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Unicall enters Poland, grows in Lithuania


After expanding his business in Lithuania, Norwegian call centre entrepreneur Dag Harald Johansen, has debuted in Poland. The project is still at a very early stage, but considering the fast-paced growth of Jo-hansen's Unicall Media Group in other markets, it is likely to evolve into something substantial. "We're starting with 15-20 people in Warsaw, because we landed a contract from a local Norwegian-owned customer," he told news2biz. "And we are already planning to expand - around May, June we will know where outside Warsaw we will have our facility."
Recently Mr Johansen has established U-Torn Invest in Kaunas that will serve as the holding company for its current and future investments in Lithuania and Norway.
"The holding will own the Unicall call centre business in Lithuania and Norway, the business that I own with a partner. I also have initial ideas about other investments in Lithuania, which, if carried out, will also be placed with U-Torn," says Mr Johansen. "Although the Kaunas operation is not the biggest within our group, it has developed into our knowledge hub, so to speak. We have the group CFO based here, as well as the group-level IT department. "

The success of new Lithuanian projects actually sent Unicall hiring when everyone around was downsizing: today the firm employs 80 staff in the country (around 60 in fulltime equivalent), up by around 30 compared to the beginning of 2009.
Beside the three countries, Uni-call is also present in the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Romania, employing close to 600 staff (around 400 full-time jobs) in 11 call centres. The Norwegian and Czech units are the biggest in terms of staff.



The Ministry of Treasury has invited investors to join sales negotiations regarding a controlling stake in the leading Polish press distributor Ruch. The government seeks to sell its 55% shares in Ruch for the highest price possible and it plans to publish a short list of potential investors by the end of March.
A few days prior to the Ministry's invitation, Ruch's minority shareholder, the WSE-listed coin producer and ticketing systems operator Mennica Polska (The Mint of Poland) had placed a buyout bid on Ruch's shares. Mennica, which directly and indirectly holds 11% of shares in Ruch, is ready to spend PLN 268m on boosting its ownership up to 66%.
"We believe there are many synergies between Mennica and Ruch, for instance as far as electronic payments or retail competencies are concerned," says Mennica's Mariusz Przybylski to news2biz. "We are certain that due to those synergies we will be able to generate an additional margin for Mennica."
Ruch's privatization has been an unresolved issue for years. Back in the day, the company used to attract major foreign retail and press distribution companies, but recently its position has gradually weakened. Last year Ruch turned over PLN 3.969bn (down from PLN 4.170bn in 2008) and its net loss deepened from PLN 28.4m down to PLN 72.1m, particularly due to very disappointing performance in October-December.
"The Q4 2009 results came as a certain surprise for us and we do not have access to complete information as to the reasons for such a poor outcome, but we are concerned about the fact that most of Ruch's losses are at the operational level. These results clearly show that the company requires a thorough restructuring and change of owner. Mennica has a restructuring plan for Ruch, which we put together based on the publicly available information about the company. We cannot disclose its details before the end of the call, but we can say that Ruch's restructuring will take years rather than months."
Ruch has been struggling to cut costs in order to improve its standing. Last year its workforce shrank by 1,000, and the cost of redundancies also negatively affected the company's balance sheets.
The key problem seems to be the deteriorating condition of Poland's printed media sector. The global shift towards online media, which first hit newspaper publishers, is affecting press distributors, such as Ruch. The latter's newspaper and magazine sales dropped by 7.4% y/y in Q4 2009.
Ruch operates more than 7,000 kiosks and newsstands and supplies papers and magazines to another 32,000 retail points. Its operations include also 140 FMCG distributors, 14 pharmaceutical wholesalers, and a coffee bar chain.


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