He knows nearly everyone throughout the group. He has recruited executives for most of the key roles and keeps searching for the cream of the crop both on the Czech market and internationally. Specifically, he looks for individuals who the company can trust to make decisions worth billions. Janák joined the PPF Group’s global business conglomerate 16 years ago by taking over the helm of human resources at Home Credit. Four years later, he received a call from Petr Kellner, who made him a proverbial offer one doesn’t refuse. Specifically, Janák was offered to merge two large HR Departments and take over management of human resources for PPF Group as a whole.
At 49 years old, Janák is experienced in weathering stormy times, even though the ride in the last year and a half has been rougher than usual. First was the chilling shock from Alaska and the fatal accident of PPF’s founder Petr Kellner. Last January, a coup d’état was attempted in Kazakhstan, where PPF owns the Home Credit Bank. Later in the year, the group had to deal with exiting Russia and transforming Home Credit’s operations in China. The company had to lay off 50,000 people, a number corresponding to the population of a fairly large provincial town.
Currently, PPF employs around 80,000 people at its companies around the world. Janák admits that after years of relative calmness and prosperity, the time has now come once again to roll up the sleeves and get to work. “We’ve had our seven fat years, but we’re now entering a period of instability and uncertainty. Workers and businesses will be put under much more stress, and we’ll need dig in and work that much harder,” says a man who considers PPF a family business where, figuratively speaking, Excel tables are more important than PowerPoint presentations. “For us, substance is more important than form. Another thing is that we use praise sparingly. But when we do praise someone, it’s always personal and it is meaningful.”
Developments this year have shaken up business and politics around the world. How has PPF coped?
It all started just after the start of the year in the winter holidays. I received a call from our associates in Kazakhstan who told me that the situation there was deteriorating. Events very rapidly escalated into massive unrest, which the government there responded to by shutting down the Internet and restricting telephone communications with foreign countries. The families of our executives there were cut off from sources of information. All they could hear was gunfire and grenade explosions. The youngest child of one of our employees was six months old.
Our employees were trying to call the head office to see if we could arrange an airlift out of the country. At a times like that, management manuals are useless. First, we found a way to let our staff know about the current developments in Almaty. The next step was finding somebody who would protect them and our premises and operations in Kazakhstan. We also started preparing an escape route from Kazakhstan for our employees and their families. In the end, it wasn’t necessary. We even managed to keep our branches operating. They only suffered a few broken windows and doors.
Such a dramatic beginning to the year! Last year began tragically for you, with Petr Kellner’s death in March. Did PPF have any processes ready for the eventuality of the owner’s death?
We had no special provisions for such an extraordinary situation. Even though both Ladislav Bartoníček and Renáta Kellnerová were outside the country, we made arrangements within a few hours to let the public and our employees know that PPF management would be taken over by Mr. Bartoníček. During the first week, PPF Gate in Dejvice was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Our top executives also understood their responsibilities and resolved to preserve the company’s operations under any circumstances. The truth is that we’re a rather small corporation, and most of us had a closer relationship to Petr Kellner than would be customary in the corporate world, where you might meet the boss only once a year at the Christmas party.
What legacy has Petr Kellner left at PPF?
A business-like approach that’s deeply ingrained in our company’s DNA. We pay very close attention to make sure that all our business decisions make sense. That has remained and will stay unchanged. When we make an acquisition or put a project together, we don’t allow ourselves to be sweet-talked into making a deal. We rely on Excel rather than PowerPoint. The way we see it, substance prevails over form.
Usually, a person who wanted funds for an investment had to defend the project with Kellner himself. How difficult is it to convince PPF Group’s current boss, Jiří Šmejc?
I think that Jiří is very good with figures too! But seriously, his approach is different because he is a different person. The biggest difference is that Jiří is more in favour of cooperation and investment partnerships, whereas Petr Kellner preferred complete control. To convince Jiří, you have to explain every last detail.
Recently, Šmejc said that PPF’s planned expansion into Western markets might be facilitated by Czechs working harder and innovating more quickly than is customary in the West. What is the work ethics like among PPF’s employees?
We go against the current – we don’t say that work is mainly supposed to be a lot of fun and amusement. In the business world, the devil is in the detail, but you have to work hard to get there. If you don’t, your business will not work. Accomplishments don’t just land in your lap. The way it works is that you try 15 ideas, and in the end, one of them will stick. Also, an excellent idea is just the beginning. You have to incorporate it into your organization, which includes thousands of people. That’s the kind of work that must be done for a venture to have any chance of being successful. Often, when you meet managers in Western countries, you can’t but help notice that companies there employ a high number of extremely spoiled, entitled people. We don’t hire managers with an attitude like that.
