“We’re not proud enough of Czech quality”
You will be assured of the fact that Monday mornings are difficult by the many articles which will jump out at you when you enter those words into a search engine. For me, beginning the new week with an interview for our magazine has proven to be a good tactic. Inspiring people full of positive energy have transferred this positivity to me for the whole day and working week. The energy and straightforwardness, hand in hand with empathy, shown by Marta Nováková, President of the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, were highly infectious. Marta Nováková comes from Slovakia, but you can’t tell from her Czech. She is extremely dedicated to her role as President of the Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, although it is not a paid position. She is also the owner of, and continues to run, Ostrava IT company, U & Sluno, which provides services to Czech retail chains and whose international clients include Disneyland Florida. If you get the opportunity to see Marta in action, you will see that she fully deserves the 2016 Manager of the Year award she won. Marta shatters many stereotypes about women in management which suggest they lose their femininity. She dresses extremely elegantly, and despite an unheated office she held the interview in a short-sleeved dress while I was sitting there huddled into my coat and jeans. Marta is a mother to two sons, she enjoys being a grandmother and enjoys relaxing through sport or visiting the opera. She also shatters the traditional ideas about women in business which I expressed in my interview with Kateřina Bečková, having studied Information Technology at Technical University.
Our interview touched on topics which move companies and which the media focuses on, but there’s no harm in looking at it from a different perspective, or even within the bigger picture. What does Marta think about Industry 4.0, food quality double standards and the sharing economy? And we finished naturally enough with women and business.
The Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism is an independent voluntary partnership of associations, federations, co-operatives and companies doing retail and wholesale business in food, accommodation and other services. It represents over 6000 entrepreneurs who create up to 500 000 jobs. It is the second largest confederation of employers in the Czech Republic.
Madam, you speak a lot about Industry 4.0, or Society 4.0, and your confederation also organises a seminar on Manager 4.0. So what should a Manager 4.0 look like?
I see topics related to Industry 4.0 and Society 4.0 as mainly political, which are on the agenda in relation to the upcoming election. Society must in general reflect the development of technologies, as must entrepreneurs. Today, the tripartite council will be discussing a report from the working team assigned the Society 4.0 project. I am critical of the material produced, because it only has collected topics and tasks, about 226 in total, from individual resorts, in extent one might, with tongue in cheek, say from the Bohemian Forest to the Tatras, without categorising the individual tasks at all. The document has no structure and no strategic vision. The reality of Czech politics means no strategy is a long-term strategy because even if a government manages to complete one whole four-year electoral term, its period of actual government is generally just two years. That really is short-lived. In such an environment, it is impossible to implement some kind of fundamental strategy, which requires consensus across the political spectrum. Technology is going to be here, whether we speak about it or not, and management must adapt to the trend.
Today, we cannot imagine living without our smartphones. I warn of the possibility of data abuse and privacy infringements, aspects of “Big Brother”. We should think carefully about the extent we allow technologies to infringe on our private lives.
What strategic objectives are missing?
I don’t need to be specific and speak about a particular area; I’ll start with a general overview. I think that the fundamental approach to creating any kind of legislation should be reflecting how things currently are. We’ve talked about technologies, so the “digital by default” or “digital friendly” approach is relevant here. We can’t talk about the Society 4.0 concept if we are simultaneously enacting laws which ban data exchange. If parliament doesn’t accept this principle, which impacts on laws, including amendments, then there’s no longer any
point in even debating the Society 4.0 concept. This schizophrenic position is a result of the fact that on the one hand we speak of the matter as a political topic, while on the other hand adopting legislation which directly bans the affected trends. Data sharing even within one resort is difficult. The civil service and politicians should above all not be obstructing digitalisation!
Another current topic you are looking at in the Confederation of Commerce and Tourism is food quality double standards. How do you perceive this topic?
See, you’ve given another example of a topic which has been politicised. Europe really is two-speed. New countries are poorer, older countries are richer. That’s the reality and it is reflected in the approach to new markets. I agree with Commissioner Věra Jourová. That it is misleading consumers. If a product looks the same in Germany as here, then it should have the same ingredients. You can’t solve everything through Europe-wide standards though. Remember that there are some local peculiarities and producers do adapt to them. They use the local ingredients available, and this is environmentally friendly and also complies with local tastes. These products are not harmful or defective. And we can’t really say whether the quality is higher or lower. Bureaucratic restrictions won’t help. By the way, dealers began identifying different foods from 2004 when we joined the EU. And again, a little perspective.
