"If I were a Czech entrepreneur and wanted to impress an Austrian business partner, I would definitely invite them to my company as soon as possible. I would show them how my products are made and why they can rely on them. And to make an even bigger impression, I would definitely take them to Prague," says Christoph Rath, who has been working for the Vienna Insurance Group (VIG) for seventeen years and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of ČPP and Kooperativa. He also noted that he would take a business partner from Austria to Cimrman English Theatre. "If they have a good time, you will find out that you have the same sense of humour. And this is very important for a long-term partnership, not only in business."
You said you had a good laugh at a Cimrman English Theatre performance, so we can say straight away that you are a perfect fit for your position here at the VIG subsidiaries in Prague. Were you surprised to learn that you share a similar sense of humour?
I must admit, it was a surprise. You know, it was in the first two weeks of my tenure in Prague. At that time, I asked myself if there was such a thing as Czech humour at all. My Czech colleagues seemed a bit reserved. Until they took me to a performance of Conquest of the North Pole in English. That was amazing! We laughed our head off, and I realised that Czechs have an incredible sense of humour and that it's also the kind of humour that we Austrians understand very well.
What else surprised you in those first weeks in Prague?
During the first weekend I was walking through the city – and all of a sudden, I saw a truck of an Austrian winery, one of the largest in the border region. They were just unloading their wine at one of Prague's restaurants. Then I saw a friend of mine, a winemaker. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. "What are you doing here? I'm here every weekend, sometimes I carry half a truck full of wine, but often it’s the whole truck," he replied. "Do you have more clients here? How did you find these clients?" I wondered. "It’s simple. For some time, I would go to Prague every weekend, I would approach the restaurant managers and give them five bottles of my wine to taste it. I told them I would be back next week and ask them if they liked it," he revealed. This way, he has built his customer base. Later, I was surprised at how many restaurants offered wine from various Austrian wineries.
It is probably the same as with Czech beer in Austria, isn't it?
Well, not really. It is somewhat startling that the fantastic Czech beer is really hard to get in Austria. In Vienna for example, there are really only a few pubs where they sell Pilsner or Budweiser. One is the Schweizer Haus in the Prater: and people like to go there. But this is really one of the very few places. I don't get it at all. When I asked a manager from the Pilsner brewery, he replied that in Austria they would sell as much beer in a year as they sell in the Czech Republic in a single week.
Czechia as a destiny
You mentioned our classic Jára Cimrman. He had this legendary quote: "The best school of life is life". This is 100% true in your case. When did the Czech Republic first enter your life?
I was born in Mistelbach an der Zaya, a mere 36 kilometres away from Mikulov. I remember the time when Czech people used to come to my town mostly to buy electrical appliances. I remember all the refrigerators and TVs on the roofs of old Škoda cars. And I also remember what the Czech borderland looked like then – and when I compare it with today, I can only admire the fantastic work that Czech people have done. The progress is truly impressive. Today, there are actually no differences between the Austrian and Czech border areas. When you drive past an Austrian golf course some twenty kilometres away from Mikulov, most cars in their parking lot actually have a Czech number plate.
When did Czechia become part of your professional career?
You won't believe it, but it was already a quarter of a century ago, shortly after I finished my secondary school. That's when I joined a bank branch in Poysdorf. At the time, I was the only employee who spoke English. Back then, Czech clients were starting to be interested in banking products and connections with Austria. And whenever a Czech client came to our bank, the boss told me, "You can speak English, so take care of it." I really enjoyed it. I liked their entrepreneurial enthusiasm, the huge desire to build something new.
I already felt attracted to your country then, but I had to wait a little longer for a closer encounter. After I joined the VIG, I worked for thirteen years in the Balkans, in Belgrade and later in Sofia. I came to the Czech Republic two years ago and it has actually been a return to the Western world for me. Your nation is generally very educated and hard-working. I like that you are flexible, innovative, you have technical thinking and you are constantly looking for the best solution. Your country is amazing and Prague is probably the most beautiful city I have lived in – together with Vienna.
How Czech know-how affects the Austrian insurance market
How does the VIG perceive the Czech Republic through ČPP and Kooperativa?
The Czech Republic has a special position in the VIG. Thanks to the great work of my colleagues in Kooperativa and ČPP, VIG has about a third of the insurance market in the Czech Republic. And that is more than in any other country, including Austria. It is a huge success, also because this result has been achieved from scratch in a very short time.
Is this also reflected in the VIG's relations with its Czech subsidiaries? Do you get any special treatment? Will the HQ listen to your opinion or experience?
Of course. As successful subsidiaries, we assert ourselves better within the group. The HQ even expects us to be creative and come up with new solutions. Our results give us a high degree of flexibility and freedom. We can make decisions without coordinating every step with Vienna.
Does your activity have an impact on products of the entire VIG group?
Yes, and I can give a few examples. Our segmentation of third-party liability insurance and our approach to this issue has been adopted by the entire group. Or the company Global Assistance, which was established and is still based in Prague and provides services for other countries within the entire VIG from here.
Global Assistance services are very well known in our country, but I suppose not many people know that it is owned by VIG. Is there any other example where Prague provides services for other countries within the group?
One example is our reinsurance company VIG Re, which has existed for thirteen years. They are based in Prague and are headquartered in Templová Street. From there, they coordinate business across the whole group.
We started our talk with Cimrman, so let’s go back to him once again before we finish. "If I don’t praise myself, no one will do it for me," he says. Is there anything else you would like to highlight?
I would like to emphasise that Prague is a fantastic place to work and live in. I am proud that the Czech subsidiary is the strongest pillar of our group just after Austria. In recent years, our results have been extraordinary and the growth trend continues, which further cements our position, but is also a huge commitment. However, when I look around, I believe we will keep our position. And I am very excited to be part of it.
Mr. Rath was interviewed by Jana Jenšíková
Photo: Marek Jenšík