We’ve gone through a decade when everything was falling into place, everything was easy to predict. It was easy to launch new business ventures. Now, we’re entering a period of instability and uncertainty. Workers and businesses will be put under much more stress, and we’ll need to dig in and work that much harder. We’ve had our seven fat years.
The seven lean years are now coming. Are you planning any specific assistance for employees this autumn in view of the current financially difficult times?
As early as August, Jiří Šmejc and I agreed that we would speedily review wages to lessen the burden on our low-income employees. Usually, a remuneration review is carried out in spring when wages are increased depending on the business results. Last spring, however, we felt that a recession might come, and we therefore set aside two percent of the personnel budget to deal with the current situation. Now with the arrival of autumn, we’ve already started assisting our low-income employees as a gesture of solidarity.
Who is considered a low-income employee at PPF?
We’re already disbursing assistance to rank-and-file workers who earn about 50,000 crowns monthly before taxes. For employees in specialized roles who have higher incomes above this threshold, raises are approved on an individual basis. However, higher incomes might not even be enough to offset rapidly rising costs of living. If your wife is on maternity leave, you live in Prague, you have a mortgage to pay, and there are two kids running around, an increase in your mortgage instalments might put you in a situation that is difficult to cope with.
Recently, PPF Group had to lay off 50,000 people because of its exit from Russia and China. How hard is it to lay off a town of the size of Karlovy Vary in China?
Not easy, but it’s even more difficult to recruit that many workers. In our glory days, we had 100,000 employees in China. For several years, we hired 5,000 people every month on average. Can you imagine signing 5,000 employment agreements every month? It meant we had to process around 100,000 resumes monthly. Nobody in Europe can tell you how to cope with that amount of work. Because recruiting staff this way was very expensive, we set up an intensive programme of digitalization and staff reduction more than two years ago. Instead of call centres with large numbers of operators, the most being in China, we deployed chatbots and other virtual tools to communicate with customers. Thanks to that, it was easier to lay off staff when it became necessary. Worker protection in China and Russia is similar to that in our country. Like here, there are requirements for the notice period and severance pay.
Chinese workers are specific in the sense that they are very prone to complaining, and, conversely, local authorities are highly receptive. Generally speaking, though, the instincts we acquired in the Czech culture can be transposed to eastern countries because labour laws there stipulate in a great detail and a very prescriptive fashion what is permitted and what is not.
During the pandemic, many companies switched to hybrid working arrangements that combined working at home and in the office, and many businesses have continued to use this model. A lot of people are saying that they never again want to work in the office five days a week. Your company is rumoured to have a strict policy in this respect. Are your employees allowed to work from home?
Our staff were offered telecommuting arrangements long before the term ‘home office’ was even used in this context. Employees can ask their supervisors to work from home if they need to, and their requests are accepted if permitted by the circumstances. If a work from home request is rejected, it’s not the end of the world either. I think that it’s normal to go to work, to the office. Accordingly, we don’t have an across-the-board remote work policy.
When the pandemic erupted, we could only estimate the effect of the lockdowns on work performance and the workplace climate. Now we know. People have become more distant. Data show that lasting remote work is detrimental to productivity, loyalty, team spirit, and customer orientation. It’s not that work can’t be done from home, it’s that working from home changes the nature of the relationship between the employee and the employer. Employment is specific in the sense that the employer not only specifies the work to be done, but also stipulates how. If employment morphs into an arrangement along the lines of ‘do the job, I don’t care how’, workers become contractors as opposed to employees.
You mean that employees working remotely feel being part of PPF to a lesser extent?
Exactly. For example, I’m an accountant who processes incoming invoices in the company’s electronic system under a work from home arrangement. The competition calls and offers a salary five thousand crowns higher. I say, why not, it doesn’t matter whether I process invoices for this guy or that guy. What do I care who I work for since I don’t meet my co-workers anyway?
It’s also easier to resolve mishaps in person at the office, too. Instead of writing lengthy reproachful e-mails, a five-minute face-to-face meeting does the trick. Likewise, giving praise is much better in person. At PPF, we use praise sparingly, but when we do, it’s always personal and meaningful.
How do you respond to questions from job applicants about work from home?
We lose many of them because we say no. The situation on the labour market today is such that job applicants insist during the interview on having at least three days a week of working remotely, and they have to be Monday, Thursday and Friday. What is this?
