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“That’s 70 million bucks,” declares Marek Darecki, the president of Polish aerospace company, wsk Rzeszów, pointing at a photograph of the day the American firm United Technologies (utc) bought his company in 2002. “The government sold it in a very beautiful way,” he says, “No experiments. No quasi-public ventures. We just went private.”

Shortly after his company was turned over to the US conglomerate, Darecki came up with his region’s success story. “I remember, I was here one winter night in this very office and I thought, ‘How can we make this go further?’ The next day I called 18 of my friends – all local aerospace leaders – and proposed the idea of an aviation cluster in the region. We would work together to create a supply chain of local small-to-medium Polish businesses. The goal was regional transformation.”

This southeastern province of Podkarpackie, which borders Ukraine and Slovakia, is one of Europe’s poorest. But Darecki’s cluster had no shortage of expertise to draw on. His photo-lined office is part of a deco-style building that dates back to 1937, when wsk was one of dozens of aerospace companies founded here after the Polish government designated the region as the central industrial district for defence production. War followed soon after and the German occupation absorbed the region’s infrastructure into a greater mass.

Outside in the factory’s windswept courtyard, Constructivist concrete monuments allude to another episode when wsk became part of the Soviet industrial machine. There’s no doubt that history has taken its toll on the area but Darecki insists one thing has always remained constant; they have always made planes and their components.

“We have 75 years of aerospace tradition here. It’s in our dna, we feel it, we understand it,” he enthuses from behind a conference table flanked with models of aircraft. “I remember when I was a young boy I couldn’t sleep because they were testing engines early in the morning here in Rzeszów – an entire city would hear that another mig fighter jet engine was being made for the Soviet Union to fight in Vietnam. And I don’t even want to mention whom they were fighting as I’m working for an American company.”

Darecki describes the Soviet practices as “demoralising, negative, immoral, illegal and criminal”. But in terms of sheer production, Russian hegemony triggered an aviation boom for Rzeszów. Back in the 1970s the company employed nearly 13,000 people and produced thousands of military and utility aircraft engines for the ussr. But when the Eastern bloc dissolved in 1989, its behemoth client vanished. wsk Rzeszów, and many of the region’s cumbersome aerospace companies, languished in the free market – adrift from global trends.

The concept of clustering has turned the Podkarpackie region into a dynamic aerospace hub – a matrix of competitors working together for common goals. Aviation Valley has grown from its original 18 companies in 2003 (with 9,000 workers and €192.1m of export sales) to a body representing 90 companies and some 22,000 workers with €1.1bn of exports. The area produces 90 per cent of Poland’s aviation output. “There is no doubt this industry is flourishing,” says Darecki. “We have small companies located in very poor villages where parts for Boeing, Airbus and f-16 fighters are being produced.”

The Aviation Valley umbrella persuaded 50 pre-existing family-owned businesses to turn their hand to making aerospace components and encouraged entrepreneurs to establish new outfits. One small company, Ultratech, was set up by a former wsk employee, Marek Bujny in Rzeszów in 2000. “I’d worked in aerospace for many years as a manager and it was time to do something different,” recalls Bujny, “I convinced my brother-in-law to invest. We bought good Japanese machines. With my experience, we only had to show these to our clients and they were impressed. Since then it has been about building credibility.”

Ultratech is now the sole supplier of side struts for the Boeing 737’s main landing gear and employs 79 people in two locations. “We are Polish-owned, family run. And we supply the big foreign-owned companies like Agusta Westland, Goodrich, Sikorsky and, of course, wsk, with parts,” he explains. “We specialise in blades for turbine and jet engines and produce big ribs for Black Hawk helicopters.”

There’s a medley of international names in the Aviation Valley. Anglo-Italian helicopter giants AgustaWestland have a 1,000-strong workforce at the pzl-Swidnik facility near Lublin (pzl being the abbreviation for Polish Aviation Works, often appearing on unrelated company’s names) but it’s the American influence that is most present in the region. A 40-minute drive from Rzeszów through silver birch forests takes us to pzl Mielec, where they are constructing the first Black Hawks to be made outside the US since their creation in the 1970s.

