Beginnings: from communist Czechoslovakia to America
Born in 1961 in Opava, Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), and growing up in Brno, Zdenek excelled in his studies yet was arbitrarily denied admission to the elite secondary school for which he qualified. Other obstacles placed in his way by the authoritarian communist regime which had controlled his native land since the end of the Second World War made the young Zdenek resolve, somehow, someday, to emigrate to the USA – which he did at the age of nineteen, slipping away through Yugoslavia into Austria with $50 hidden in a ham sandwich.
He connected with a childhood friend living in California and got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, learned English, and took classes in a community college. He did so well in his studies in his new language that he won admission to the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in economics – yet another new language – and earned a scholarship to pursue his MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he graduated, also with honors, in the spring of 1989.
A young business graduate returns home to help his country emerge
Zdenek learned the ropes of investment banking with jobs first in New York at Drexel Burnham Lambert and Bank of America, then at Credit Suisse First Boston in London. Meanwhile, Zdenek’s home country was being transformed by the Velvet Revolution, peacefully led by the dissident playwright Václav Havel, from a communist into a rudimentary and emerging capitalist economy.
CSFB’s talented young Czech investment banker saw opportunity and challenge, and he led the establishment of CSFB’s subsidiary in Prague, which he managed for three years - helping to begin the transformation of the Czech economy for the greater good of all.
In 1994 Zdenek co-founded the first private investment bank in the Czech Republic, Patria Finance, which under Zdenek’s leadership further enhanced the economic growth and stability of the Czech Republic and its citizens. This included, among many other projects the privatization and restructuring of many major Czech companies such as Skoda Auto, the first issue of Czech sovereign bonds, the establishment of asset management and corporate financing standards for the new republic, and the establishment of the Prague Stock Exchange, where Zdenek was a member of its first supervisory board.
Daring to make a success of an old business in a new economy, meeting challenges
In 2004, ever seeking new opportunities and challenges, Zdenek and several partners founded BXR Group with a central European and global investment focus. Within central Europe, BXR Group acquired Karbon Invest, the owner of OKD, the biggest thermal and coking coal mining company in the Czech Republic. In connection with re-structuring and greatly expensive technological modernization of OKD, its capital and corporate structure was adapted in accordance with the best standards known in the given time. OKD's subsidiary businesses were, over time, separated into independent companies such as AWT, one of the largest rail freight companies; RPG Byty, the largest residential property company in the Czech Republic; Green Gas, a clean energy recycling company.
The IPO of NWR (OKD’s parent company) in 2008 was the largest on the London Stock Exchange that year and was the largest ever of its kind in central Europe. Euromoney magazine named NWR as the best managed enterprise in the mining and metallurgy industries in central and eastern Europe. Elsewhere, BXR Group maintained numerous investments in industry, energy, and agriculture around the world, with an emphasis on developing nations very much in need of capital investment.
Unfortunately, with the worldwide decline of energy prices, especially coal, the fortunes of NWR declined as well. Coal companies the world over, including NWR, were forced to take drastic measures. Many of them ceased operations entirely or went into bankruptcy, and the trend continues in the US, in Australia, in China, as well as in Europe. The situation of OKD gradually deteriorated and the original investors, including Zdenek, gave up their interests in the company to creditors.
Always looking to the future
Zdenek remains very much involved in the business world and continues to contribute substantially to the Czech economy and that of the world with his several investee companies. His portfolio in the Czech Republic includes businesses involved in real estate (Asental) and media and publishing (Economia).
He also remains active as an investor in various projects worldwide. He significantly contributed to the art of wine-making when he became majority shareholder in Klein Constantia, South Africa, one of the world’s most beautiful and historical wine estates. His investment helped to restore the estate to its former glory and thus enabled it to continue in producing some of South Africa’s top wines, including one of the world’s best natural sweet wines, Vin de Constance.
Since 2011 he is an owner of one of the most successful World Tour cycling teams Quick-Step Floors. In 2015 Quick Step Floors Cycling Team was the winningest team for the fourth year in a row, thanks to 56 overall wins (54 on the road). Zdenek also founded Bakala Academy, located on the prestigious campus of University of Leuven in Belgium, a center of excellence to promote innovation and education in cycling and sports in general.
A voice – and a force – for transparency in politics and business, in the tradition of Václav Havel
Politically, Zdenek has always stood for transparency in government and economics. Imagine the joy of the young Zdenek, studying in the United States, hearing the news of the end of communism in his home country! Upon his return, he became friends with Václav Havel and has been supporting various initiatives and NGOs promoting open and fair society, pluralist democracy and critical thinking.
Moreover, he was involved in the founding of the Lipa society and its Drevicska call for discussion and action, while critically assessing certain phenomena of the economic transformation and, later, the growth of corruption. Addressing anxieties about the stability and economic prosperity of the Czech Republic, Zdenek was the first prominent Czech businessperson to provide open and transparent support to political parties with economic reform programmes, to integration of the Czech Republic into the EU and NATO and in 2013 to the presidential candidacy of Karel Schwarzenberg, former Czech Senator, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, founder of Václav Havel Library and founder of conservative political party TOP 09.
In taking over the opinion-making magazine Respekt, Zdenek Bakala personally vowed to Karel Schwarzenberg and its founders that he would further develop it as an unparalleled, independent, socio-political weekly, with many award-winning journalists. Partly thanks to Zdenek Bakala, not long ago Respekt celebrated its 25th anniversary and thus became the post-revolution publication with the longest history.
Paying it forward to future generations
A wonderful example of the “self-made man,” Zdenek is profoundly aware of the opportunities he has been so fortunate to have. As a result, he is ever loyal to those people and institutions who have meant so much to him, even as he is keen on establishing new opportunities for younger people who may wish to expand their horizons. Zdenek is a member of the Board of Overseers at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College from which he graduated in 1989.
Establishing scholarships and the Bakala Chair in Management at his alma mater, providing support for talented Czech students studying at universities abroad through the Bakala Foundation, developing Central European leadership in politics, business, science, and the arts through the Aspen Institute, supporting talented and ambitious college students from Switzerland who wish to pursue higher studies abroad through the Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakala, promoting the legacy of human rights and literary distinction of the first president of the Czech Republic in founding the Václav Havel Library in Prague – these are but a few of the continuing charitable and humanitarian endeavors of Zdenek and his wife, Michaela. Since 2009 they live with their four children in their new home of Switzerland.