Petr Pudil: Czech culture needs contact with the world

An interview with the cofounder of The Pudil Family Foundation. About a small family business, life in a free world, and global ambitions. About the future of Kunsthalle Praha, but also about the importance of understanding our own history.

© Jan Zátorský
© Jan Zátorský

Did your parents lead you toward an interest in fine arts during your childhood?
Not at all. My dad was a toolmaker at Aero Vodochody and my mom worked at same company as a saleswoman. I grew up in Veltrusy, a village not too far from Prague, in a family house which my parents had reconstructed. My father understood just about every craft out there, so that was the direction he tended to lead me in. But ultimately, I did not really adopt his vision of my future. I was more interested in computers. My parents bought me a Sharp personal computer, which was quite something at the time! I attended a computer club in the Svazarm and learned how to code. As a child, I saw my future in IT, although that is not what it was called back then.

But you ended up studying electrical engineering, so you did set off in the direction of a career in IT…
That was not how it worked, unfortunately. I knew it was the field I wanted to work in, but schools focusing on computers did not exist back then. The closest I could get was studying low voltage at an electrical engineering high school, which I started in September 1989. Right in my first year the revolution happened, and everything changed. I soon realized that I would not learn much about IT at school. Foreign technology was a far cry from the school’s curriculum, both materially and conceptually, but in the end, I had no choice but to finish my studies in the field of dam automation.

During high school, you witnessed the revolution and the fall of communism. What was that time like for you?
As a 15-year-old, I was not a particularly politically conscious person. My parents would listen to Radio Free Europe at home and my father had problems at work because he spoke out against the 1968 invasion. I knew that the communists were evil, but it was not a focal point of my life. In October 1989, the school counselor called me in, looked into my file, and said to me: “Looking at your grades, I don’t think you’ll finish your degree. I would recommend transferring to an apprenticeship or to a cooking course. I can sort that out for you right now.” That made me feel insulted—I had been a good student in elementary school, so I thought to myself, “why should I be leaving high school after a mere month?”. A few weeks later, the revolution happened. I was involved in the strike committee and luckily everything turned out well, I ended up staying at school and finishing it. It was more a sort of school of life, I was learning more about human characters than about the academic material itself.

How important was the year 1989 for you?
So important, I have not experienced a more important year and will probably not ever experience one. It changed my whole life. It made me grow up faster, the experience helped me give direction to my life and gave me certain opportunities. I live in a world that is free, and that is essential to me.

Did you get into business straight after school?
After the revolution, my parents bought a store on the main street of our village and did quite well with it. Their deli was well-known and people from the wider area would come shop there. I used to help them a bit and that was my first encounter with running a business.

But you did not stay in the family business…
I did not, because one day I happened to meet a friend on the bus who worked in an advertising agency, and he invited me to work for them. It was called Studio Lucas. They would occasionally give me creative work, which I began to enjoy. I even won an internal competition for a campaign, which ended up being chosen by the client. After my high school graduation, I immediately singed a full-time contract, but it was not long before some colleagues and I founded our own agency. We decided to give it a go on our own. And we did alright—we had plenty of clients and plenty of worries, as it tends to go.

What did you enjoy about the field of advertising?
The great collective we had at the agency, as well as the creative work itself—coming up with campaigns, creativity, trying to be original. But also*, the immediate feedback from both clients and consumers. After some years, and despite everything working well, I realized that the impending globalization was starting to limit our opportunities, because international clients had their own networks and we started to fall short. We had a decision to make: either we would become part of some big corporate network, which I could not imagine as a 23-year-old, or we would do something about it. I ended up selling my share and leaving the agency.

And subsequently you moved to Most?
I actually took an entrepreneurial hiatus for a few years, during which I worked as a manager but not as a businessman. When a former client of mine, Mr. Antonín Koláček, contacted me about getting into marketing and sales for a brown coal mining company, I saw it as a big challenge. The industry was in deep crisis, unlike telecommunications or banking, for instance, which were popular at the end of the millennium.

Then what kept you there?
My work in Most evolved quite dynamically and I got to experience several different roles as an employee and a consultant. I saw a lot of potential there, because the company was very inefficient, both in terms of management and in terms of sales. I was figuring out how to improve it. I managed to implement some changes, although most of my ideas never became reality. After a few years, I stopped working as a manager at Most Colliery. They would hire me as an external consultant up until 2004. During that time, I also worked for different companies.

