When 15 years ago Katarzyna Kalisz founded a consultancy to help French investors set up businesses in Poland, she knew her life was set to become more frenetic, and exciting.

“Although I loved this period of my career, it was one of sleepless nights, short deadlines, and never-ending tasks as I travelled from meetings to business trips to conferences,” she recalls.

However, with seemingly no end of US and European industrial companies keen to establish subsidiaries in her home country, the move gave her an opportunity to combine her local knowledge and language skills – she is fluent in English and competent in French – with the commercial acumen she picked up studying for her master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

That wave of investors in the first two decades of the century included aerospace heavyweights Collins Aerospace, GE Aerospace, MTU, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, and Safran, all of which opened factories around the city of Rzeszow in southeast Poland, an area just 70km from the Ukraine border that has been marketed for the past 20 years as Aviation Valley.


Those eyeing the growing cluster also numbered lower-tier suppliers lured not only by Aviation Valley’s infrastructure, availability of land, and skilled pool of workers, but by the chance to have production facilities on the doorstep of key customers.

One of these was JPB Systeme, a medium-sized French company based near Safran’s engine factory in Villaroche outside Paris that makes a proprietary self-locking system for nuts and plugs used by aero engine manufacturers GE Aerospace, ITP Aero, P&W, Rolls-Royce and Safran.

Kalisz began advising JPB’s chief executive and owner Damien Marc, who had earmarked Aviation Valley as a potential location for a new factory, helping with the language barrier and to make local connections. Marc was so impressed by her abilities that he ended up offering her a job as JPB Poland’s first employee in 2016.

Since then, as director of the business, Kalisz has built the subsidiary to more than 40 employees. It is situated in a building opposite the city’s airport that serves as an incubator for start-ups and other new businesses. However, in August, JPB will open a 40,000sq m (431,000sq ft) new-build factory next to the nearby facilities of Collins Aerospace and MTU. She describes it as “the project of my life”.

Kalisz has embarked on a recruitment drive. “Each month we are hiring a new CNC operator and focusing on our goal of manufacturing from the new factory as soon as possible,” she says.

She has also been working with architects on the design of the building. As well as bringing production into one ergonomic hall, the new facility will feature a gym – an unusual touch in enterprises of that size in Poland. “We really believe in taking care of our workers,” says Kalisz.

Because Aviation Valley is now home to some 160 aerospace firms, and several colleges specialising in producing technicians, Kalisz is not finding it too hard to recruit. “We are located in a very special place,” she says. “There are thousands of CNC operators and for a company like ours, which does not need hundreds of operators, finding skilled staff is not a problem.”

A key benefit of the growing cluster to the Polish economy is it has helped stem the tide of talented and ambitious young Poles from the region moving abroad to work. Others, who like Kalisz have spent time in other countries working or studying, are returning from exile, attracted by higher salaries as well as living costs that are lower than in France, Germany, or the UK.

Kalisz admits she “did not fall in love with aviation in childhood”, although her older sister did achieve her commercial pilot’s licence 17 years ago. Neither does she have an engineering background. In fact, her first profession was as a pianist.

However, she decided she needed a back-up career, so studied for her MBA before going on to form her own advisory firm. That led to work for the French-Polish chamber of commerce, where she “met some really interesting people in the aerospace industry who motivated me to move my path towards more technical topics”.

They included Marc, who persuaded her to quit her consultancy and work for JPB.


After the hard graft of running her own company, setting up JPB in Poland was also tough. A mother with a three-month old son at the time, she was responsible for everything from recruiting the first employees to documentation on EU projects, equipping the production facility and delivering the initial products.

“The early days were a big challenge, but it didn’t stop me from pushing hard,” she says.

She has strong views on how much harder it can be for women to demonstrate their leadership abilities than men, not just in aerospace but across all aspects of business. “For us, it is much more difficult to prove our competence and knowledge, and to earn respect,” she says. “You should be able to be whatever you want to be if you are prepared to work hard.”

She believes it is important for women in senior positions to mentor younger colleagues and brings up the example of Urszula Majorkiewicz, the female head of the French-Polish chamber of commerce who “inspired and believed in me” when Kalisz started her consultancy. “Even though I don’t have a technical background, she gave me the confidence that I could do it,” she says.

However, she concedes that being a business leader as well as a mother can be a challenge, and not just because of the pressures of the clock.

“There are times at work when it is important to be seen as strong and strict,” she says. “But a few hours later, when your child’s chocolate falls on the street, and it’s the ‘end of the world’, you have to be empathetic like every mother.”