One on One Dalibor Dědek – Modest electronics magnate with a hands-on approach
Dalibor Dědek is the owner of Jablotron, an electronics producer based in north Bohemia that has grown into an international concern. Jablotron’s main focus is on security alarms and systems, while it has also in the past received a lot of attention for producing the “world’s biggest mobile phone”.
Mr. Dědek, who comes across as modest for such a wealthy man, has himself won a lot of respect for his frank views on Czech politics and a can-do attitude that has seen put his own money into projects such as a centre for the homeless in Prague.
On a visit to our studios, he explained how – when a couple of other ideas proved to be dead ends in the period shortly after the reintroduction of capitalism – his firm hit on making security alarms.
“There was a combination of the small privatisation, when people bought restaurants, shops and so on, and a complete amnesty, which was declared by our president, Václav Havel.
“This definitely changed the point of view of people about the protection of property. It directed our company towards the production of alarms.”
So you’re saying the fact there were more criminals around made people more concerned and it was good for your business?
“Definitely, yes. There were two aspects. Before that if someone was just the manager of a shop which belonged to the government and there was a robbery it was bad, but definitely not bad for him.
“But when he used all his family’s savings to buy the shop, and at the same moment all the criminals were released from prison – people were really concerned about property protection. It was an ideal moment to start a business in the field of alarms.
“But the problem was there were no installers. Our first marketing was teaching the installers how to install the systems.”
In the early 1990s your company was also teaching other companies how to do business. What was the hardest thing for people to grasp, do you think, about capitalism and how to do business?
“You know, that was a very dynamic time and people were very eager to start something of their own. But to get information, a package about how to do that… It was quite confusing because every law was changing and what was true yesterday was not true the next day.
“So we collected, we called it a cookery book, on how to do registration, tax and things like that. Because before that people here lived like in a zoo – they were fed regularly but that was all. After the cage was opened, we had the chance to provide them with guidance.
“We told them, look, we’re like a teacher, we’re here to tell you how to start your own business – and, by the way, you can use our products. So it was a very good starting point.”
You also became involved in international business in those days, particularly with companies in the Far East. Did you feel like a pioneer, doing that kind of international work?
“To be honest with you, when we started doing business here locally, our market shrank because of the split of Czechoslovakia. When you produce consumer electronics, you need a market to be successful, to be economical.
“We went to an exhibition in Hannover, in ’91 I believe, and it was a complete disaster for us. The businessmen from the West were visiting our booth and we felt like a monkey from the jungle, because they were asking, do you people from the Czech Republic know coffee? And do you know how to use a knife and fork?
“We really felt strange. We didn’t sell anything. We served as a curiosity, but no real business was established there. And it made me very angry, because we spent a lot of money, because such an exhibition was at that time very expensive for us.
“My second trip was to the Far East. It was the period of the so-called Asian Tigers: Korea, Taiwan and so on. I just wanted to see how the people in Taiwan managed to be successful in the field of electronics, having no history in this field.
“I went there and I found this was the right place to be. I visited, as a visitor, a large electronics show, and I saw that all the potential buyers were not visiting an exhibition in Hannover but in Taipei.
“I found out that we had products which are suitable for the market – but we were simply trying to sell them in the wrong place. For that reason we established our branch office in Taipei and we started to offer our own products, I mean Czech-made products, in Taiwan.”
Many of your security alarms are produced in China today. What has your experience of working with the Chinese been?
“It’s impossible to make a short statement about China. China is a very big place, there are many contrasts. After we started production in China it was a complicated way up, to find the right partners, people who you can trust.
“Because you can buy really top quality stuff in China and you can buy complete junk – and nearly for the same price.”
I read that your own products were counterfeited by the Chinese.
“Yes, it happened. We always dreamt of being a famous company and later on I found out how you can recognise that you are starting to be a brand; our product was copied completely, with the company name, there was even a signature like a control check sign inside the product.
“It happened that we started to get defective items at our service department that were so problematic that we had the idea that it was impossible they could have gone through our testers.
“Tracing it back, we found out that it wasn’t our product but a copy. Even a small scratch in the injection mould was copied. They used some kind of 3D scanner. The copy was so good that we were hardly able to recognise that it was a copy.”