Did you privatize the Most Colliery?
This topic is often brought up in connection with my name, but the truth is that I never privatized anything, not even a newsstand, let alone a coal mine. I joined Most Colliery as manager at a time when the government already held only a minority share. The government consequently sold it to the private company Appian, which was supposed to be an investment fund. In 2005, I became an investor in the mining company and was one of the people who purchased Most Colliery from the Appian fund using money we had borrowed from the bank. I therefore had nothing to do with the privatization, it was a regular commercial transaction. We connected Most Colliery to our newly created group Czech Coal.

How do you remember your time in the energy industry?
It was a very intense time, during which I tried out what it is like to manage a large company with many employees and a prominent position on the market. We wanted to transform a mining company into an energy company, to create a vertically integrated chain where we would sell not only coal but also electricity and heat. We partially succeeded—Czech Coal became one of the larger non-state energy groups and its profits grew manifold.

But in the end, you sold Czech Coal…
It was one of the hardest decisions in my life. We had a connection with the company and the people in it, we directed it, we had a clear vision of how to move forward, but at the same time we knew that the future of brown coal was not rosy. At the time, I was president of the European Association of Coal Producers and Importers, and in that position, I had easy access to the administration of the European Committee, to members of the European Parliament, and also to numerous large energy companies. That really opened my eyes to the position of brown coal within the energetic mix of the EU. It was obvious that the incoming politics of climate protection would not leave room for coal.

Did you not mind that you were contributing to global warming?
Brown coal mining began in our country more than two centuries ago and occurred even earlier elsewhere in Europe. In those times, it represented progress, and cheap energy from coal became a key component of the industrial revolution. Coal had many positive impacts on society, but, like most things shaping our lives, it also brought negative aspects. I entered coal energy over twenty years ago, when the production of coal was declining, but when it still indispensable for Czech society, which was dependent on it.

At the time, the government’s approach to energy declared brown coal to be a strategic material. Much like many other countries around the world, they wanted to use cheap energy to produce electricity and heat. Today, the share of coal in worldwide energy production remains large, despite its declining importance domestically. Naturally, alternatives exist: we can produce everything from renewable resources, or from gas, which halves CO2 emissions, or from nuclear reactions, where we are not sure what to do with the waste and whether we will always be able to protect the plants from an attack. Either way, the alternatives are more costly, and nobody really wants to pay more, which is why the whole process of decarbonization has been protracted—so that consumers can adapt.

It is not a matter of investors being dependent on coal, but rather of consumers being dependent on cheap energy. Investors are much faster at finding alternatives to invest in. I remember my time at Czech Coal fondly—it was a big challenge, and I learned a lot. I met many great, qualified people at the company. The surface mine itself is a sophisticated technical achievement which is constantly changing, and I always had a lot of respect for the skills of people who were able to direct it and work in it. We were one of the first companies to apply the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which are common practice today, as we measured our impact on the environment, as well as the benefits we were bringing society. We introduced a culture of transparency and of open communication with surrounding towns and with the region in which we were operating. We made Czech Coal into a prospering company, which we ended up successfully selling, and invested the money into different fields, for instance into renewable energy and chemical industries. The global consensus regarding the necessity of limiting CO2 emissions was penned in the Paris Agreement of 2015, which was five years after we had left the coal industry.

There are numerous scandals connected to the Most Colliery. Some people mention tunneling during the privatization, and a few people were sentenced for fraud. What is your opinion on these affairs?
As I said, I, nor any of my current partners at bdp partners, never privatized anything. Yes, it is true that in the late 1990s, Most Colliery Company (MCC) fell under the control of a group of people around Mr. Koláček, who fabricated the narrative that Appian, the group that owned MCC, was backed by American investors. That was a lie because they were controlling the company themselves. I was never involved with Appian Group in any way, neither as an owner, nor as a manager. I always worked for the mining company and focused on sales and marketing. I only found out about the entanglements surrounding Appian in 2007, through an investigation by the Swiss prosecution office, which was interested in the accounts of one of the companies in the Czech Coal group. We hired lawyers who studied the files and unequivocally recommended that we claim damages. That is what we ended up doing and consequently took part in a medialized Swiss legal proceeding as the aggrieved party. The same position is assumed by the company Czech Coal Services, which is the legal successor to the original Most Colliery, in the current trial against Mr. Koláček and company taking place in the Czech Republic.

