Entrepreneurs with vision

Golden Czech hands are said to be just a myth. Maybe not quite. Here are five “ordinary” entrepreneurs who succeeded with their “ordinary” inventions, not only on the Czech, but also on international markets. They all share the common trait of being not only resourceful but also tenacious when pursuing their ideas.

Photo by: Petr Poliak

Pavel Blata: Road to success

Come up with ideas and pursue them to the end. Think many steps ahead. Be able to foresee and understand trends – these are the secrets behind the success of Pavel Blata, the owner of the successful firm with his name.

THIS ENTREPRENEUR from Blansko isn’t wild about media attention. When the former motorcycle racer thinks about the reasons behind his success, he says that he had a good idea, and that he correctly timed its realization.
At the beginning of the nineties, he came to the market with small motorcycles, so-called minibikes. At the time, such bikes had been mass produced only in Italy, so his timing guaranteed him an indisputable competitive edge. Furthermore, he had always dreamed of manufacturing his own motorcycle, so it didn’t matter to him that he had to start out in a garage, assembling the minibikes himself. In the first year he sold only five minibikes. The turning point came a few years later when Spanish customers ordered 50 minibikes. After that the orders started coming in and Blata was just barely able to meet the demand. Today the garage has been replaced by a modern building, and fifty employees use computers to develop everything and to machine tools for production. Although minibikes are intended mainly for children (regularly supplies 60 Czech children racers), adults can ride them in comfort as well. Blata took a chance with them, though he admits that only a fraction of his production winds up in this country because weather conditions limit year-round use. The key to prosperity was exports – most of the Blata minibikes are sold in countries with more temperate climates and greater purchasing power.
The main destination is the United States, where he now controls about 90% of the minibike market. “We have always endeavored to ensure high quality – good technical solutions and construction – in order to earn a respected name,” he says, explaining his success abroad. The only thing that bothers him is that poor quality, cheap copies of his products are flowing over from China. “Not only do these imitations harm our name, but customers are offered unsafe products,” he says. The company is already taking legal measures and trying to come up with a new strategic plan.
The Blata company has received several awards – including Outstanding Design 2003 and Manager of the Year 2003 – and several times it has taken first in the European Minibike Championship. Blata sees his greatest success in his smoothly running company and the fact that it provides employment for so many local workers. In the future Blata plans to build another factory, this time for 125cm motorbikes, and to employ another 500 people.

Monika Mudranincová

Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk

Ivan Solnař: Cleaning up

Ivan Solnař is a man of action – he does what he says. When he sinks his teeth into something he doesn’t let go until he brings it to a successful conclusion. Like many people at the beginning of the nineties, he went into business. His patent venture – a unique paper product for cleaning up dog droppings – prevailed, and today he manufactures millions of them every year.

SOLNAŘ’S ORIGINAL calling was that of a printer. When he failed at several business endeavors, he decided to come up with an activity that wouldn’t require extensive investments and that he could realize himself, without partners. In 1994 he had a protected industrial prototype of the aforementioned paper invention registered with the Industrial Ownership Authority. Each kit comprises a little bag made of impermeable, recycled paper and a stiff cardboard scooper. However, convincing potential customers (i.e., municipal authorities) of the utility of his idea was a far more difficult step.
” Great skepticism and an unwillingness to try anything new is the rule in this area,” complains the 61-year-old entrepreneur. “I learned how many dogs there are in Prague and how many droppings they leave every day on average. It turned out that in Prague alone 22 tons need to be cleaned up every day.” He used this argument when contacting both individual Prague quarters and journalists. Prague 1 was the first to take him up on his idea, and officials there didn’t hesitate in trying it out, as well as promoting it. Gradually other Prague districts came aboard, followed by other municipalities in the Czech Republic. Today in Prague alone there are about 5,000 waste containers with these paper kits. Visitors from abroad have also taken note, so 10-15% of his production is currently exported to Hungary, Slovakia, and Israel. Negotiations are under way with importers from California, England, Japan, and Spain.
The vital, energetic Solnař fiercely protects his creation and fights tooth and nail with imitators. This isn’t surprising, as since 1995 his products have been receiving Czech Made acknowledgment. But he’s not greedy. Following a period of development he has been able to maintain a stable price of 0.82 crowns a kit, which he charges all of his customers. He also gives them advice on using his product so that there is no cost to the citizenry. “The front side of the bag can be offered as advertising space to breeding or cleaning firms,” he explains.
Solnař makes no bones about being a millionaire. “I have a million-crown son,” he says with a smile, reeling off many tales about his prodigious offspring. He’s already given some of the firm’s customers to his son, who is also a printer. After all the years of hard work he just wants to slow down a bit so he can spend time on his hobby, restoring antique weapons, and with his six-month-old grandson who is his “pride and joy.”

Klára Smolová

Photo by: ČTK

Jiří Mynář – Tools of the trade

Do you know what an edge lipper is? Unless you’re a cabinet maker, probably not. But manufacturing such a specialist’s tool can lead to international success and lots of money, as Jiří Mynář – who gave up his great love, cabinet making, for the more lucrative pursuit of inventions – knows well.