In the mid 2000s you had some success with a mobile telephone that was essentially like a fixed-line phone that didn’t have a cable, and it was popular with the elderly. Is that still going? Are you still selling that product?
“It was quite a funny story. After we decided to implement GSM technology into our alarms and we went to talk to the GSM providers they said, it would be wonderful if it didn’t work only as an alarm but also allowed users to make phone calls and send SMS messages, because this is our main business.
“So we simply implemented a telephone plug to our control system – and you could connect any existing, ordinary telephone to our control system. Later on we were forced to implement SMS messages and we found out that we were creating not only an alarm but also a desktop mobile phone.
“As a side product, we thought, hmm, maybe we should make a desktop mobile phone as well. We made 15 prototypes and showed them at an exhibition in Hong Kong and it so happened we were addressed by a reporter from CNN. He made a funny story about it, and in three days our website was visited by the most famous porno servers.
“In a week we got an order for 200,000 units – at a moment when we had 15 prototypes in our hands. The customers were spoiled by the big makers like Nokia and so on and insisted they would like to get the first shipment in 60 days. We succeeded, but it really was an adventure.
“The business is still working, not at such big volumes as in the very beginning because it wasn’t stable. One month we got an order for 100,000 units and for half a year nothing. Now it’s stabilised.”
Last winter you decided to help the homeless in Prague. What spurred you to do that?
“It was a combination of two things. In the evening I went to the National Theatre and it was freezing – I don’t know, minus five – and a homeless man was arranging a cardboard box to sleep in. I felt really sorry for him. It was in such a fancy part of the city – if you see people just ignoring such a situation…So that was the first input.
“The second one was the next morning I had a meeting at our monitoring section. We were dealing with a problem that the response forces were solving a problem with homeless people.
“A lot of homeless people enter or intrude on other people’s property because they are simply freezing. If the response forces find such a person in someone’s building there is nothing they can do. There was no-one who was interested in taking care of such people. So this was the motivation.”
You’re talking about your own security firm?
Now you’ve got a shelter for the homeless in Prague, for about 80 people. Have you spent time there? And what has been your experience?
“In fact it was not so easy. Because first we bought an inflatable hall, as a temporary solution. But the problem was that no section of Prague wanted to allow us to build it.
“So this year we got a stable shelter, which was like a low-cost hotel, which we rented and opened at the beginning of December.
“I went there and spent one night there. It was very interesting for me, because it was about emotions. People were lining up in front of the entrance for two hours, freezing, and it was snowing outside.
“After the gate opened and they were let into the rooms it was like as if a ghost had entered the place. They weren’t talking.
“And after they took off their coats and warmed up they started to be people they started to talk to you. Many of them were very intelligent. So for me it was like a small miracle.”
You have a reputation for speaking your mind. I think like many people in this county you’re dissatisfied with the political situation. You say that you don’t want to enter politics, even though you’ve been asked by parties to run for election. Is there any way that you would like to, or feel that you should, as a wealthy businessman, influence the debate on politics in this country?
“I’m disappointed with Czech politics. Maybe it’s not only a feature of Czech politics, because when I follow the news or situations in other countries, this can be a problem of the system. On the other hand, I really think that it would be much better for Czech people if we had better politics.
“I am trying to use money and some influence to try to straighten up some things in the Czech Republic. For example, we support a foundation which is fighting corruption in our country.
“I also believe in the direct responsibility of businessmen. I do not like the idea that government is collecting money through taxes and is after that distributing the money. It’s not necessary, it’s not efficient.
“If you go directly to support education in your region, if you help schools teach about science, if you go to hospitals you can provide them support in technology.
“It’s a short cut. Because if you count how much it costs send money to the EU and to get it back, a significant part is lost.”
You seem like a very modest man, but you are also very wealthy. Has wealth changed you, do you think?
“I don’t think so. Fortunately, I think I’m immune to money. Because you cannot be happier if you drive a more expensive car, you cannot be happier if you eat two Wiener Schnitzels every day instead of one. It doesn’t make any difference. Happiness and money do not equate.”