The millions of Polish immigrants flooding to American shores in search of a better life from the 1870s to the teens of the 20th century, could scarcely imagine the heights their grandchildren and great-grandchildren could reach in their new homeland. This included the hundreds of thousands of newcomers flocking to places like Buffalo, “Za Chlebem,” for “bread” and work, quoting the title of the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, chronicling a Polish family’s immigration to the United States.
Most of these Polish immigrants couldn’t speak English, and were largely perceived by the nativists in this country only as a source of cheap, manual labor, largely in the new burgeoning industrial economy. And there was plenty of anti-immigrant prejudice in the mainstream culture, which saw the influx of foreign immigrants as a “necessary evil,” fueling the growing American economic engine.
The local Buffalo area English-language papers were filled with plenty of anti-Polish content, decrying the religion (mostly Roman Catholic), customs and insularity of the ghettoized Poles, settling primarily on the city’s East Side and later Black Rock neighborhoods. dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski’s article, “Anti-Polonism,” gives a good primer regarding the nature of anti-Polish sentiment.
DESCENDENTS OF POLISH IMMIGRANTS SOAR CORPORATE HEIGHTS
The tireless work ethic, dogged patriotism to their adopted country and commitment to provide a better life for their children, created an environment felicitous to the rise of the progeny of the original Polish immigrants to the very heights of American business and commerce. In previous columns I outlined the achievements and challenges faced by some of America’s top executives of Polish-American descent, including Bob Chapek (Czapek), chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation, Chris Kempczynski, president and CEO of McDonald’s hamburger empire and Buffalo’s own, Gene Jankowski, former head of the CBS Columbia Broadcasting Network, honored last month by the Buffalo Broadcaster’s Association (BBA) at the group’s annual awards ceremony.
ENTER MICHAEL WITYNSKIA
Among the pantheon of America’s top Polish-American executives, we can include Michael Andrew Witynski, president and chief executive officer of the Dollar Tree/Family Dollar chain of discount department stores, boasting over 15,500 locations throughout the United States and Canada, with over $6 billion in annual profits. Witynski, at age 59, has nearly 40 years of experience in the grocery and retail field, working his way up to the top position in one of the country’s largest retailers. “Under Mike’s leadership,” the corporation’s board announced, “we have seen outstanding performance first at Dollar Tree and now at Family Dollar.”
DOLLAR TREE/FAMILY DOLLAR: NECESSITIES AT LITTLE MONEY
The modern discount dollar stores descended from the original American “5 and Dime” and Ben Franklin variety discount stores, providing a little bit of everything for not much money. The formula was cheap labor and inexpensive product, from clothing to grocery basics, toys, kitchen gadgets, greeting cards, and many other basic necessities. A few years ago, Dollar Tree purchased Family Dollar for $8.5 billion. At the Family Dollar store located at Broadway and Wilson streets I sometimes dash in on the way home for some “quickie” item I might have needed like a can of Comet, or napkins, or some other kind of useful product. Usually I ran into some constituents there when I served on the Buffalo City Council.
MIKE WITYNSKI’S CONTROVERSY
A megacompany can bring mega headaches to the guy on top. In previous articles I wrote how Disney’s Bob Chapek had enraged to beat back employees at his reluctance to weigh in on the state of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” policies in primary schools. Chapek didn’t want Disney to take a position regarding the “gender wars” in grade schools, but his “woke” employees demanded he take a side, leading to retaliation by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who stripped Disney of its special tax status. And McDonald’s Kempczynski was severely attacked by Chicago Mayor Laurie Lightfoot and others who called him a racist when he sensibly suggested that the shootings and violence which took place at some McDonald’s restaurants and elsewhere in the country was a result of the breakdown of the American family structure .
Now it’s Witynski’s turn to take the heat: he was roundly criticized when he announced last year that Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores would not be $1-dollar stores anymore, but a “dollar and a quarter stores.” So, they would now charge $1.25 for items that used to be one dollar for the lowest priced items on the shelves. Customers said the decision to raise the prices from $1 to $1.25 hit the people least able to afford it and made them “sick to their stomachs.” Witynski said he had no choice, given the increase in labor costs and supply chain difficulties in the wake of the Covid pandemic. He was battling a decline in company profits in the wake of people afraid of going to retail establishments in the first two years of Covid shut-downs.
RIGHTING THE SHIP
Was there anything in Witynski’s background that might suggest he could weather the storm of criticism and turn around the declining sales at the Dollar Tree/Family Dollar empire? He was raised not far from Chicago, Illinois and his mother, Kathy Witynski, admired her son’s tireless work ethic, shoveling neighbor’s snow in winter and mowing their lawns in summer. She later marveled at his dogged efforts in high school, college and later at the Super Valu food company where he worked before landing at Dollar Tree.
Mike Witynski loved sports and became quarterback at Freeport High School in Illinois. He later graduated magna cum laude from Benedictine University, a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning located in Lisle, Illinois, originally founded to educate young men of Eastern European and Slavic descent, sons of the recently arrived immigrants. The university’s first president was Bishop Daniel Kucera, OSB. Mike, who received a degree in Business Administration, observed that “if you want a good life, surround yourself with great friends and if you want a great career, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”
Witynski, who was recently profiled by journalist Adam Bonislawski, worked very hard to erase the post-pandemic slump at the discount chain. He knew that peoples’ greater reliance on credit over cash revealed that “people felt economically pressured.” Despite Witynski’s gamble to raise prices from a dollar to a dollar and a quarter, he reasoned that the product at the stores was still a very good bargain. His gamble paid off as he drove up profits a whopping 27% as shoppers flocked back to his discount stores in the wake of soaring inflation eroding their household budgets. The Dollar Tree/Family Dollar Corporation expressed gratitude for Witynski’s turn-around strategy, setting his compensation at $10.2 million per year in anticipation of his ability to achieve even more growth at the company.
Witynski’s annual salary is not as big as Disney’s Bob Chapek’s at $32.2 million or Kempczynski’s at $20.2 million, but his compensation of $10.2 million a year puts him in a pretty exclusive club of well-paid Pol-Am top company CEOs.