The American firm Sikorksy (another subsidiary of utc) bought pzl Mielec’s vast 1930s-era site in 2007 and set about restructuring the outfit to make a world-class Black Hawk production facility. Two huge vaulted factory hangers are now restored and gleaming. The firm’s army of employees work in blue plaid shirts on machines draped in both the Stars and Stripes flag and the Republic of Poland’s own red and white standard. “We are constructing complete, ready-to-fly Black Hawks,” says pzl Mielec’s ceo, Janusz Zakrecki. “We’ve produced orders for the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Interior, the Mexican police and of course the US military. Some people even say our Polish Black Hawk is better than the ones made in Stratford, Connecticut.”

Quite a claim for the outfit. But monocle found several experts to vouch for the superior nature of the Polish Black Hawk – including none other than Michael R Skaggs, Sikorsky’s American test pilot of 29 years and a former US military man. “I could say these Black Hawks are the same as the ones built in Stratford. But in fact, I think they’re better,” he tells monocle over tea in a small pre-fab office adjacent to a complex of vast hangars. “Tests show they are outperforming the US built models. There are so many details that show the commitment of an artisan – like the click of the doors when they close. These Black Hawks are made like a Rolls-Royce but have the power of a Ferrari. They are a tribute to the heritage of the workforce.”

The success of the Black Hawks isn’t the area’s only draw. pzl Mielec is in the heart of a Special Economic Zone supported by the Polish government and bolstered by the EU, where companies can exist tax-free until 2020. It’s dotted with tech-themed brands such as In-tech, Kirchhoff, Retech and Eurotech. Back in his office in Rzeszów, in the heart of the Aviation Valley, Darecki explains how he intends to find and educate the next (and much-needed) generation of engineers. The cluster has fostered partnerships with the region’s universities and technical colleges and even dispatches engineers to secondary schools to teach what he calls “flying physics”.

Just 100 yards away in the university’s new state-of-the-art lab, the dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics, Krzysztof Kubiak, explains how integrated his research operation is to the local industry – he is developing technologies for Sikorsky, Goodrich and wsk Rzeszów. “We feed the factories with highly-skilled staff. Every year wsk Rzeszów employs 10 to 20 people [out of 60 graduates]. It works for the benefit of the region.”

But for all the talk of clustering, it’s hard cash that has been key to the area’s success. Darecki admits that 80 per cent of the valley’s costs have been covered by money from Brussels – EU membership has fuelled the project since the country joined the union in 2004. Crucially, he says, Poland’s allure is a combination of low labour costs and hi-tech skills. “It’s simple math,” says Darecki. “It’s cheaper. In terms of hi-tech manufacturing, Poland is three times cheaper than Europe. Efficiency and productivity is 20 per cent higher. The work ethic is great. When it comes to hi-tech manufacturing, Poland is even cheaper than China.” And while the model isn’t without its flaws – Darecki admits that there have been tensions from time to time within the valley’s factions – Aviation Valley has created a powerful platform for Poland to build its credibility and to sell hi-tech wares to the world. It’s no wonder he is cluster-mad. There is even a clustering of clusters in the works, with aviation hubs in Hamburg, the UK, and Toulouse looking to develop new networks.

As long as the cluster continues to work for common goals, the region’s future looks hopeful. “We tell new members of Aviation Valley, ‘It’s not what the cluster can give to you, but what you can give to the cluster,’ jokes Ultratech’s Marek Bujny.“We have to focus on the good of the region and its future.” Two of Bujny’s children are studying mechatronics at Rzeszów’s technical university and the other is studying the Chinese language. “I hope they will come and work with me or set up their own business. And I know this would be a very good decision.”

The big five

Poland’s fledgling cluster is a growing venture in comparison to the world’s super-clusters. Five aerospace hubs are responsible for a large part of the world’s aircraft production. These include Toulouse, Montréal, Wichita, Dallas-Fort Worth and Puget Sound/Seattle although their components may come from all around the world. There are other significant global clusters in locations such as São Jose Dos Campos and Shenyang. Niche areas are also found in the Isle of Man, UK and Hamilton in New Zealand.

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