Businessman Milan Kroupa on building a new life in Canada
One of the recipients of this year’s Gratias Agit Awards, handed out by the Foreign Ministry to those promoting a good name of the Czech Republic abroad, was Milan Kroupa, a Czech born businessman living in Canada. Mr Kroupa left Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and after making his way to Canada, he established his own cleaning company, which is currently offering services in all of the country' provinces. Besides that, Mr Kroupa supports a number of activities by Czech compatriot organisations and is one of the main sponsors of the Czech Studies Funds, providing exchange programmes for Czech students.
“I was born in my father's flower mill and grew up in there. When I was about six years old, my father was put in jail and he came home when I was eighteen. So he spent twelve years in jail as a political prisoner. I didn't really know my father well; I used to see him once a year.
“During the time when I was growing up it was strictly up to my mum and I have to say that I never felt that we would be short of something. My mum was doing an outstanding job. She was working with brick layers as a helper. When my dad came home, she stopped working and my dad started working in a brick factory.”
What about your property? Was it confiscated?
“That was confiscated in 1948 shortly before they put my father in jail. As I said, I was six years old, and my father was telling me: OK, today is the day, today we have to give them the keys and the mill is not ours any more. And I objected by telling my dad: dad, you promised me that mill. That is my mill. You cannot give it to anybody else. You know what then? Take the keys and throw them in a pond. So I think it was pretty tough for my dad as well.”
I know you used to play football as a child. Did that help you to overcome some of the difficult situations that you faced during that time?
“Of course, sport is a very good cure for any problem you might find yourself in. It was very exciting and it was a great preparation for my life in Canada later on, in business. What is very interesting is that in football (or we call it soccer up there) there are rules and everybody obeys these rules without any question.
“There is a certain honestly you have to learn, certain things are below your dignity to do - same thing in business. I always, whatever I have done, kept in mind certain dignity, honesty, no cheating, and I took it from sport.”
“Sport is a very good cure for any problem you might find yourself in. It was very exciting and it was a great preparation for my life in Canada later on.”
Unfortunately you were not allowed to study in Czechoslovakia, because of your father being a political prisoner. Did you plan emigrate eventually?
“It all started when my father came home. Before that I felt I was doing OK and I was content with living here. When my dad came home he started to put pressure on me. First he told me I had to learn another language and then he told me that soccer was not forever, that it was only temporary and that I should plan in long term.
“I told him I really liked soccer and that there was fame coming with it. And he was very upset and told me that if I was a fame chaser, I was very naive. He told me I should concentrate on something different and I should store from situations I was going to go through. It is like a bank, he said, and later on, when you can't play soccer, you will use that information to produce something.”
So you left Czechoslovakia in 1966.
“Yes, the first stop was in Paris and from Paris I went to Austria, where I met my fiancé. We got married there and my son was born there. At that time the Canadian embassy was pretty strict in choosing immigrants. So we had to wait for my son to be three months and to make sure that he was healthy and only then we were allowed to immigrate.”
And did you always plan to go to Canada?
“This is also very interesting. I was in Germany in Bayreuth in a police station just to see how it was going with the asylum. They were asking a lot of questions and I was explaining in Germany about my fathers' ventures and businesses. And when I got to the sawmill and I ran out of words. So one of the policemen sitting there listening told me in perfect Czech: tell me and I will translate it to them.
“And that gentleman stayed with me after the others left and he asked me: what is your plan? So I told him that I would like to stay in Germany, because I knew the language, and he said: Don't stay here, I wouldn't recommend it. You can live here for fifty years and we still won't accept you.
What was it like arriving in Canada? Did you know any English by then?
“No. I had no English at all. Not even good morning. But Canada was fantastic. We received a lot of clothing. All the transportation and all the food was paid for. And actually I was getting more money from the government than when I started working five months later. I could already communicate so I thought it was time to find a job and make my first few million, which was very naive.”
But it actually didn’t take you that long. You arrived in Canada in 1968 and in 1977 you established your company. How did you get into the cleaning business?
“When I was looking for a job, I realised I was going to make less than the government was paying me. I had no other way out of that situation. I went to my teacher and I told him: You know, the Canadian government, they are crazy. Do you know how many thousands of us are here? And we are getting all this money? The country will go bankrupt. And he looked at me and smiled and said: Don’t worry. It is a good investment. You will pay it back.”
And every April, when there is a tax deduction day, I remember him.
“So when this happened, I had no other choice but look for a part time job. And I found cleaning of offices at night. So for a while I was working during the day and at night I was cleaning offices. Then I started looking for jobs myself and I started a little company.
“It took a while but I was very lucky because during that period between 1968 and 1977 I went through a lot of different learning experiences that were phenomenal and in 1977 I was ready to start my business.
How important was it for you to be in touch with the Czech expatriate community in Canada?
“I do feel that when somebody is really lucky, the way I was, and has the ability to make enough money, there is a responsibility that comes with it.”
“To be honest, when I got to Canada, I was in contact with a few Czechs, but it was kind of a mental help from them. Also there was a football club called Sparta Toronto, so I spent two years playing with them but then my wife told me: look, this is not a game, you better concentrate on something more serious.
“So the contact with the Czech community was limited because I needed help more than anybody else but and after I really started my own busy, wards I was so busy that I could not be part of any activity. And I have to say my tremendous luck was that work has always been my hobby. So it is much easier to work under those conditions.”
But you are helping others and supporting Czech expatriate projects.
“Yes, because I do feel that when somebody is really lucky, the way I was, and has the ability to make enough money, there is a responsibility that comes with it. And the responsibility is that I didn’t do it just by myself, there was a lots of help, lots of other people who worked with me. So I think I owe to the society.”