The Skrivanek translation agency is one of the biggest providers of language services in Central and Eastern Europe. This Czech-owned multinational firm looks a lot different today than it did when the company owner and founder Pavel Skrivanek established a small translation service fifteen years ago.
"I started the company by myself in 1992. It was a one man show at the start and it now has 360 administrative staff. The company has more than fifty offices in three continents. In its first month we had sales of around 10,000 crowns. Now we have monthly sales of about forty million crowns."
The rapid growth of the Skrivanek agency and Pavel Skrivanek's achievement in building up the company from scratch makes him one of the success stories of the post-communist era in the Czech Republic. As a young economics student around the time of the Velvet Revolution, Pavel Skrivanek was well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities that arose once the political and economic system changed in this country.
The work he finds himself doing today is certainly a far cry from the expectations he had when he first went to college in the late 1980s:
"I kind of expected either to leave the country or to work - as everyone would expect - for the Czechoslovak foreign trade company, probably exporting machinery or films or whatever - something in that area. So there were actually two paths I was considering, either to stay and work for the state foreign-trading monopolies or simply to emigrate."
Pavel founded his company in the early 1990s shortly after leaving university. He hadn't initially planned to go into business himself, but quickly decided he wanted to start his own firm after a brief but deeply unsatisfying experience working as an air-gun salesman:
"I started it after one month of employment. At that time my monthly salary was something like a hundred dollars and I had to commute two hours to and from work. I said to myself that this was probably not an ideal situation and that I should do something about it."
Pavel decided to set up a translation service because it was a business he knew something about, as he had already done some translation work to earn extra money when he was a student. Like many successful entrepreneurs, his early forays into the market had a very hand-to-mouth feel about them and he often struggled to make ends meet:
"I was doing interpreting, which was well paid, and using the money to subsidise the development of the translation company. I also took some risks like taking out advertising for translations in the hope that this would bring in orders for translating which would pay for the advertising. Luckily, things worked out well."
Although Pavel gradually began to get a foothold on the translation market, he still continued to take some big gambles in order to increase turnover:
"Since the beginning it has always been our motto not to say no to the customer. On quite a regular basis, customers wanted large amounts and they wanted them quickly. While our competitors would hesitate, we always simply said yes. Then either me or other people would be sitting at five o'clock in the morning phoning angry translators and trying to persuade them to do jobs for us. We regularly won big orders without being sure if we could do them or not. But we accepted them and simply did everything possible to arrange it for the client. I think you have to do that when you are starting out."
Skrivanek's aggressive and fearless attitude saw the company go from strength to strength and win translation orders from prestigious clients such as Volvo and Tesco when they moved into the Czech market. Pavel says his company has also enjoyed a lot of success because the nature of the Czech economy has ensured that there is a big demand for translations and language services:
"The market became bigger with the internationalisation of the Czech economy. The success of the Czech economy, especially the export industries and the manufacturing sector has been the background for the success of the translation industry in the Czech Republic. You have some countries which have comparably bigger economies but are not so export oriented, like Poland or Ukraine for example. Their translation industries are not as big as the translation industry in the Czech Republic."
Skrivanek has also benefited from the advantages of the Czech labour market, which even today offers employers skilled personnel at competitive costs:
"Apart from Prague, I think the productivity of the Czech labour market is excellent. It's still very good in comparison to other countries. Basically this is because labour is still relatively cheap. I think Czech workers are good and yet they still ask for little compared with other places. They generally have quite modest demands. The ratio that's of interest to entrepreneurs - what you get and how much you pay for it - is excellent in the Czech Republic."
Having firmly established itself on the Czech translation market, where it has opened branches in 19 locations around the country, Skrivanek has been looking further afield in recent years. It now has dozens of offices located in 12 different countries including Germany and China. The increasingly international nature of the Skrivanek company means it is now able to offer its clients translations in well over a hundred language combinations. It now also runs a language teaching operation in conjunction with its translation services.
The translation industry is one where quality is notoriously uneven and horror stories about shoddy translations abound, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite having a number of quality certificates, Pavel Skrivanek hints that maintaining standards is one of the biggest challenges his company continually faces:
"The price is very important. Customers simply don't want to pay a crown extra for anything. Naturally they watch the cost of everything, which is logical given that they also have to compete on their own markets. Price competition is an important factor. It used to be less so. Customers are more price sensitive than they were previously. It's a difficult business."
Difficult business or not, it's undeniable that Pavel Skrivanek has been a huge success in the language services industry. In just fifteen years, the Skrivanek agency has grown into a multi-million dollar company, which continues to expand rapidly. Refreshingly, Pavel says he has no intention of conforming to the stereotype of many self-made men, who are often portrayed as driven workaholics. He claims he'd much prefer to enjoy the benefits of being a success:
"Personally, I try to take it easy. I think that's the mark of a
really successful businessman - someone who has a successfully operating
company and still only manages to work a few hours a day."
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