Otto Jelinek, Part 2: Success in business and politics and return to Prague

Otto Jelinek, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Prague-born Otto Jelinek became Canada’s ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2013, six and a half decades after his family moved to the North American state from communist Czechoslovakia. After becoming figure skating world champion in his early 20s, Mr. Jelinek was also successful in his next venture as a skating goods manufacturer. That was followed by a political career with the Progress Conservative party that included a string of ministerial positions.

Otto Jelinek, photo: archive of Czech Radio
In the second half of this two-part interview, I asked Canada’s envoy to Prague whether – being the son of a wealthy industrialist – business had been in his genes.

“Yes, it was. My whole family is business oriented. We grew up in a business-oriented environment, so it was a natural for me to go into business.

“Clearly with the name being known in Canada it was easier to sell skates than anything else.

“I started a manufacturing business, manufacturing skates both hockey and figure skating. Then I added other lines to that and built up a nice business.”

You later became an MP and eventually held several ministerial posts. What drew you into politics?

“I never planned to go into politics. But as I was running my business, and because of the fact that Canadians knew my name quite well from my having the World Championships, I got to speak at local Rotary Clubs and Lions Clubs and things of that nature.

“When speaking I complained about small business owners like myself having a lot of red tape thrown at them by all levels of government and all political parties.

“So I was then singled out as someone who could be saying the same thing on the floor of the House of Commons.

“I kind of laughed at that, because I never planned to go into politics. I never considered myself a politician. I still don’t consider myself a politician, although I served 21 years in Ottawa, nearly 10 of them as a cabinet minister.”

During all those years, did you pay much attention to events in Czechoslovakia?

“Yes and no. Obviously we knew what was happening when there were major events here. But did we follow daily activities…?

“We had some family here from my mother’s side – we still see them, we’re quite close – so we were in touch with them.

November 1989 in Prague, photo: Peter Turnley, Public Domain
“But we didn’t follow what was happening because we had written Czechoslovakia off. Meaning we never expected that the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union would fall.

“We didn’t expect it. We didn’t dream about it. We didn’t think about it. We didn’t plan our life around, Oh, we’re waiting until something happens and then we’re going to go back to Czechoslovakia. That was never, never, in our minds.

“Was the fact that we were historically Czech and culturally Czech in our minds? Yes. We were a Czech family living in Canada.

“We ate Czech food. We spoke Czech at home. Thank goodness – I hated to do that when I was a kid, but if I hadn’t spoken Czech at that time I wouldn’t be speaking Czech now.”

Tell us about the first time you came back to Prague after November 1989.

“I actually came with a delegation of business people, seeing whether the changes here would bring business opportunities, which they obviously did, from an investment standpoint, from a privatisation standpoint.

“There were great, great opportunities and I wanted to, as a Czech… we were so positively shocked that this happened, that suddenly there was freedom and democracy here.

“We were very, very excited about what was happening here – the transition, the transformation. I came back several times as a cabinet minister, leading investment and trade delegations.

“Some of those investments are still here, from auto parts manufacturing to the Four Seasons Hotel and many others in between that our delegations brought here…”

Tomáš Baťa was also part of the delegations, is that right?

“I was just going to say. Who helped me very much was Tomáš Baťa. He came on several of those delegations. He was very helpful to me and of course the delegation as a whole – he was always very positively involved.

Tomáš Baťa, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“So it was a new world. It was a new life. To the point where one I brought my wife to show her beautiful Prague and she loved it here.

“One fine May afternoon, sitting at one of the outdoor cafés with the sun shining, she said, You know Otto, you’ve done enough of politics – why don’t you quit and move here just on a sabbatical and be part of this transformation of your country?

“We thought about it – not very long. At that time there was a leadership election going on in the party in Canada and some people thought I may be seeking the leadership of the party.

“I called a press conference at which I announced that not only am I not seeking the leadership, I’m also after so many years leaving politics.

“We moved to Prague on a sabbatical but I turned that into business opportunities and started my own business here, eventually chairing Deloitte & Touche, now called Deloitte.”

Was it hard for you to adjust to life here after so many years in Canada?

“You know it wasn’t if you didn’t fight it. You had to accept the fact that there would be differences. You had to accept the fact that the bureaucracy was an even more ingrained way of life than it was in Canada.

“So not fighting the changes, not fighting the difficulties of the transition, it wasn’t that difficult. And speaking the language, even though I spoke it very badly at that time, and I’m still not perfect at it, it helped.”

People called that period in the 1990s the Wild East period. Regulations weren’t so tight, there was a lot of corruption. How did you find doing business at that time?

“Very difficult. Corporate governance was unheard of. I wanted to help the transition into a more rule of law environment.

“That’s where I joined forces with Deloitte & Touche, the large international accounting advisory firm, and eventually became chairman of Deloitte Czech Republic and then Deloitte Central Europe. Specifically to help bring in rules, laws and regulations with the then governments that would cut through the Wild, Wild East feeling.

“Corruption, transparency, is still a problem to some extent. But it’s now being dealt with. It’s certainly being talked about by the politicians and others – and major progress has been made over the last 20 years.”

From your perspective, how well did Czechs take to business after so many years of communism?

“I think very well, some. Some not so well. As would be expected.

“But Czechoslovakia prior to the war was one of the easy top 10 economies in the world. So Czechs and Slovaks have it in their genes to be entrepreneurial and business oriented.

“Because of that Czechoslovakia did very well in the transition. There were problems as any country changing so dramatically would have. But Czechoslovakia did exceptionally well.

“And when there was the friendly split-up of Czechs and Slovaks, everyone thought that the Slovaks would go bankrupt, because they maybe didn’t have the industrial depth that the Czechs had.

“But that didn’t happen either. The Slovaks have done very well. In some cases better than the Czechs. So there’s a friendly, competitive spirit between the two and that’s healthy, too.”

Two years ago you became Canadian ambassador to the Czech Republic. I presume in business straight talking is helpful but in diplomacy you have to be more careful what you say?

“Well if you know what you’re talking about, and in business I think I do… everything we do is trying to help Canadian businesses see opportunities in the Czech Republic and Central Europe.

“Everything I do and the embassy does in terms of trade and business is to open doors for Canadian businesses, to create opportunities for them to meet their counterparts here on every level, to open the doors when they need to political support.”

Could you possibly compare the two national characters, if such things exist?

“I think there’s a lot in common. We’ve already covered the fact that both Czechs and Slovaks are business-oriented – so are Canadians.

“Canadians are innovative. They’ve invented a lot of things, from the telephone to field hockey, if I should use a sports reference [laughs]. So have the Czechs – from contact lenses to robots and everything in between.

“The Czechs love nature. So do the Canadians. In fact there’s a part of the Czech Republic which is called Czech Canada. It reminds me of Northern Ontario, and I lived in Ontario.

“So there are a lot of similarities. Someone asked me what the dissimilarities are. I think that Czechs are not as optimistic as the Canadians.

“When they see a half full glass, Canadians tend to say it’s half full, whereas Czechs tend to say it’s half empty. But that’s changing.”