Antonin Kokeš is a well-known Czech entrepreneur behind the enormously successful greeting card and board game publisher Albi and - more recently – the hugely popular Antonín Bakeries.
If you’ve ever bought a greeting card, small gift or board game in the Czech Republic, there’s a good chance it was published by Albi, a company co-founded more than 25 years ago by entrepreneur Antonín Kokeš. Following the company’s success, some three years ago the businessman set out in a completely different direction, launching a second firm, Antonínovo pekařství, a bakery specializing in fine crispy breads.
In our interview he talks not only about the many ins-and-outs of business and what he’s learned over the years, but also how he got off to a novel start in 1990 selling postcards on the Old Town Square.
“We started selling postcards, regular postcards of Prague, and the beginnings were very simple because we had no experience whatsoever. What we did was we bought a whole box of postcards at the tobacconist’s and began selling the postcards on the Old Town Square where we sold them to the tourists.
Was there a shortage of postcards? It seems you bought them easily enough!
“That’s just it: in those days, postcards were sold over the counter and you had to ask for them and you would get a box. And there were no in-shop displays or cards pinned up, so foreigners didn’t know they could ask for the cards. So we immediately had a huge advantage when we put up our own stand with cards and tourists immediately saw this was the place to buy postcards.
“Also, we were able to ask customers what they were looking for, so we were able to add other products like small maps and guidebooks.”
How old were you at this time?
“I was 21.”
So the perfect age for this kind of a venture…
“Our first stand was opposite the astronomical clock were people gathered every hour on the hour.”
“Yes. And we were adventurous and were not afraid to try things and to work late hours. Our first stand was opposite the astronomical clock were people gathered every hour on the hour, and during the summer it was great.”
So it was a success from the get-go? You sold a lot of cards from the very start?
“We were very lucky because it was an immediate success. The first day we sold one thousand cards for a profit of 2,000 crowns! You could buy a lot of beers for that!”
In 1990, the average monthly salary must have been around 3,000!
“Yeah, yeah, it was. And a beer cost two crowns and 50 hellers!”
Two-fifty, wow! Was this experience kind of proof for you that business or entrepreneurship was something that you wanted to do, that you would pursue?
“It wasn’t my first experience, I should say. As a kid, after the harvest at the harvest celebrations in my home town, I sold ice cream. I liked the experience even then, talking to customers was something which I enjoyed.
“My grandfather had also been a businessman and was an inspiration. Bur certainly success with the postcards was a lot of fun and helped me make a living early. I will always remember these beginnings, being up close to the customer, but on the other hand I was also studying economics at university and I didn’t want to be a street seller all my life. So we started publishing cards.”
Those were certainly heady days, weren’t they: the country was making the transition back to democracy and a free market and the North American press was reporting that Prague was THE place to be and many, many foreigners were flooding in, Prague was a big focal point, so I guess that also provided many new opportunities.
“It’s a tough question. People now think that that era was very easy but in fact some things are a lot easier now. Then, there was no internet, there were no cell phones, and many things were more difficult. And of course we had no capital at all! So it was very difficult to start something new. Actually, the first 15-years of Albi we had no loans at all, we started from scratch and we built the business step/by-step. We were happy that were able to add new products over time.”
Albi was built on gift cards at first?
“We started with post cards and then we began publishing. We began publishing our own, and that is a big difference. Because you are creating your own artwork and content we worked with printers, this was something I really enjoyed. Later, we began cooperation with Hallmark, which of course is the definitive brand in the industry. I learned a lot from Hallmark, about branding, about marketing, about merchandising, and with Hallmark we grew very fast and we became the biggest publisher of greeting cards and postcards.
“After that we faced our first big dilemma: how to grow. We started with gifts, which were not so successful in the beginning, and then we added board games which – over time – became our best-selling item.”
“I hope one day that there will be more gaming in schools because games are the best way to learn strategy and negotiations.”
The gifts are an interesting area, I suppose also because of tradition. When I first moved to the Czech Republic because there was kind of a push back against Valentine’s Day, because it had no tradition here; some people would kind of grumble when they saw heart-shaped boxes in store windows. The same was true of Halloween although that has now also caught on partly because of school activity days… So have things changed?
“I would say, universally-speaking, that people like giving. So the task for the gift-giving industry is to understand the customer. One thing that we aimed for was for our gifts to contain a bit of humour and an element of surprise.
“And creating a nice gift with those elements is not as easy as you’d think. In the first phase of the gift division, we went more with Old English-style gifts, stuffed toys, but it didn’t really work. We are not as sentimental. But we do share a similar humour and it became more successful when that was introduced, for example, in items for weddings.”
Having attended a few over the years, I can say that the most successful, in my view, were weddings where there were ideas and jokes, either at the expense of the groom or bride or both. It was just a lot more fun and anything which kind of helps in setting that kind of mood is worth it.
“Exactly. The art of giving: you must know the person but the key is surprise: not to give them what they expect.”
What about board games? I’ve been following the board game industry closely for more than 10 years, in short it was a hobby I was interested in even before I knew I was interested in it, so to speak. When it comes to modern board games, the publication of The Settlers of Catan was a big turning point for reinventing the hobby. Were games something you were interested in before?
