He scrabbled in the vacuum of Czechoslovakia’s postcommunist, early 1990s with photocopiers and office supplies. He rose to the moneyed heights of the Czech business world, becoming the country’s wealthiest businessman, a media magnate, publicity-shy philanthropist, and government whisperer.
Petr Kellner, who died over the weekend in a helicopter crash on a ski trip in Alaska, was both admired and feared, as his company PPF Group morphed in a financial behemoth with holdings ranging from insurance to real estate to telecommunications, from Central Europe to China and beyond.
Bloomberg put his wealth at $15.7 billion, Forbes at $17.5 billion.
U.S. authorities say, for the moment, that there is nothing to suggest anything other than an accident — possibly human error, possibly mechanical problems. Federal aviation officials and state police are still investigating. Four other people including the pilot also died in the incident.
Kellner’s death reverberated in the Czech Republic, where the reports led newscasts and the top of newspaper websites all day on March 29, and throughout much of Central Europe.
Here’s a quick look at who Kellner was.
Trained in economics, Kellner, 56, cut his capitalist teeth after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought an end to communism in the country. His official biography says that, for several years, he worked as an office supply salesman, including in the import and servicing of photocopiers.
He also garnered sufficient financial capital, and business connections, to start an investment fund to invest in the state assets being privatized by the postcommunist government through a “voucher-for-shares” scheme.
The Prvni Privatizacni Fond (PPF) became his main investment vehicle, buying stock and shares in more than 200 enterprises, and later acquiring a 20 percent stake in the country’s largest insurer, Ceska Pojistovna.
PPF propelled Kellner on a yearslong buying spree of assets not only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, after the Czechoslovak breakup, but in other Central and Eastern European countries. PPF Group’s holdings grew to include biotechnology, media broadcasting, real estate, banking, and consumer finance. The group is a major player in Russia’s home lending industry, and has also invested in Russia’s booming agriculture and farming industry.
A 2007 deal between Ceska Pojistovna and Italy’s Generali created an insurance giant for Central and Eastern Europe, adding further to Kellner’s fortune when he exited the partnership in 2012 for 2.5 billion euros.
PPF Group’s telecom holdings include majority ownership of the O2 cell phone and Internet operations in the Czech Republic in 2014. In 2018, the company closed on a 2.8 billion-euro purchase of the telecom assets of Norwegian-owned Telenor located in Hungary, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia.
But it was his holdings of media and TV companies that garnered not only profits but also scrutiny. In 2004, PPF Group restructured the largest domestic Czech television channel, TV Nova, and then sold it to Central European Media Enterprises, a U.S.-based holding company known as CME. Kellner later joined the company’s board.
Over the next decade, CME bought — and sold — media and distribution companies in Romania. And in 2019, PPF Group said it would buy out the other shareholders in CME — including U.S. media giant Time Warner — to become CME’s sole owner, a deal estimated to be valued at $2.1 billion.
The company’s media operations now over cover five European countries, with more than 30 TV channels, which PPF says reach over 45 million viewers. The company also has four radio stations in Bulgaria.
The CME purchase by Kellner’s group, and the larger trend of independent news media groups being bought or controlled by powerful business interests, prompted a Czech media watchdog group to issue a public warning.
“Recent years have shown that the situation where the largest entrepreneurs and their groups buy the most influential media in the country fundamentally undermines confidence in their independence and puts pressure on the journalists themselves,” the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism said in 2019. “Petr Kellner’s latest transaction continues on this path.”
A Czech In China
One of PPF Group’s biggest profit-making engines has been one of its earliest investments: the consumer lending division, Home Credit.
In the late 1990s, Kellner used Home Credit to buy up banks in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and then later expanded into Russia, where it quickly gained a dominant position, focusing on quick, uncomplicated consumer lending.
Two years after first testing the water in China, Home Credit in 2010 became that country’s first fully-licensed foreign consumer lender, harnessing the country’s economic growth and Chinese consumers’ appetite for everything from mortgages and easy retail loans on things like cell phones, cars, or home computers. The strategy has paid off, making Home Credit a major source of value for PPF Group overall.
According to a 2019 report by the Czech online news site Aktualne.cz, Home Credit has lent about 300 billion Czech crowns (US$13 billion) in China since first entering the market.
Home Credit’s push into China hit major road bumps in late 2019 and 2020 when the country, and consumers, went into lockdown, amid the government’s efforts to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back home, PPF Group’s Chinese investments are reflected in Kellner’s support for closer Czech ties with China. He has accompanied President Milos Zeman on business junkets to China, something that has drawn controversy in some Czech political circles.
In 2019, Aktualne.cz reported that Home Credit had secretly hired a public relations company to burnish China’s image within the Czech Republic.
The company, and Kellner, were battered by criticism from liberal Czech lawmakers, who are sympathetic to Taiwan’s fights with Beijing and opposed to China’s heavy-handed Communism. Home Credit officials later said the goal of the campaign was merely to “weaken extreme positions in the public sphere” about business and life in China.
The Czech Republic’s most prominent political figures, including Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, publicly mourned the news of Kellner’s death.
Investors and analysts meanwhile turned to the question of what Kellner’s death would mean for the future of PPF Group, of which he held 99 percent ownership.
Home Credit had been planning to go public through an initial public offering in Hong Kong, plans that were already shelved due to the pandemic. PPF Group earlier this year indicated it was looking to consolidate some of its European banking operations and its digital start-up bank Air Bank.
Among those who analysts say are contenders to take the leadership of PPF Group are Jean-Pascal Duvieusart, who is CEO of Home Credit, and, along with Ladislav Bartonicek, is the other holder of outstanding shares not held by Kellner.
In a statement, PPF Group, which is now formally headquartered in the Netherlands, expressed “deepest grief” at the death of its founder.
“His professional life was known for his incredible work ethic and creativity, but his private life belonged to his family,” the company said.
Kellner was well known for shunning publicity and gave few media interviews over the years. He and his family had a well-known philanthropic foundation that donated millions for Czech educational causes.
In the company’s most recent annual report, Kellner offered his own musings about his company, and the previous year, when the Czech Republic, and the rest of the world, was battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know that every crisis is also an opportunity, and that problems are there to be confronted and resolved. Life is what we make of it. What our work brings to others. The real and tangible outcomes we can see behind us indicate what lies ahead,” he said in the 2019 report.