Nevertheless, Mr. Koláček continues to claim that you conned him and owe him money for the sale of Czech Coal shares. He even filed a complaint against you.
Yes, he does claim that. We bought Mr. Koláček’s shares in 2008 and during the next two years paid the rest of the purchase price. Since then, we have only been informed about this whole affair through the media—nobody is attempting to recover any claims from us. There is no legal dispute where we would be arguing about any finances. We do not owe anyone anything, that is nonsense. The police have received Mr. Koláček’s complaints several times and investigated the matter, finding no evidence of criminal offence. Personally, I see it is a closed case.

After selling Czech Coal, you cofounded bpd partners together with Vasil Bobela and Jan Dobrovský. You claim that you are a family office—what exactly does that mean?
We drew inspiration from the property management model of many families in advanced economies. The role of bpd partners is the long-term management of our family properties with a generational outlook. Our portfolio has a long-term investment horizon—we are not an investment company that resells companies and completes transaction after transaction.

Why do you do business together? Most businessmen tend to either invest alone or join forces with other partners for specific transactions.
We have known each other for a long time. There is trust between us, because we have been through some hard times together and we know that we can rely on each other. We know that by collaborating, we combine our intelligences—we are all different, have different life experiences, and appreciate the chance to share our views regarding society, the economy, and our business, and sometimes even to get in a bit of an argument.

© Jan Zátorský
© Jan Zátorský

Which fields do bpd partners currently invest in?
One of our investment pillars is real estate. For now, our ambitions are confined to the regional scale as we believe that we can only be a successful developer in a city in which we live, or which we know very well. We do business in Prague and will most probably continue to do so. We build office buildings and residential properties, and we closely collaborate with the developer Radek Pokorný and his team.

Let us talk about the chemical industry for a moment. Could you give us an idea of your plans regarding Draslovka Kolín?
Here, we have global ambitions. Draslovka Kolín is an innovative chemical company with over a century of experience in producing hydrogen cyanide, which is feedstock for producing many industrial specialties. Our clients include precious metal miners and rubber companies producing tires. Another product segment are fumigants. Our new products have the ambition to replace old, environmentally harmful products in the field of structural fumigation, meaning the extermination of pests in buildings such as mills, warehouses, etc. Other examples of areas which our products target include the treatment of wood for transport across biosecurity zones or the fumigation of soil before sowing certain crops, such as strawberries and many types of vegetables. Draslovka brings a big change to the field of fumigation—we use substances which are environmentally favorable for the protection of soil, groundwater, the climate, and the ozone layer, while simultaneously being competitive in terms of price. The fumigant division is the source of our belief that we can make Draslovka into a successful, growing, global company.

The chemical industry is contentious, and, moreover, Draslovka produces toxic substances. How do you feel about this?
We have long been living in and industrialized society. The advancement of chemistry following World War II significantly lowered the costs of purchasing many products across all spheres of human life and significantly contributed to the reduction of global poverty. Now we are learning that not all chemical products are healthy for nature and humans. These are progressively being replaced as fast as possible. Draslovka brings to the market a new generation of chemical products which are environmentally friendly but toxic while being applied, because the purpose of, for instance, the previously mentioned fumigants is to kill various pathogens, molds, or insects. We do not want to transport these species between continents as it would lead to the deterioration of our biosphere. We have enough cautionary cases, such as the unwanted spread of Asian hornets in Europe, caused by inadequately treated goods transported across oceans. It is called biosecurity protection, and Draslovka is very good at solving these problems. If all application rules are adhered to by a specialized company, there is no risk for humans—the substance fulfills its purpose of preparing the good for transportation, before naturally disintegrating, in air or water, into molecular derivatives of carbon and potassium, which are commonly found in nature and are beneficial to it.