“I wasn’t a big player, actually, the idea was my partner’s, who I started business with 26 years ago. It was his hobby but the fact is, it is a paper (cardboard) product and we were publishers. So it made sense. The idea was that Czechs like playing games, under communism card games were very popular and as a kid I had a Monopoly-clone from Germany and I made my own board.
“So I think it is in our nature to have fun and to play. But of course for a long time there were not many games on the market. Once we went in this direction, we were faced with the task of persuading our customers to buy games because they cost a bit more. It took about three years before the branch became profitable.”
It is amazing just how much board games have taken off; Albi has had a big role but there are also other major Czech publishers. There is quite a strong community and as business I guess you also diversify between more casual consumers, with family or party games with simple rule sets aimed at fun, and more dedicated players who like heavy games which are strategically or tactically more complex than you average player is looking for or wouldn’t jump into right away.
“That’s true. Many customers like simple rules and want to get to the fun. Not everyone wants to read through long rules. Sometimes people say [in a pained tone] ‘how long is this board game thing’ going to take?’. The fun is, though, that you are interacting with real people in different situations – it is not a PC or iPad game. And more and more, I see interest in games with children where there is an educational element.”
And kids do learn, even from regular games, my son and I play and I have been surprised numerous times by a gambit or move he has taken which I didn’t see coming. And I sometimes wonder if that kind of training can be useful in real-life situations.
“The bakery is not just about the bread. It is also about the atmosphere, the coffee, the bakers you cans see at work, and the contact with the customers.”
“That has happened to me as well, with my son, where it is clear he was thinking several steps ahead. And I do think it can be very useful. I hope one day that there will be more gaming in schools because games are the best way to learn strategy and negotiations. Even an online game can teach you a lot, but it is a matter of how you approach it as a parent.”
In one interview, you talked about the Czech love of the game “Bang” which is a card-game with a spaghetti Western setting, where players have hidden roles and basically it is about trying to be the last person standing. How do you explain the obsession with that game, compared to neighbouring countries?
“Czech players have a unique relationship to this game and even the Italian publisher doesn’t understand why it is so popular here, comparatively-speaking. I think Czechs just love that aspect of seeking out who one’s partners are and who the enemy is as they play.”
Albi has been around for more than 25 years, who celebrated the milestone with a new logo, yet just a few years ago is that you launched another completely new business: founding a bakery and baking bread. They seem very far apart.
“There were points when I thought it might be too crazy. The idea to get into this business was something which occurred to me when I was travelling in Germany and I returned to the idea again and again. Some friends thought it was very weird, but from my perspective, it was just time to start something else.
“It is still business, it still providing a service, and a bakery is not just about the bread. It is also about the atmosphere, the coffee, the bakers you cans see at work, the contact with the customers, meeting up with friends. That’s the idea behind Antonínovo pekařství. It took me quite a while to complete the idea and I was really inspired by similar venues in Germany.”
“Not at all!”
Is that what is exciting? That you have to learn the process?
“For me it was definitely exciting. When I began looking for bakers I did a lot of interviews with bakers with a lot of experience and some said I was crazy. I learned from scratch and being from a different background I often questioned why some things had to be a certain way. For me, I wanted to make very crispy bread, with a really hard crust. We had to buy special ovens for this and finally it worked out.
“The main thing is to stay focused: in the beginning, there will always be people who say something is impossible, you can’t do things that way, it will not work that way. And sure, my first breads were an absolute catastrophe! I was sitting there beside the oven but I said we have to try again.
“So you have to have belief and energy and at the end of the day you will succeed. And then you also have feedback from the customer. And what I heard for them was, oh, we were looking for this kind of bread, we don’t like this supermarket stuff anymore. And I was happy that we had done it and that gave me the energy to continue even more.”
Given that you have so many different branches, Albi and the baking business, with so much to do, how do you maintain contact with your customers, because I imagine you must be removed at this point from a lot of the day-today stuff…
“It is difficult because over time you do get more separated from the customer because you get more involved in managing the business. And you still talk to customers but they aren’t as open as they used to be because they don’t want to ‘bother’ you with small details. This is true of both Albi and the baking business. At the start, I was at the bakery every day. But after three years, I am no longer there every day.
“That said, I still try and find the time to be there to speak to people. It’s not a big science, you are just there or in the store and you ask customers what they think, whether they like it, what kinds of games or what kinds of bread they buy.”
Do you have special game days or events to make that possible?
People don’t tell the truth in questionnaires!
“People don’t tell the truth, and in fact you don’t really know what to ask. They are the ones who may come forward with a great idea. The bakery is a case in point: I wasn’t going to branch out into gluten-free bread because I thought only a small group of people would be interested. But what we heard from our customers is that this is something they wanted so we said ok, let’s try it and now it is a big part of the business. So if you talk to your customer, as a real person, not using some rules or questionnaire, they will give you feedback for free.”
When you build that kind of relationship, the customer I guess is also more likely to identify with a brand or company philosophy, aren’t they? The customer has a stake in it, they value the service or something new which this or that company has brought to the community and want the firm to succeed. The customer is on board for the ride as well.
“Yes, yes of course.”