“We should protect the family silver”
I’ve been following experienced manager and leader Jiří Krejča and his career for many years, and we had discussed the possibility of doing an interview a number of times. His profile qualifies him not just as an experienced leader and expert in restructuring businesses and financial management, but also as an expert in networking and intercultural communication through his many years heading the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic. At last we met to discuss all these topics, but from a new perspective. The pandemic is behind us. But can we really relax? A new era is upon us offering challenges related to digitalisation, robotisation and automation. It has been shown that today’s world, characterised as VUCA (an acronym which stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous), is placing much greater demands on company management. Even more than before, the era of so-called transformation management is upon us. Jiří Krejča has demonstrated his abilities in developing and managing Czech subsidiaries of multinational corporations such as Thomas Cook, Hapag Lloyd, Travelex and Interchange, and has worked as a transformation manager in the state enterprises Lesy České republiky (Czech Forests) and Czech Post. In 2011 he set up Vere Prague s.r.o., which is focused on crisis and transformation management, company restructuring, company modernisation and development, and acquisition and mergers. Any readers considering doing business or moving to the USA should peruse that part of the interview looking at options for acquiring US visas within the EB-5 programme.
Naturally, I also posited questions about leadership, global competitions for managers, and managing the trend for work-life blend. And why do I refer to the family silver in the title? Because the proclamation that small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the economy in the Czech Republic is not matched by the same level of support they receive in the West. So let’s treat Czech companies as we would the family silver, and think about how to take good care of them, and grow them for future generations.
The pandemic, which has had a profound impact on the economy and society in general, is behind us. How do you see the future?
If I were to choose a single fitting word, then it would be “insecure”. I wouldn’t even presume to claim the pandemic is over. Time will show us what condition companies in the sectors most affected by the pandemic are in, having been to some extent protected against certain impacts through the provision of various types of support. We anticipate that there will be larger numbers of company owners and managers having to deal with urgent matters such as company transformation, sale, restructuring or finding appropriate financing for further successful growth and development. For those who believe that every cloud has a silver lining, for those who will be ready, this is positive news. In some sectors, competition will increase and the oft-discussed war for talent will continue. Top managers will be able to choose which companies they want to link their names to. On the other hand, borders have stopped playing a role within the global economy. This pandemic has been a global one. Czech managers must be ready to compete with those abroad who are going to want to work in areas where there is great potential to succeed.
Companies will have the opportunity to surround themselves with various types of leaders and experts. We should all be ready to help traditional Czech companies which have got into difficulty through no fault of their own, and at the same time we will be helping to ensure that our country makes a speedy recovery from the consequences of the pandemic.
I note you have experience of both crisis and transformation management. Let’s start with crisis management. How did you learn to overcome crises?
Owners don’t like to use the word “crisis” about their enterprise or company. They prefer to talk about a period and a situation which requires change and urgent solutions. For myself personally, I’ve been contending with difficult situations almost my entire professional life. But that’s my choice. At the start of my career, I was sent to Iraq in regard to investment projects during a period of ongoing war with Iran. People were nervous, deaths from battles and rocket attacks on civilian targets were mounting within families, phone lines were down, our communication with headquarters was via telex (do you still remember what telex actually was?). There were five of us in Baghdad, and we were each responsible for our own agenda. I was responsible for legal and economic affairs for the Abu Ghraib project, with a budget of 110 million US dollars, in which 500 workers from Czechoslovakia were employed. Nobody else was available to do this so I had to figure it out myself, even though when I joined the project I was just 27 years old. That took four years. It was an incredible learning experience for me. I came to realise that it isn’t a good idea to rely on things just happening, by themselves. You only get results when you pull your sleeves up and put the work in. Every situation has a solution, but it is important to follow through until completed.
I’ve been following this approach for the rest of my career. In crisis management, it’s important to find a solution quickly, whether partial or complete, and to start implementing it. One more thing is fundamental. You need to understand why the problem occurred and find different solutions, not to rely on one way forward. I like to remind people that we’re working in a capitalist system, which comes from the word “capital”. So it’s important to respect the wishes of owners when choosing the right solutions. My job is to provide enough information, alongside the different solutions.
I’d also like to mention the implementation phase. This can be a lot more difficult than the phase of looking for solutions. You can make a decision on the right solution relatively quickly. But obstacles can arise in the approval process within large corporations, and in differing interests amongst joint owners or different groups within the organisation’s management or structure. Good communication and a willingness to resolve matters are key requirements for success.
At the current time, many companies are in the phase of considering their future position. More opportunities for transformation managers are starting to emerge than ever before. This is an area that you are focused on.