MYNÁŘ (43), from Ostrava, started out in business even before the changes of 1989, and the nineties were a golden age for his cabinet making shop. “We made everything, from shelves to shop furnishings, and then we specialized in customized cabinets,” Mynář recalls. “My colleague and I had everything well organized, and it worked great until the advent of the supermarkets, with their low prices.” It was impossible to compete so Mynář decided to specialize in manufacturing machines for lipping wooden edges, one of which he made originally to meet his own needs. Similar devices were already on the market, but they were too expensive for small shops. “I spent two years developing it, and then I realized that it had cost me so much time and money that it would be worthwhile to try offering it to others as well,” he says modestly. He bought advertising space in professional magazines, but the real breakthrough came when he took part in the 1998 Woodtec trade fair in Brno. The device, which sells for CZK 100,000-130,000 plus tax, and has many other woodworking functions such as trimming, brushing, and milling, drew interest not only in the Czech Republic, but abroad as well. “It’s tailor-made for the needs of the Eastern market,” Mynář claims. This qualifying statement is readily reflected in the list of countries to which he regularly exports his tools: Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania.
This skilled inventor regretted leaving cabinet making, but on the other hand he says that he uses all of his acquired skills in his current work. He is constantly improving his device to make it easier to use, and this year he wants to launch a new model with an original technical solution that should make news on the international market. In December Mynář’s firm moved its works and ten employees to a new factory that cost CZK 8 million, some of which he had to borrow from a bank.
In the future he wants to increase his current production of 150 machines a year, mainly by penetrating foreign markets. He says he can see the potential for new business in Latvia and Bulgaria, and there is also some interest in Germany. The older of his two daughters helps him in communicating with foreign clients. She oversees business matters and administration for the firm, while his wife keeps the books for the family enterprise.

Klára Smolová

Jiří Košík: Some fishy business

Eight years ago, Jiří Košík, a former employee of pump maker SIGMA, decided to buy a sawmill and start a timber processing business in Mírov, about 50 kilometers from Olomouc. At the time Košík did not know that timber would help him get into the more rare and potentially more profitable business of raising fish, including crayfish.

WHEN KOŠÍK STARTED burning waste sawdust and woodchips in a chimney in keeping with environmental regulations, he realized that the chimney was producing a huge amount of energy. “That heat either goes up into the air – or we could use it to heat water,” says the entrepreneur, recalling his epiphany.
The next step was building a water-heating facility creating good conditions for raising 30 kinds of freshwater fish. In 2000, the 69-year-old entrepreneur invested CZK 20 million, including his own savings, and a CZK 15 million loan from a German bank to build 48 ditch ponds for raising fish that had seemingly little market value: loach, perch and white-fish. These species, however, are indispensable for a pond’s healthy environment, clean water and natural balance, and nature-loving Košík became the only person in the Czech Republic to raise up to 240,000 such fish per year.
Košík, who combines a business talent with a love for nature and experimenting, never rests on his laurels. A meeting with a Swedish producer of fish-paste several years ago set his mind on a new idea – to raise crayfish, a species that is analogous to gold in many Scandinavian countries. “Crayfish are an endangered species, and I have developed a special method for their rapid reproduction,” says the inventive businessman, who comes from a family of educators.
In 2001 he turned to the European Commission for a grant under the Special Accession Program for Agricultural and Rural Development to finance his crayfish-raising project. In theory the entrepreneur is entitled to CZK 4.9 million of grant money. However, according to new rules a grantee is obliged to finance 50% of a project with his/her own funds, and then to receive the support only after the project is completed. Not easily discouraged, Košík invested another CZK 350,000 of his own money to set his crayfish farm in motion. The Swedish customer is waiting to receive up to 30,000 crayfish this September, and is prepared to pay about CZK 25 apiece.

Kateřina Zapletňuková

Photo by: Petr Poliak

Zdeněk Novák: Hitting the “target” market

Zdeněk Novák (53) got into the manufacture of a strange product – clay pigeons (flying targets for skeet shooting) – by chance. A friend of his who was a hunter used to make his own targets for himself and a couple of friends. In the mid-nineties they were offered a high-capacity machine for making the targets, and they jumped at the chance.

BUT THEY SOON realized that they didn’t have CZK 6,500,000 to pay for the machinery. So they started looking for a partner, and they found Novák, who had a strong business background. After the “Velvet Revolution” he ran a travel agency. He also has a business importing GAS denim clothing, and a slot-machine manufacturing business, both of which are still going strong.
Novák agreed to come on board, and clay pigeons became another product of his firm, Hornet, which is headquartered in Holešov, in Moravia. But the Czech market isn’t large enough to support the production facility, so it was necessary to begin exporting. Success abroad was contingent on their developing a first-rate product. “The most important thing in the manufacture of clay pigeons is properly balancing two components – limestone and black-coal pitch (the waste from tar processing),” says Novák, explaining development problems. “The quality of the targets depends on literally tenths of grams. A standard clay pigeon weighs 105 grams. Target requirements are conflicting – they have to be solid enough not to break in the catapult, but they also have to shatter effectively when hit by gunfire.”
After many tests he arrived at the optimal solution, and success quickly followed. Through a friend, Novák addressed shooting ranges in Great Britain, and one of the owners requested samples for testing. A few weeks later the British contact showed up in person and asked for exclusive rights in the UK. He currently buys several million targets a year, and the firm turns over about CZK 40 million annually. The key step for acquiring additional customers has been regular participation since 1998 in the IWA trade fair for sporting and hunting weapons in Nuremberg, Germany.
While in the early years interest in the targets was sporadic, Hornet eventually won customers in such countries as Cyprus, South Korea, and the Republic of South Africa. Because the product also sells well in neighboring countries (primarily Germany, Austria, and Italy), Hornet has become a nightmare for some European manufacturers that, although far larger, are losing customers to Novák’s firm in many markets that the competitors had previously divided among themselves.

Petr Vykoukal

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