WHERE ARE THEY
Václav Fischer: Ups and downs
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Václav Fischer (50) was a symbol
of success in the 1990s. It took only a few poor decisions and unfavorable
outside influences for the business of this successful travel magnate
to collapse like a house of cards. Although he's now trying to follow
up on his earlier successes, it's no simple matter.
Photo: Tomá Kube
FISCHER, who studied business at the Prague School of Economics,
was a successful entrepreneur way back in the 1980s. The Fischer
Reisen travel agency, which he ran in what was then West Germany,
was the largest private travel agency in the country, and when
he sold it in 1996 it was serving a half a million clients annually,
with sales of 450 million marks. At the height of its glory his
Czech travel agency, CK Fischer, held a dominant market position,
carrying 250,000 clients a year with sales of CZK 4 billion. But
managerial errors and the global travel industry crisis put his
firm in financial trouble, leading to its sale in the summer of
2003 to businessman Karel Komárek. "I sold it under pressure,
and I didn't get a very good deal, Fischer says. "It was like
having to send my child out into the world."
He now follows the state of his former empire only as a shareholder
- with a 25% stake in Fischer Air (aircraft supplier) and Fischer
s.r.o. (provides services to CK Fischer). Although he says he holds
the same percentage of CK Fischer, the new owners claim he owns
only 0.07%, because he didn't take part in raising its basic capital
by more than CZK 10 million. The City court agreed with Komárek,
but Fischer plans to appeal to the Supreme Court and requests that
the travel agency no longer carry his name. But this in not the
only case on the table. According to Komárek's spokeswoman, Marie
Schorchtová, in September 2003 Fischer signed a notarized statement
whereby he voluntarily assumed all debts he had created while doing
business, becoming the company's so-called collective debtor, not
its guarantor. This was insurance in case it turned out that the
firms were in worse condition than the purchasing party assumed.
Which is allegedly what happened. "His personal debt to our
companies is currently in the CZK 400 million range," Schorchtová
says. Fischer rejects such conclusions, saying that since Komárek
controls the companies he must also pay their debts.
The dispute came to a head after the Prague 1 Commercial Court
last summer sent bailiffs to Fischer's apartment. However, according
to all indications, they didn't find anything to seize. To protect
his property in the CR, Fischer filed bankruptcy on his private
property in a German court a few weeks before. The court accepted,
and Fischer is prepared to sue for his rights in international
courts. Meanwhile, he's focusing on a new business that he launched
last April - under the brand Cestovní agentura Václava Fischera
he sells excursions of other travel agencies. He also operates
the fashion brand Fischer Collection, the Fischer Café chain of
cafés and bistros, and together with his business partner, the
Hotel Ventana on Celetná.
Which managerial errors do you see as fatal?
My biggest mistake was my decision to run for the senate in 1999. I spent 3 1/2
years there, and because I worked so hard I didn't have time to manage my own
operations. My second mistake was delegating economic management to colleagues.
The third factor came from outside - the global tourism drawbacks associated
with the terrorist attacks, SARS, and the floods here.
Although you left politics disillusioned, do you
still see business and politics as compatible fields?
Certainly, but only in advanced democracies. Not in a country where democracy
is still evolving, even 14 years after the revolution. I unambiguously connect
my failure with politics. I was an independent senator and I probably stepped
on many people's toes. I created influential enemies. Suddenly strange things
were going on with my business - there were inspections looking for something
but never finding anything, one of our planes was seized for alleged failure
to pay duty, but it was returned in a few days because it wasn't true. These
inexplicable actions escalated. Unfortunately, I'll probably never know who
was behind it all.
Do you think that in the future you will be able
to build as strong a market position as you held at the
height of your prosperity?
Business isn't always only about sales and profit. I think a good position
can be based on quality, and this is my aim. I strive for the trust of the
public that always supported me, even during the worst crisis. For now reactions
to my new activities are positive, which is paramount to me.
Last year you turned 50. Did your attitude towards
life change with this milestone?
I'm enjoying it a lot more now. I swim a lot, ride my bike, and I've started
going to the gym. I enjoy the theater and opera. I spend lots of time traveling.
I'm very satisfied.