes later Mr. Chmielski signed on the dotted line.

Sales don't always go so easily for either Mr. Maltanski or for Electrolux's Polish operation.

When Lux Poland opened in 1993 it did what every other door-to-door outfit did as it streamed in from the West. It headed for the neighborhoods housing the 5 percent of Warsaw's population with the most income, the area known to sales managers as "Beverly Hills."

"That was OK at first," Mr. Gladh says, "but after a while we were all running into each other at the same clients. You'd have some people being visited by a different salesman every day, and with similar products."

It didn't help that along with the flood of new products came con artists and fly-by-nighters.

So by the time Lux began moving into other neighborhoods, people were beginning to keep their doors shut. Lux looked for a new strategy in Poland, the trouble spot on its Eastern front.

Things had gone easier in Hungary, where a more liberal Cold War economy had accustomed people to free-market styles, and in the Czech Republic, where people earned higher salaries and stashed away more hard currency—enough to fuel purchases for about three years, Mr. Gladh said. In Poland most of the cash rolled up in socks and mattresses was gone after six months.

So, Lux Poland looked next to the areas that in Warsaw pass for the middle-class suburbs—the clusters of gray high-rises. But the Polish neighborhoods are full of uncertainties and surprises.

"In these places it is very difficult to judge who the people are with the money," Mr. Gladh says. "You can walk into two or three apartments and tell by the carpet and the appliances that this is totally wrong place, that there is no money to buy anything. Then you walk into the next door and there is a nice carpet, good furniture, a new television and a VCR."

Mr. Maltanski, meanwhile, had his own problems getting started. He had been trained to listen, not to talk, and certainly not to force himself on people in any way.

"He had studied for a while to be a priest," Mr. Gladh says, "and sometimes when you were talking to him it felt like more of a prayer than a conversation. For him to adjust, to be active with his body language and things like that, it has taken some real effort."

When Mr. Maltanski walked through the door of the Chmielskis' apartment, his prospects seemed grim. He sniffed boiling cabbage and saw a threadbare carpet.

But soon there were signs of hope. The family owned an Electrolux washer and an Electrolux stove. Suddenly the boiling cabbage was proof of quality merchandise was hard at work, and as he wrapped up his demonstration he knew he was on the right track when he asked, "Do you think the equipment is worth the money?"

"Oh, yes, of course," Mr. Chmielski answered.

When they began discussing payments, Mr. Maltanski got another pleasant surprise. Mr. Chmielski, it turned out, is a new capitalist himself, selling clothes at a kiosk in an outdoor market. He pulled out a wad of bills to fork over the down payment of nearly $ 300, paying most of it with two U.S. $ 100 bills.

The dollars were not surprising. Poles still mistrust their zlotys, hoarding dollars and German marks. But it was surprising when Mr. Chmielski's oldest daughter checked the latest currency exchange rates on TV teletext, by punching a few buttons on the remote control.

The sales total for the cleaner and a few accessories came to almost $1,500—nearly five month's of the average Warsaw salary, and 7.5 months of the average Polish salary.

And Mr. Maltanski's biggest selling job of the day awaited him at home. His wife, a lawyer, remains skeptical of door-to-door sales.

"Every day my wife says, 'Grzegorz, this job, it is not good. The hours are too long.' " Indeed, he usually works from 9 to 9, six days a week, because no door-to-door salesman wants to miss the prime opportunities of a Saturday.

"I tell her to wait," he says. "It will get better. The work is very difficult, but the company is very good. For me, I think, this is my future."

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