Slovak businessman Andrej Babis has a bit of a melancholy air about him. He’s casually dressed in a nice-looking suit, but there’s a weariness that shouldn’t be there at 9:00am. Granted, he’s already had at least one business meeting that morning, but one gets the impression the state of the Czech Republic is a bit exhausting to him.
“The question is, why are people afraid to tell the truth; businessmen are criticizing the situation in the Czech Republic, our reputation, for example, the abuse of EU funds, it has a negative effect on business,” he says. “We aren’t so in debt, with the potential of the Czech people, the country is much better than the results.”
Babis is the billionaire founder of Czech agro-food group Agrofert and is also number 913 on Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of the world’s richest people. The chemical, agricultural and food product holding company ranks among the biggest companies in the Czech Republic and encompasses over 200 companies including meat processors, bakeries and fertilizers.
Diplomat’s son to agro-king
A Slovak native, Babis started his career working for Petrimex, a foreign-trading company. He worked for the company for 18 years and spent five years in Morocco representing various Czechoslovak companies. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1991, and in 1992 after the country split, had the idea to create a representative company in the Czech Republic. He eventually bought 100% of the shares in that company, Agrofert, from investors. While he seems to have tackled the Czech business front on almost every level, he’s moved into a new realm: politics.
In the autumn of 2011, Babis founded the civic initiative “Ano 2011” (“Yes” 2011) with the stated goal of furthering transparency in business and politics. The platform became a political party in May and now he’s actively looking for candidates to run in the country’s autumn senate and regional elections. “We don’t have political experience, politics is very different from normal business,” he tells bne in an interview. “They (politicians) are experts in lying and not delivering on promises. These guys are so perfect in lying and promising and it’s very strange to me. I don’t lie and if someone lies to me, I don’t react appropriately,” he shrugs sheepishly.
Babis says they currently have about 80 representatives throughout the country, and are planning a congress in the beginning of August to nominate candidates for the senate race. When asked if he’s name will be put forward, he says no, but leaves the possibility open. “I’m not a candidate, I’m the leader of the movement,” he says. “We’ll see what happens at the congress, people will nominate the candidates. It was not my wish to lead the movement but I couldn’t find anyone else. I never wanted to go political.”
Babis seems to be running a grassroots campaign, saying the movement is busy talking to people and seeing what they need and how things should be changed. As a true businessman at heart, he takes an executive’s look at how the country should be run. “Why don’t we use the experience of other countries, in Germany for example: if an entrepreneur goes bankrupt they lose their license forever. Here, someone just starts a new company and cheats more people. In Sweden, look at their social programme. We can take the best solutions for every sector,” he says. “The people managing the country don’t know how to do it – a lot of the politicians never worked, they went straight from school to politics, they can talk nice, but don’t know how to manage anything.”
Even though Babis often talks about sleaze in both Czech politics and business, he’s adamant that “Ano 2011” is not only about corruption. “Let’s speak about the quality of life, it doesn’t make any difference between the left, the right, rich guys, poor guys – we need to focus on things like our children, doctors, police, teachers,” he says. “The quality of life could be much better, if the state is run properly.”
But he isn’t shy about naming names and saying exactly what he thinks of people. “I put names to what everyone knows,” he says. “(Former Prague Mayor Pavel) Bem, (former Prime Minister Mirek) Topolanek, corruption reached a size which is unacceptable; corruption is everywhere, of course, but the size of it (at that time) and the people (doing it) were not afraid.” He looks perplexed.
With corruption endemic in the Czech Republic, it’s no surprise the successful Babis name would be mentioned when corruption allegations swirl; especially since he made his money in the mid-1990s, a time of incredible wheeling and dealing in the country. But he’s quick to wave off mention, saying he has nothing to hide. “If it was the case, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing – go and ask all the Czech bankers, they know me, Agrofert has always been transparent, we release all our numbers to the government, 78% of companies don’t do that,” he says. “A lot of people have followed our business from the beginning and have seen how we’ve made it, we’ve worked hard.”
Babis is natural enough to include luck in his list of things that has made Agrofert a success, along with hard work and his international business experience. Ever the businessman, Babis wishes politicians would do a bit more for the working man. “We expect from our politicians they will do things for entrepreneurs; our competitors are in the EU and our politicians should be actively supporting local entrepreneurs,” he says. “The Czech Republic is interesting for no one. Only for (nuclear power plant tender)Temelin, otherwise no one cares. Our reputation is we are a corrupt country and it’s a pity.”