The man behind the 'Czech sphinx': Tycoon Křetínský sets sights on global empire

Czechia's third-richest man, poised to take over the British Royal Mail, has been called enigmatic with some questioning his business ties and deals. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 07.06.2024 13:48:00 (updated on 07.06.2024) Reading time: 4 minutes

One of Czechia’s richest men Daniel Křetínský is making international headlines following a successful bid to buy huge British postal company Royal Mail for GBP 3.6 billion (CZK 104 billion).

The billionaire is no stranger to domestic media attention, though, and has also made the news in Czechia after the club he owns, Sparta Prague, announced plans to move stadium next decade. The successful entrepreneur has come under fire, however, for controversial business links and shady practices at times.

A royal takeover

Křetínský is the founder and owner of multinational energy company EPH, through which he submitted a bid to purchase Royal Mail last month. In an interview with Reuters, Křetínský said that Royal Mail requires urgent and substantial investment in order to maintain its market share and adapt to shifting market trends. 

Czechia’s third-richest man (worth CZK 212 billion) emphasized the importance of logistics companies capitalizing on the increasing demand for parcel delivery and stressed the urgency for immediate investment.

However, British trade unions are against the takeover, citing uncertainty about what Křetínský’s exact plans are for the 500-year-old mail company. The British government can block the deal, which is set to be reviewed and finalized later this year.

Moving football stadium

Křetínský’s plans to build a new home for Czechia’s most-decorated football club Sparta Prague, of which he is a majority shareholder, also illustrate his growing business empire. The 1893-founded club wants to move to a 35,000-capacity stadium; Sparta’s current home is unfit for reconstruction. 

Křetínský, who purchased the Prague club in 2004 and has described his ownership of Sparta as “something between a mission and way of life” as reported by international business site Bloomberg, will spend around CZK 4.5 billion on the stadium move.

A focus on energy

The 48-year-old started his career as a lawyer before becoming a partner at J&T Finance Group. He made his billions through EPH, which owns a series of coal plants, gas assets, and energy companies across different European countries and employs over 25,000 people. 

Interestingly, EPH is co-owned by PPF Group, an international investment firm founded by Czechia’s former richest man Petr Kellner before his untimely death in 2021. Křetínský likes to be around money; for a number of years he dated Kellner’s daughter, Anna.

As British news site The Guardian describes, commentators often refer to him as the “fossil hyena” for buying up discounted fossil-fuel businesses as their previous owners strive towards net zero carbon emissions. In the past, the billionaire bought two French coal-fired power plants.

Earlier this year, the billionaire bought a 20 percent stake in the steel division of the large ThyssenKrupp joint-stock company; Křetínský plans to utilize the power plants he controls in eastern Germany as part of the deal. Last year, EPH also purchased two of the Netherlands’ largest power plants.

Other business ventures

Křetínský also has connections in media, owning the former large Ringier ČR publishing house – encompassing popular tabloid Blesk and daily news site – which was then renamed to Czech News Center. 

Other high-key assets include stakes in big supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s in the UK and France’s Casino; large media brands including France’s Elle magazine; and holdings in British top-flight football club West Ham United.

Not without controversy

Křetínský’s appearance on the Panama Papers, which detail tax evasion, put him in the spotlight for the wrong reasons in 2016 – he established several companies in so-called tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands. 

He also came under fire for moving his subsidiary energy company EP Commodities out of Czechia in 2022 after the Czech government announced a windfall tax on firms that made unfair profits following energy-price rises in that same year.

A close business connection for decades, Patrik Tkáč, also muddies the waters of Křetínský’s business ventures. Co-owner of J&T, prosecutors have accused Tkáč of unfairly and corruptly gaining access to buy and develop land on Atlantic Ocean islands. J&T has also been accused of routinely financing a Czech billionaire, Radovan Vítek, who “perpetrated a massive scheme to defraud his business partners.”

Towards the end of 2023, a Křetínský-owned power plant in northern England was also ordered to pay GBP 23 million (CZK 664 million) for charging excessive payments.

As the Royal Mail deal awaits finalization, Křetínský’s latest international venture underlines aspirations to expand and diversify his business empire on top of domestic efforts, like Sparta’s expansion. Nicknamed the "Czech sphinx" for his enigma, whether Křetínský’s sometimes questionable business connections and dealings prevent the deal remains to be seen.

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