Many companies are trying to win their employees’ loyalty by offering special benefits, and there is much more talk about a four-day working week. What do you think about that? What in-kind fringe benefits work best for you?
My opinion is that we’re currently facing many other, much more serious problems, both as individuals and organizations. Because of that, a debate about a four-day working week is irrelevant. As to fringe benefits, we are a modestly conservative company, and that reflects in the benefits we offer as well. We support access to high-quality healthcare, and we contribute for retirement savings. We provide benefits in both good times and bad times, and we don’t cut back on them for the sake of temporarily reducing costs.
There seems to be competition on the market now about who will give more, who will go further, who will offer greater variety. Because workers don’t want to return to the office, companies are trying to bribe them with all sorts of goodies. They offer things like fresh bananas or massages to make employees get up more cheerfully in the morning. My lasting opinion about this is that people won’t work more joyfully and productively because of bananas or higher-value restaurant vouchers. Each company has to decide which route to take. Competing with others is also a possibility – I see that the technology company next door distributes bananas, so I do the same. And not only do I give out bananas, I treat employees with an avocado, too. But next week, the company next door starts giving the staff mangos. What then?
The other option is intentionally avoiding this type of race and staying true to your values and corporate culture. It doesn’t make sense to play the market’s game and act like you’re someone else yet be upset about having to play ball at the same time. Because if you act this way, you’re sending the wrong signal to the labour market, and you’re hiring people who you shouldn’t because they don’t match your corporate culture. Hypocrisy doesn’t pay in the long run. Sure, I do get under pressure every once in a while, when co-workers warn me that if we don’t offer the Multisport Card, we simply won’t find IT specialists. But in the end, things work out even if you don’t bow to the pressure. Which means that our company doesn’t offer a sports card.
In the past, PPF used to shy away from disclosing details about its structure. Today, the company is seen on the market as an all-stars team that everybody wants to be a part of. What things about PPF do employees like in internal surveys? What do they want to improve?
The time of keeping a low profile is gone. We now communicate much more than we did in the past. Starting this year, our website features a menu tab for careers and searching for vacant positions at all of our companies.
As far as improvements, our employees are calling for more empathy throughout the group. Sometimes, we resolve an issue, pat ourselves on the back, and think that is all there is to it. However, quite a few of the highly capable professionals we employ have difficulty in appropriate ways of communicating and explaining to others what we do and why. The trick is to use a form that is embraced by others. That’s something we sometimes struggle with.
You’ve been with PPF for 16 years. Where does your loyalty stem from?
Years ago, I came to PPF from the telecommunications business, which was going through its golden period. Money was readily available, and just about any idea could be tried. After joining the group, I found that the working environment here was brutally pragmatic. Anything that doesn’t have a tangible impact on our business gets rejected. Nobody in the company is impressed if I tell them that we have the best assessment centre for job candidates in Central Europe.
There were times when I was asking myself what I was doing here, I felt underappreciated. But I’m right where things are happening! I don’t need to deal with implementing concepts imposed on me from far away, even if they make no sense to me. At times, we make mistakes, but we always know why things didn’t work out. The independence to do things the way I want is what I appreciate about PPF, and that’s why I’m still here.
The truth is that we’re a rather small corporation, and most of us had a closer relationship to Petr Kellner than would be customary in the corporate world.
Working at night too?
In his role, Petr Janák is responsible for staffing all the restaurants run by PPF. Recently, HR specialists were looking for staff for the SILQ restaurant, which is an extension of the Café Sofa concept at the PPF Gate building in Prague. The new restaurant was inspired by the cuisine of countries along the ancient Silk Road that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. “It’s more difficult to find a good waiter than a manager. A waiter comes for an interview and in the middle of it sadly says – wow, so I’d have to work in the evening too…”
Sometimes you realize that Western companies are producing high numbers of extremely spoiled, entitled people. We don’t hire managers with an attitude like that. It doesn’t make sense to play the market’s game and act like you’re someone else yet be upset about having to play ball at the same time.
As to fringe benefits, we are a modestly conservative company, and that reflects in the benefits we offer as well. We support access to high-quality healthcare, and we contribute for retirement savings. We provide benefits in both good times and bad times, and we don’t cut back on them for the sake of temporarily reducing costs,” says Petr Janák.
Author: Text: Jan Záluský, Zuzana Keményová
Source (Czech only): https://archiv.hn.cz/c1-67124900-v-ppf-malo-chvalime-a-dbame-na-detail-rika-jeji-hr-reditel