You mentioned global ambitions. How far along are you in terms of growth?
Over 90 % of Draslovka’s production goes abroad. We are constantly expanding our production capacities—our opportunities for growth in Kolín are limited, so we are preparing the construction of new factories in different locations in Europe and in the USA. In parallel, we are trying to grow through vertical integration in the fields of fumigants and agrochemistry. We are number one in fumigation in South Africa, hold a very good position in the Pacific, and are in the midst of dozens of registration procedures for our new substances around the world.

But you are not the sole owner of Draslovka, is that correct?
That is true, we bought into Draslovka nine years ago. Pavel Brůžek Snr. took over the company at the end of the 1990s, when it was in an absolutely dire state. He proceeded to implement a diligent restructuring, modernized production, and targeted new products in the field of agrochemistry. Eventually, he brought his two sons into the company. Around the year 2010, they were searching for a new partner who would bring not only financial stability, but also the ability to implement an international expansion. Partnership with the Brůžek family is one of my most cherished encounters of recent years. We are not just business partners but also good friends. Pavel Brůžek Jr. is now the chairman of bpd partners’ board of directors and we are also investing in new fields, such as startups, together with the Brůžek family.

Startups are not necessarily as prosperous a business as a globally operating chemical plant. What about them appeals to you?
We are at the beginning of a digital revolution—the internet and supercomputers are fundamentally changing all spheres of human life. We have no idea how far these changes can go, and we simply want to be where the changes are starting to take place. We want to understand trends well enough to be able to adapt our investment strategy, but at the same time we do not want to spread ourselves too thin across many different fields. That is why we are investing in new companies in the fields of biotechnology and agricultural innovation, that is, into the fields in which we have internal expertise thanks to our strong R&D (research & development) in the chemical industry. We are the investors of 15 companies in the USA, the EU, and in Israel. Our portfolio is doing very well, and we believe that some of these companies will be very commercially successful. It is fascinating to engage in discussions with young teams of scientists who not only have strong visions and the competencies to change the world, but also the ability to translate their visions into practice.

Why do you enjoy doing business?
With the passing of time my, understanding of business has changed. At the beginning, I saw it as a way to earn money for an apartment. Then, I understood it as tackling a challenge, where you buy something, improve the company, and sell it again. Now, I view making money as a means of creating projects which I consider to be meaningful and which I think can move society forward. The main ones are Post Bellum and Kunsthalle Praha.

What about Post Bellum caught your interest?
The fact that it documents the stories of twentieth century totalitarianism in our country. Because if we do not understand our Czech history and realize what surrounded us and what enabled us to be here, we cannot make correct decisions in the future. Testimonies of people whose lives were impacted by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are a national memory which reminds us that freedom and democracy are not a given.

How did you and your wife Pavlína get involved with art?
Neither one of us grew up in the family of an artist or art collector, so we had to find our path toward art ourselves. The first painting we bought was by a relatively unknown Slovakian artist. We gradually started buying more frequently until all of a sudden, we had more paintings than we could fit in our home. That was the moment we realized that we had basically become collectors—we started visiting art fairs, exhibitions of contemporary artists around Europe, auction houses, and when we liked something, we would buy it. Eventually, we started expanding our collection conceptually and today we approach it institutionally. There is a clear evolution. I travel a lot for business, which gives me the advantage of being able to combine art and business during my trips. Most of the literature I read has to do with art. The Kunsthalle Praha project thus became something that has been significantly enriching our life for several years.

But not every collector feels the need to found a museum or a kunsthalle. What led you to this decision?
Culture blossoms when it is in contact with the world—it needs a place and an outward eye. Every country is as developed and advanced as is reflected by its culture. We need more contact with the world in the fields of culture and fine arts, and we need more cultural institutions which present art. The mission of our family foundation is to connect local art and communities with international art scenes in nearby countries and around the world. The concept of our collection, in which we contextualize its Czech vein in relation to select works of international provenance, corresponds with this aim. The Pudil Family Foundation supports numerous projects which aid dialogue between local and global art in the Czech Republic and abroad. Naturally, the preparation of Kunsthalle Praha, a new open space for modern and contemporary art, is the main project.

What type of place do you thinks Kunsthalle Praha will be?
A place for people to meet, an open institution presenting temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in the historic center of Prague. We want to be a space where global and local art meet. We will open at the beginning of 2022.

