CBCC member interview - Michael Prokop, a British businessman

Michael Prokop talks about his beginnings in the UK in 1968, his business activities, views on Brexit, supporting entrepreneurs as a business angel, beating a European champion in table tennis and so much more...

Michael Prokop is a British businessman born in Prague and living in the UK since 1968. He has built up and sold several businesses both in the UK and the Czech Republic and invested as a business angel. He has written books in Czech language on financial products for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and on raising capital and writing a business plan, also aimed at SMEs. He is now semi-retired and lives in London. In this candid interview, his maxim - not to take life or himself too seriously – is clearly coming through.

Can you please share some information about your background?

I received my primary and secondary education in the then communist Czechoslovakia and in 1968 I emigrated to the UK where I continued my studies; I took the very first course offered - International Law at the University College London.

Of all the subjects, the subject of history in particular was the first revelation of the Marxist indoctrination when my fellow students thought that I was completely demented when arguing the fine details of the World War 2. It took me some time to realise the delusional facts we had been taught by the comrades and since then I stopped raising my hand whenever the lecturer posed a question. Later, I decided to swap International Law for Economics and Marketing where I stayed for the rest of my life.

When did you become an entrepreneur?

I started my first business after graduation in 1974 and was very lucky to have had an extremely experienced business partner; frankly, he taught me far more in a couple of months than I have learned in the years spent at college. Our business was in the field of merchandising, so a part of the below the line marketing discipline - an extension of the point-of-sale display business. Our merchandisers called on supermarkets, cash and carries, department stores and DIY units and provided display services on behalf of major FMCG manufacturers. We grew the company from 12 people to over 500 and after 14 years we decided to sell it. It was the right decision as the market had changed and there was no room to grow the company any longer.

What did you do afterwards?

After the sale I was precluded from any involvement in my field of expertise in the UK, so I decided to have a look at my former homeland, with a view to apply my knowhow in the fledgling market.

However, after visits to a few branches of Jednota and Včela, I realised that point of sale merchandising in an outlet of 40 m2 simply will not happen in a foreseeable future. So I approached my former FMCG clients instead and asked about their plans in that region and they asked me to help them set up sales and marketing organisations from scratch. That meant recruiting salesmen in a country which had no salesmen for over two generations as those who still remembered selling skills were about to retire. 

In effect, that also meant creating those skills from scratch and overcoming the emotional baggage of lack of assertiveness, fear of standing out from the crowd and the dismissal of excellence as a desirable objective.

It was very painful to observe the deterioration of some of the basic instincts – I saw what Maynard Keynes called ‘animal spirits’. People being unable to make the most basic of decisions as these were made for them by the Big Brother for most of their lives.

In the 90s, I created sales and marketing departments for Douwe Egberts, Diageo, Citibank, Komerční Banka and eBanka, to mention but a few. Amongst many consultancies were such diverse clients as Vitana, Warner Music, Česká Pojišťovna and the last consultancy was for Czech Airlines in 2008 - so do not blame me for their current predicament!

What does it mean to be a business angel?

Business angels invest in businesses they believe have a great potential. My approach is different though. Many business angels simply take a passive position and get a regular report on what is happening to their investment. I, due to my personality, am very much ‘hands on’; some have described it as ‘hands on the throat’!

Most business angels like to talk about their successes but very few admit their failures, yet the vast majority of start-ups will disappear (with the angel’s money) in their first year of existence. To me, this is not about investing into a financial plan, I am investing into the proprietor, the individual who will take it from zero to something. And I may still get it wrong.

While being a business angel can be fun, it is not for faint hearted as the attrition rate and risk are high. The old story about how you make a million as a business angel is true - you start with two million!

What else do you do?

I have worked with CBCC on one project under the PROPEA initiative, helping Czech exporters to identify and contact potential clients in the UK and the feedback we received so far has been very positive.

I also help - as a favour or on a commercial basis - Czech companies entering the UK market. One notable recent involvement was with a company from Prague - Wine Food Market in Smíchov. They now have two branches in London trading under the name The Italians and have a thriving retail business - they are retailing the highest quality Italian produce from their branches in Chiswick and Marylebone.

Any comments on Brexit?

From the UK’s point of view Brexit does not make economic sense but from the English point of view it does. I believe that by further antagonising Scotland and risking having an EU border north of Newcastle and by throwing the Protestants under a bus as part of united Ireland, England will save tremendous amount of money in subsidies, which, when added to the savings of the EU contribution could make England a very much richer country.

But perhaps whilst richer on the balance sheet, I’d say poorer on the human level.

Where do you see the value of the CBCC membership?

The platform created by CBCC is a valuable opportunity for anyone interested in the economic aspects of the British / Czech business interface and I am delighted to be involved on the periphery of its operation. 

Let’s hope that when this madness is over, CBCC can further help companies on both sides of the La Manche to thrive. However, with the pointless Brexit, smaller Czech companies now face greater challenges - as if though the UK market was not tough enough to crack. Having said that, there are so many good ideas emanating from the Czech Republic and with the right guidance and nurturing can become successful even in this conservative market.

How would you define yourself in three words?

Cynical, sceptical and sarcastic - and these are just my good traits.

What do you do in your free time?

I love table tennis and still play with a coach to get some exercise and retain coordination. After one hour's playing I need a week’s rest. My biggest success has been beating Milan Orlowski who later became the European champion. I should add that at the time I was 14, he was 10 and he could hardly see the top of the table. So perhaps with hindsight I should qualify the concept of success.

I also play the guitar, and this has been a great comfort throughout the pandemic, although I do not think that I have improved much despite all that free time. Paradoxically, when I started playing the guitar at the age of 15, so in the early days of Beatles and Rolling Stones, my primary motivation was to impress girls; these days, my main motivation is to keep the arthritis and dementia at bay. Sign of the times - albeit I think that so far I’ve been succeeding...

Michael Prokop at the Czech Embassy in London collecting wine and a lunch/dinner voucher from Bohemia House he bid on as part of the CBCC Christmas Charity Fundraiser in support of the Great Ormond Street Hospital.

By Tereza Urbankova, member of the CBCC Executive Committee

We are looking for more CBCC members to be interviewed! Please email tereza@cbcc.org.uk if you are interested.

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