Image: Michaela Bakala. Photo: Ludvík Hradilek, Deník N
Billionaire Zdeněk Bakala and his wife Michaela have recently taken a step back from several of their key businesses in the Czech Republic, giving the impression that this country is no longer the main base for their business activities. Michaela Bakala explains to Deník N what’s made them relax somewhat when it comes to activities in the Czech Republic and, for the first time, also publicly defends her husband’s role in the case surrounding OKD. The interview was originally to be in person, but Michaela Bakala, in the country to mark the 10th anniversary of The Bakala Foundation, eventually decided to answer via e-mail.
You’ve come to the Czech Republic, yet your husband has stayed behind in Switzerland. Why has he not accompanied you?
Given the number of responsibilities we have each taken on, we occasionally travel individually for business or in pursuit of our philanthropic activities. As chair of the board of trustees of our foundation, I am here to participate in the 10th annual edition of our scholarship program. Zdeněk is currently busy with other work assignments. We also like to make sure that when planning longer business trips, one of us stays behind with the children.
Do you come to the Czech Republic as often as, say, five years ago?
I come here regularly. We have both of our respective families here, our friends, investments, and above all, many rewarding philanthropic projects. We have lived abroad for ten years, and our children attend school overseas. We also pursue a number of other activities in several different countries. Honestly, there isn’t time to visit more frequently.
You built a very spacious house in Modrava, and it seemed certain then that it would become the home of your family. Why do you not live there?
We never planned for Modrava to be our family home for everyday living. It is a place for rest and relaxation, and that’s what we enjoy about it. Our children and friends love it there, and I always go there whenever I can spare the time.
In what country do you currently feel at home?
Anywhere I have my family with me is home. I am Czech, but I have also found a home in Switzerland, and to a degree, in the USA and South Africa as well.
What is your perception of the Czech Republic – has the country changed over the past five years?
I think the atmosphere within society began to shift about ten years ago. I subconsciously felt that a section of society was again becoming closed to the outside world, starting to doubt whether the country was moving in the right direction. Questioning whether democracy, capitalism, and the EU and NATO memberships were the right choices. We began to be complacent in our conviction that we would always be well-off no matter what, that all that was needed to make things better was to replace the political representation. But things don’t come as easily as that. This phenomenon is not limited to the Czech Republic; you can see it in much of the world.
Would you wish for your children to live in the Czech Republic?
We bring our children up so that each and every day they appreciate what they have, and know that they have the freedom to choose where they wish to live. You have to take the bad with the good wherever you are.
Why did you bring to an end your co-ownership of BM Management, an umbrella for your business activities in the Czech Republic?
Zdeněk and I have put in place a new arrangement for the management of our assets in the Czech Republic. Even so, I still have more than enough to keep me busy here.
The termination of some of your involvements here has brought up the question of whether it is a general pattern of vacating your positions in the Czech Republic as much as possible. Why did you make that decision?
Zdeněk is an internationally active investor, so it is only logical that rearrangements take place within the portfolio of assets and associated activities. We live and work in several countries. The Czech Republic, however, will always have a special place among them.
What is your view of the investigation into OKD linked to your husband?
It is, unpleasant, of course, but as I have absolutely no doubt that my husband has always conducted his business in compliance with the law, I remain optimistic.
Do you think your husband may have made a mistake as regards OKD, perhaps that he should have acted differently in some respects?
I think that by far, most of what he did there was correct and proper. But let us leave independent courts of law to decide on the issue. Sometimes, you must wait for the truth to come out. I am prepared to do that.
What do you think of the insults addressed to your husband by President Zeman?
My husband’s opinions and values have no overlap with the views and behavior of President Zeman. I am glad that this difference can now clearly be seen and heard, though I disagree entirely with the president’s insults.
What direction would you like you own activities in the Czech Republic to follow?
I will continue to look after the interests of our foundation and all our philanthropic activities. With four children and three foundations helping in various countries, there is not much time left for anything else.
Which of your Czech activities takes centre stage for you now?
For me, it is looking after our philanthropic activities. I have worked for a full decade on the scholarship project that selects gifted students and supports them in studies at some of the best universities abroad. We have awarded more than 150 scholarships over the past ten years. The Journey program assists young journalists in their professional development. I am also honored to have had the opportunity to be a member of the board of trustees of the Václav Havel Library for several years. I also support the Aspen Institute. It allows new, value-oriented leaders to engage in open discussions involving the whole of Central Europe. On top of that, I remain a patron of the TOP Czech Women project.
Even though I may keep an eye on our business activities, it is from a distance. We have succeeded in putting in place an excellent management team, and that has allowed us to take a step back. It is something for which I owe a debt of gratitude to Zuzana Řezníčková. She is responsible not only for Economia but also for Luxury Brand Management [a company operating luxury boutiques in Prague—Editor’s note) as well as BM Management [an umbrella organization for the Bakalas’ Czech activities—Editor’s note).
Why did you and your husband exit the statutory bodies of the Economia publishing house earlier this year?
I was on Economia’s board of directors for more than six years. My husband and I decided in January of this year to leave the statutory bodies of the publishing house. It is a logical progression. The foundations of a modern, stable media house, including its support structures, were firmly in place. We believe the media should be free and unbiased. This step confirmed the editorial independence of Economia.
Is it conceivable that you would sell the publishing house within the next five years?
We plan nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is becoming clear how important to the Czech Republic Economia is. It is a valuable resource, and an example of quality, free journalism.
Michaela Bakala (48)
Michaela Bakala graduated from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), majoring in film and TV production. In 1991, she won the title of Miss Czechoslovakia. Michaela worked as a spokesperson for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) from 2000 to 2003 before establishing an independent PR agency and taking over the management of the Czech Miss beauty pageant project. In 2010, she married Zdeněk Bakala, with whom she is raising four children. Michaela Bakala is actively involved in numerous philanthropic activities in the Czech Republic and abroad. In the Czech Republic, she is currently involved in three entities: Luxury Brand Management, a company operating luxury boutiques, the Václav Havel Library, and The Bakala Foundation.