The total number of products of different quality is negligible. The average supermarket has about 12 000 items in store, of which perhaps 200 products might have different ingredients, and there are lower levels of active ingredients in just a few products. As a final point on this topic, I wonder whether Czech consumers are really willing to pay a higher price for different ingredients. But consumers should not be misled and that can occur if products look visually identical and bear the same name.
The sharing economy and new services are another new trend of our time. What is the Confederation’s position in this field, which is very polarising amongst the public?
This question goes back to Industry 4.0 and technologies. Technology is simply overtaking all regulations in force. These services exist at two levels. One is the public level; they are public providing occasional assistance and this does not involve business. The other level is about business, and this is done in order to make a profit, a level which should be subject to rules. You can’t always easily separate these two levels.
Today, business has its hands tightly bound with various rules and regulations. Look at the obligations on accommodation service providers which would take a number of pages to list. But if the accommodation is through Airbnb, no obligations apply. Should the same regulations apply for assistance as for profit? And if we implement regulations, fees, reporting, inspection, etc., how long will it take before some provider comes up with a new solution? On the other hand, we shouldn’t downplay the impacts. There has been a growth in property prices in Prague of about 24 % and Prague 1 has 22 000 places of accommodation which are not subject to any regulation. Our members are service providers who have to observe all these obligations and regulations.
What about considering whether all the regulations are relevant, and whether such a high level of regulation is necessary for everyone? Let’s look first at an analysis of all current regulations. There is a clear parallel with taxi services and Uber here. On the one hand, excessive regulation, on the other none, so it should be no surprise that physical clashes between these two groups have occurred at car parks. The civil service always loses out; it is unable to adapt to fast developments. I think it’s important to start discussing how new trends and consumer behaviour affect the economy of our country. The new Generation Z no longer wants to own a car; they want to share one. And some economies, such as our Czech economy, are dependent on the car industry.
Bureaucracy and its excessive burden is a constant issue at various meetings of managers and entrepreneurs; you mentioned it yourself when receiving the 2016 Manager of the Year award. What can be done about it?
In the European Union, and new member states in particular, I see massive pressure from the agri-food complex on trade in general. There is an endeavour to ensure maximum trade regulation. The reasons for this go back to the period of preaccession talks with the EU, when a policy of agricultural subsidies was formulated which unfortunately did not provide appropriate support for small family farms which furthermore were not here historically – socialist farming co-operatives were partially subjected to restitution and transformed into large agricultural businesses. Not always, however, is the efficiency of large businesses comparable. We must be cautious of “buy Czech products” and “foreign products are poor quality” campaigns. Investigations of market infringement are already taking place in Hungary and Poland, which have ordered traders to primarily purchase domestic products by law. The situation in the Czech Republic today has really escalated and it is not beneficial to producers, traders or consumers. It is our own fault that there is little pride in the Czech Republic for things that are Czech. After the revolution, we looked uncritically up to everything that was foreign and Western, and now we are trying to legislate to make customers think that anything Czech is of higher quality. This might be true in some cases, but not always. The state does not raise awareness of Czechness amongst the public, something regulations cannot create. Regulations about what percentage of products in a shop must come from the Czech Republic, while the definition of a Czech product is constantly changing, are not a solution to the problem. I think and recommend a stance here of long-term society-wide education of the Czech citizen/customer so they can recognise and demand higher quality for themselves. We must build pride in national products in a different way than through legislation. Why don’t companies fly Czech flags even on days which aren’t public holidays? In Switzerland, in Norway, this is common. And we try to substitute this missing pride with various pieces of legislation, such as restricting opening hours on public holidays. Furthermore, only for certain shops and certain holidays. This is another example of unnecessary regulations without any system, which are also very confusing and hard to understand for citizens.
You are a successful businesswoman, you hold many awards. Is there a difference, do you think, between male and female entrepreneurs?
For a long time, I didn’t think there was. But my perspective was a result of my experience in IT where I am surrounded by men. I still believe that ability is key in enterprise. After taking on the role of president, I realized that the gender aspect is also important. But again, I am against regulations and directives; female enterprise and female participation in politics and the civil service in particular should be supported conceptually and on a long-term basis. So my final call will be to women: “Believe in yourself, do not underestimate personal marketing and don’t be afraid to go after things that seem impossible.”