And how will you finance it?
We are the founders of the project, so until it opens it will be fully funded by our family foundation, and we are also prepared to continue financially supporting the institution after its opening. We believe it will attract both people who regularly visit exhibitions and those who rarely do so. Profits from admissions and from Kunsthalle Praha memberships will help finance our exhibitions and educational activities. One of our long-term goals is building a wide body of members. We believe visitors will discover that being a member of Kunsthalle Praha is not just about discounted admission, but more importantly about sharing experiences with people of similar interests through a diverse program. We see membership as a partnership, a relationship, and I believe many people will join us. We are also expecting to profit from commercial partners and individuals, for whom we will organize on-site art-related events. Furthermore, we will also run a restaurant, a café, and a design shop.

So how will people know what exactly their money is used for?
Firstly, we are a non-profit organization, so all profits will be used for exhibitions and educational programs at Kunsthalle Praha. We are a non-governmental organization, which allows us to be fully independent of the state, its management rules, and various political pressures. We try to manage Kunsthalle based on professional principles which have proved successful in leading cultural institutions. Last but not least, we will publish annual reports audited by one of the large auditing companies.

Why did you decide to locate Kunsthalle at Klárov?
It was quite an obvious choice. Our development department got word of a project in Klárov—the former building of the Zenger Electrical Substation was being sold. We understood that such an opportunity was not going to repeat itself. It is an absolutely unique location with an industrial building that had lost its function and was in a desolate condition. On the one hand, it is sad that it was treated this way under communism; on the other hand, however, it gave us the opportunity to convert it into something entirely new. Within the historic zone of the Prague Castle, such a massive conversion is only allowed if the building is in very bad condition, as in this case.

It is precisely the extent of the reconstruction that has been criticized by some experts. Does this bother you?
The city is a living organism, it needs to evolve. Naturally, we all want to preserve Prague’s character, and there is definitely lots that we should protect. Simultaneously, however, it is a city which serves its people. A city needs spaces which are contemporary, and this is something that Prague lacks, in my opinion. I am proud that we will give Prague a building that is contemporary not only in terms of architecture but also function. I believe that once we open the building, people will be excited about it, even if not everybody and not straight away. After all, the opening of the Eiffel Tower was accompanied by large demonstrations, but the city got used to it and is now proud of it. The Centre Pompidou in Paris was also not received well but is now considered an example of excellent architecture. In Prague, we still have not grown accustomed to the Dancing House, but more and more people support it. I am not saying that Kunsthalle has to be the pride of Prague—of course, we would be delighted if that were the case—but first and foremost, I think it will be a quality building.

Museums worldwide are currently searching for new identities. They are attempting to reflect important social trends and challenges such as, for instance, coming to terms with colonialism, addressing issues of gender etc. How will Kunsthalle Praha approach these topics?
We want to give artists and the public opportunities for dialogue, be it about political or social topics. We want to be a forum where people will discuss these topics, and where differences of opinion are bridged rather than entrenched. Our role is that of a host—we will try to pay attention to the ethics of dialogue and to eliminate certain radical opinions, because support of communism or fascism is definitely not something that will be welcome at Kunsthalle Praha. A cultural institution is not a political party, so do not expect us to assume a campaigning role in support of some alleged “new good”.

Tell us one main reason why people should visit Kunsthalle Praha.
I believe that it will be a lively place where they will feel good.

Petr Pudil (*1974) is a businessman, an investor, and the cofounder of the family office bpd partners. The investment partners are collectively active in a wide range of fields, focusing, among others, on real-estate development projects in Prague. They operate at a global level in the chemical industry through the company Draslovka Kolín. They support science, research, and start-up projects in health services and biotechnology. Petr Pudil is the chair of the supervisory board of the non-profit organization Post Bellum. Together with his wife Pavlína Pudil, they engage in art collecting and activism at an institutional level. They are part of the acquisition committees of Britain‘s Tate and the French Centre Pompidou. As The Pudil Family Foundation, they founded the non-profit institution Kunsthalle Praha. This lively space for culture and both Czech and international art will open to the public at the beginning of 2022 in the newly reconstructed building of the former Zenger Electrical Substation at Klárov, Prague.

© Jan Zátorský
© Jan Zátorský