|Mr. Graf, you received the Manager of the Year Award in the area of providing services for businesses. How does it now feel to be in the top seventy managers from the entire Czech Republic?|
I’m a bit of a Doubting Thomas. I never treated my business like a sport, a race or to chase personal prestige. So when I learned of what good company I was in, it was a chance to stop for a while and look back. I’m from Ústí nad Labem, which is where I have done business ever since my studies and I’m proud I was able to put together such an excellent team of managers and employees even outside the capital city and still achieve success. It feels like yesterday, when in 2002 I started Centropol Energy with twenty excited people and now it supplies electricity and gas to more than 330,000 customers.
As you mentioned, you didn’t consider that perhaps for reasons of prestige, it would be better to have headquarters in Prague? Why do you stay in Ústí nad Labem?
I was born here and I like this city. I have my family here, people I know and what I call roots. I already said this in another interview. My great role model is Tomáš Baťa. Not only for the great success he achieved in business, but also how he approached business, how he worked with people, his customer relations, the way he could think in contexts of an entire country or the whole world and perhaps even in the fact he was a patriot originally from a small city. At the peak of its glory, Zlín was almost like a state
When it comes to the approach to business. What is your philosophy? What kind of an approach do you prefer?
You know, I don’t think I’m the only one who is deeply convinced that the mere vision of getting rich is the worst possible motivation for going into business. That’s business without a future and in this regard we perhaps shouldn’t really be called a business. That’s mere wheeler-dealing and that’s the case even if it’s in millions. In the beginning, there needs to be a dream, an idea, a vision or a desire to create, improve, find or move something. The moment the energy market opened, the things that came to my head besides a business plan were all the stories I experienced and heard in regard to dominant suppliers. And more than once I was able to show that it can be done differently, that prices of energies don’t need to always go only up, that the customer is not sentenced to a simple role of a liege with responsibilities and nearly no rights. In the Czech Republic, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who have short-term goals in the style of ‚I’ll create, build, buy and quickly sell‘. I’ve got the desire to build a long-term business and with it a necessarily strong relationship with customers.
How do you view the business environment in the Czech Republic in general?
Because of my children’s education, my family and I live a part of the year in the US. Therefore I have a direct comparison there and, with regret, I must admit that our country doesn’t come out too positively. There practically isn’t a day when I wouldn’t be running into problems that often look almost absurd from the US perspective. I’m not going to begin criticizing the legislative standards that unnecessarily complicate business, give way to improper practices and other things. Not everything is about the system, as people often say here. Every system, including socialism, is made by people and those remain the same. We can’t endlessly complain that some other regime is responsible for our present condition. It’s up to us now and I’m often sorry to see how many smart people in the Czech Republic waste their potential by looking for loopholes, scheming, avoiding and ‚outsmarting‘, instead of creating or building something. Too many people have no respect for rules.
What do you see as the main reasons Centropol Energy is so successful today?
There’s a huge amount of work behind it. Precisely what I talked about a moment ago caused so many people to be distrustful in our country. When you come and tell them you have something cheaper of a better quality, they already look at you with suspicion. We had to build a trust-based relationship between us and our customers and, according to a poll we had done, our clients are indeed the most loyal in the market. Over time we were able to create a system that never leaves our customers without support. Then we added a number of excellent benefits and services.
I don’t know what kind of a benefit I would expect from an energy supplier.
For example, we created a program called Family. And the contents of this package exactly correspond to its name. For our customers, we put together services that are simply and occasionally needed in every household. We can solve small accidents, such as water leakage or a broken window, usually within two hours. You simply call our assistance service. Or, for instance, someone incurs an injury while at their summerhouse, for this we have a health assistance service that recommends the doctor and their opening hours. And we can even transport a client to or from a hospital. There are many things. Our clients have various discounts in hundreds of shops and our own e-shop. These days, anybody can supply energy, but we want to make sure our customers have no reason to go anywhere else.
And what are your plans for the future? What about expansion abroad?
There are many plans, but given the high competition I would prefer to not reveal them. If you are asking about foreign markets, then our plans are certainly also directed this way, but currently we’re in a phase where we verify the options and evaluate possible risks. In any case, the main goal is to sustain stability for our customers here in the Czech Republic. Again, I’ll go back to my favorite, Baťa. He was exceptionally successful and yet even today both his employees and customers remember him with respect and honor. That’s the Holy Grail of business I want to achieve.