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.