I’d say that over the last 15 years I’ve mainly been dealing with situations where a company is close to insolvency or bankruptcy, or is dealing with how to develop or to overcome fundamental problems, and is seeking an optimal solution. Transformation management happens when the owner or management posits the question: “Which way now?” Should we sell or restructure the company, should we find an investor or other external source of funds, or should we join up with another strong player in the sector? I’ve been part of processes which sought the right solution. And even more frequently I’ve arrived in situations where a decision on the way forward has already been made, and it’s my job to implement the changes.
The phase of implementing changes can be much more difficult than finding a solution. It’s working with people above you, below you and around you. You can be aware of the right solution relatively early. But obstacles can appear in the form of the approval process, in the differing interests amongst different groups in the management or structure of the organisation. Only an experienced leader can motivate people within a stagnant environment to support changes. Here I think it is of benefit to consider the modern trend of diversity. It is still common that only experts from your particular sector are invited to deal with transformations, experts who have no general experience of change management. The independent perspective of an outside person can bring in new, fresh ideas. I consider myself a team player. Any time I’ve taken on the role of transformation manager, I’ve always tried to get as many people as possible involved. Whether from the organisation itself, or from amongst clients, suppliers or even regulatory authorities if they have become involved in the process. With this breadth of input, we’ve been able to come up with better and more comprehensive solutions.
A transformation manager also has to be able to persuade others about the changes which are to take place. According to research, a third of mergers and acquisitions end in failure, and around 70-80% do not meet expectations. Why? Because the post-acquisition integration phase is underestimated. I myself was responsible for integrating branches of the German company Happag Lloyd and Britain’s Thomas Cook on the Czech market. Following a number of crises in relationships, we finally managed to break the ice at an informal team-building event. It wasn’t that easy, of course, but creating a relaxed atmosphere led some ardent defenders of one or the other model of operation to communicate, and this communication then continued at the Prague offices.
At the beginning, you mentioned new trends in selecting managers. Are Czech companies ready for the fact that they’re going to be managed by foreigners?
If there are no language barriers in the company, then the best candidate should be selected. Meaning the best in accordance with the company’s particular strategy.
I was discussing the topic of expansion abroad with one successful entrepreneur who has rejected the idea for many years, stating that there are still enough opportunities in the Czech Republic, but there is a lack of people. He would certainly take on a suitable foreigner. But I also know of a company which began successfully producing a product in the Czech Republic and then expanded to the USA, where it sent its Czech managers, and today it is the American market which really sets the pace.
In choosing an optimal manager, it is also true that the owner’s desires may not fall within modern concepts of leadership. A private owner may prefer somebody they know and trust, and that may be more important to them at that moment than finding a foreign expert with a stunning CV.
We’ve already discussed diversity as a value. It’s known that you have five children. How do you perceive intergenerational diversity?
I use discussion with my kids as a kind of reflection. It’s interesting to see how, for example, the young generation value free time. They separate work and free time more. And they’re happy to make use even of unpaid leave so they can do their leisure activities.
I’d guess the current young generation wouldn’t have wanted to work with me during the 1990s. I was very authoritarian; you can’t be like that today. Over time I’ve become more of a mentor for my colleagues. I give people space: I want them to think; to communicate proactively. Today, team involvement, listening, and debating to find a consensus have become second nature to me. And, of course, when an employee is given the space to express an opinion on a proposed solution, they are more accepting of it during the implementation phase.
The international business environment is so familiar to you that you even decided to be its intermediary for others. Through you, people can invest, study and work in the USA under special conditions.
I’m a globetrotter. I’ve got a huge number of contacts around the world, and I really enjoy working with various cultures and learning from them. My fondness for spending loads of time in aeroplanes and at hotels is dissipating, but I still want to get to know new people. Through my contacts in Canada, I met the charismatic owner of the American company Christian Tyler Properties, who entrusted me with exclusively representing this major investment and development group in our part of the world in the EB-5 investment visa programme. This can be used to acquire a green card or American citizenship for your entire family under a special timeframe and financial conditions.
And my final question is about how you manage your work-life balance…
In recent years, I’ve been involved in various engagements. It depends on what phase I’m currently in. At the start of a project, I always completely immerse myself in the job so I can get at the matter at hand. For the first few months I’m not at home much; I’m getting to know the company, the people and the conditions. Once I’ve got a clear picture and the phase of approval and gradual implementation begins, things can be planned better and I gradually return to my hobbies. I’ve already mentioned travel with my entire family as a passion of mine, ideally also involving gastronomy, and good wine in particular. We do a lot of sport, we ski in winter, in summer we go mountain biking. My wife and I are on the same wavelength in this way of life; the proof is our upcoming silver wedding anniversary. I don’t have to dictate a particular work-life balance; it’s a natural phenomenon for me. I take responsibility both for my work and for my family, and so also for myself and my health. I don’t just want to live this way; I also want to bring my sons up with the same values.
By Linda Štucbartová