If you happen to have travelled between Prague and Brno on the D1 motorway in recent years, you might have wondered why those large yellow buses running between the two cities have Student Agency written on them. If you thought that Czech students travel more frequently than in other countries, you were wrong. Student Agency, now a multi-billion business, is the Czech Republic’s most popular transport company. In this edition of Czechs Today, we talk to Radim Jančura, its founder and sole owner.
The signature yellow buses of Student Agency have been running between Prague and Brno since 2004, and have since become the second largest road carrier in the country. But they are repeatedly voted the most popular transportation provider and regularly win the Top Czech 100 award in their category. Radim Jančura founded Student Agency in the south Moravian city of Brno in 1993 as an au-pair agency, and the company eventually became the largest au-pair firm in the world!
“It was quite easy. The au-pair business was really done by smaller agencies. Most people went to the UK, as there were few other options, and only citizens of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary were allowed in the UK. And we managed to get the au-pair business to almost substitute education. If you did not manage to get to university, lost a boyfriend or had problems in the family, you would leave as an au-pair. We were sending off three or four thousand girls a year, which was not that many but since no one else did it on such a large scale, we ended up being the world’s biggest au-pair agency.”
That was the 1990s. Since then, the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries joined the EU and the demand for au-pair programmes gradually dropped. Radim Jančura says though that with Czechs, the programme is still popular.
“Au-pair programmes today are more or less a dead product. Czechs keep going but Slovaks lost interest – as soon as we joined the EU, Slovaks now tend to get jobs there rather than being au-pairs. I think there is a difference in motivation – Czechs know that when they come back home speaking English, they will be able to find interesting jobs here. Slovaks, on the other hand, want to go abroad, make money there and maybe settle down. So the number of Slovak au-pairs dropped to almost zero; in the Czech Republic, the numbers have been more or less steady, and it’s become a popular way of living abroad cheaply and safely.”
Ten years after Student Agency was established, yellow buses first appeared between the two biggest cities in the country. Other destinations soon followed, and today the company serves around five million clients a year. Still, bus transport around the Czech Republic and Europe is not the major focus of Student Agency. The company is the biggest Czech flight tickets seller. And it’s growing despite the global economic downturn – or possibly because of it.
“We are making money from the crisis. The crisis has affected production companies much more. I always say that if the country is really hard hit people will stop travelling by car and will instead use public transport – buses and trains. As far as our flight ticket business is concerned – we specialize in low cost tickets, there has been an interesting shift because corporate clients started saving and buying cheap tickets, too. Some time ago, they would refuse to take low cost airlines and now they request it. So the drop in ticket prices has not affected us because we have always been selling cheap tickets.”
There is no limit to Radim Jančura’s ambitions. Looking for gaps on the market, he turned from road to rails. Czech Railways do not have the best reputation: after decades of neglect, their trains are often old and shabby and tend to be notoriously late. Student Agency has come up with a project to launch yellow express trains. To do that, the company is pairing up with a foreign partner.
“This is a huge project that we are undertaking with a French partner, Keolis, which is the second largest private transport group in Europe. What we want to do is to offer the state and the regions far better services: new and modern trains. But most importantly, we’ll ask for much lower subsidies and we’ll save the state and the regions a few billion crowns.”
Czech Railways are naturally not happy about these plans, and Radim Jančura says they also have to face opposition from those who should be glad trains will cost less – politicians.
“There is of course a problem that many politicians don’t like the idea very much. It’s not that they want to protect Czech Railways and their employees – we will need the same conductors and engine drivers. We will also maintain the trains much better so we will need many more people in repair pits, but unfortunately some people want to maintain the monopoly of Czech Railways forever.”
I always wondered how people who don’t know about Mr Jančura’s company feel when getting on a bus that says Student Agency. It was of course originally an agency for students, but it now has around 1,000 employees and an annual turnover of more than four billion crowns. Has Radim Jančura ever thought of changing the company’s name?
“We first thought of changing the name of the company some five or six years ago but even then it would have been very expensive to do so. Also, we did not want to lose a brand that had a good reputation. So in the end, we decided to establish anther company – Orbix. This is in fact a rival company for Student Agency which focuses on corporate clients. The main problem at that time was that businesspeople – we cater to huge multinational corporations – should fly on a ticket from Student Agency. Today, with the financial crisis, people might even brag about it, but then it would have been strange to fly business class on a ticket from some student company.”
A native of the northern city of Ostrava, Radim Jančura came to Brno to study. He founded his company when still at university, and is to this date the sole owner and director. And he plans to stay in the Moravian capital.
“Prague is a beautiful city, but mainly for tourists. Living there is much worse than living in any big city in the Czech Republic. Brno is ideal because it’s almost as big as Prague but life here is much easier, and especially having a company here. The unemployment rate here is higher than in Prague, so labour is cheaper. There are many students in Brno, it’s become a student city, and there are lots of graduates which is great for the future. Masaryk University is bigger now than Charles University in Prague. So Brno is really on its way forward, and it’s a city of the future.”