I was doing great as the VP of Sales & Marketing in Romania and Connex was exceeding all expectations. Within three years, we had hired over 2500 employees and our customer base was growing exponentially by the hundreds of thousands. Our earnings were about four times higher than would be considered profitable and we were starting to stand out not just within Romania, but internationally.
TIW had its bid team on the ground in Prague, Czechia (formally the Czech Republic), competing for a cellular license for a third operator to challenge the two existing and successful incumbents. There were a lot of bidders and even our partner in Romania, Vodafone (who bought AirTouch in June 1999), elected to go separately and bid against us for this license.
I was asked to go to Prague to join the bid team in August 1999 to prepare a rollout strategy to be ready if we won. While the commitments in Romania were challenging, the ones we proposed for Czechia were nuts. But it was the only way we could win.
Al’s son Anton, 16 at the time, had arrived for his summer break and would join me while Al commuted back and forth between Bucharest and Prague while still fulfilling his TIW board obligations. Anton became my de facto assistant, but had a lot of free time to explore Prague, as I had no experience as a parent!
I knew that as a third operator in a country of only 10 million people, we’d need to look at our business model from a very different perspective. So, I focused on ways to upend the status quo and surprise our competitors.
In late October 1999, we got one day’s notice to make a final pitch to the Ministry officials. Our bid team sat in the lobby and waited for our turn. The officials insisted on this pitch being in Czech, so the representation for our local partner did a marvelous adlib on our behalf. A few days later, we were declared the winner!
We were explicitly informed that our bid commitments were non-negotiable, and any failure would result in the runner up taking over the license. Yikes! We never thought this would happen. It was very scary to think if we did not achieve these goals we would lose the license and more than $100 million USD spent in the three months leading up to our goals being verified by the Minister of Telecommunications.
If I was not so naive, I probably would not have taken the assignment. Back then I was fearless and believed not only could we achieve it, but I also wanted to be the one to lead the business. Those that knew me understood that ambitious side of me and knew I wanted my own operation to lead. I was going to be relentless in my pursuit until I had that job.
Al stayed on as the CEO in Romania for a time and also assumed that role for Czechia. But he handed off the Connex President role to his CFO. I was first given the role of managing Marketing, Sales, Information Technology Systems, and Customer Care while one of our most trusted Connex exec members and friends moved over from Bucharest to get the HR role started. Legal, Engineering, and Finance were under other heads at the outset.
It would take another 10-12 months before I stepped into the Chief Operations Officer role. I admit now that I was not very gracious in how I pursued it and I made some enemies along the way. To those people, I apologize for being so aggressive but I had this burning drive that was so strong and a vision so clear that I felt I could not compromise on it.
As was the case with every new country we came into, we needed staff, housing, and offices right away to get operations off the ground. We began the hiring process and leased office space from Regus, who specialized in temporary offices. I loved Romania, but Prague was more developed and it felt great to go to higher end restaurants, ice cream parlors, and more.
The one surprising difference was that many Czechs did not speak English at that time. German yes, but that didn’t help me! Thankfully, we hired strong English-speaking managers. We trained the trainers in English and they in turn trained the staff in Czech. This was 1999 and I know now, thanks to further development and the internet, many people in Czechia learn English from a young age.
A major commitment in our bid was to be operational in less than four months, which would break the world record we had already set in Romania. As we grew, our space at Regus went from being adequate to horribly inadequate within weeks. My assistant had joined me from Romania and she became the custodian of space, amongst her other duties.
Initially, Al had been given a large office where he could meet journalists, investors, etc. Within a few weeks of moving in, I asked him to move to a smaller office. He did, as he could see that many of us were sharing office space with no privacy, even when business discussions needed it.
Within a matter of a few more weeks, my assistant told Al that we needed his new office and that she had converted a broom closet as his replacement! Al moved in without complaint. I truly wish I could find a picture of him working out of a closet beside the elevator! By this point, we knew that our permanent offices had to be ready ASAP, as we had squeezed every bit of space possible from that place. I myself shared a space with far too many people, as private discussions were imperative within my work.
The team kept growing as we hired more staff and as the business strategies were being implemented. The strategies we had developed were about to upset a few apple carts, to put it mildly! I needed experienced, can-do leaders for the exec team as our challenge was monumental. Additionally, it was coming on Y2K, which had its inherent mystique as we were buying all new hardware and software systems, seeking assurances that we would go live and operational early in the new year without any glitches!
We filled out our executive team with others from our Romania operations, people from other branches of TIW and our affiliate organizations, and recommendations of people working throughout the world. Most importantly, we hired strong Czechs at management levels, and as we grew we gradually reduced the expat numbers. One of our first local hires eventually became one of my VPs. From 1999 to 2006, the Exec team underwent some changes but those who stepped in were equally talented and true to our management philosophies.
We hired strong Czech lawyers but, given the crazy bid commitments and the obstacles placed before us by our competitors (who had influence with the governing ministry), we also needed experienced telecom people. We had tight contracts with our suppliers with numerous penalty clauses should they miss key dates. If we failed, we would not go down alone!
Once again, we had a corporate legal name, Cesky Mobil, but knew that we needed a catchy brand name as everything in the country was Cesky this and Cesky that. The current operators were Eurotel (US firm) and Deutsche Telecom’s T-Mobile (which they later called Paegas). Not the catchiest brand names.
Market research found us a term that was a male name but also a colloquial term of endearment with the Czechs, Filip. We developed our marketing plan and brand strategy around this name and were really excited about rolling it out.
Then our legal team received a cease and desist letter from Philips, the giant Dutch company. Al spoke with the Philips investor relations rep and their legal department to no avail. We were stopped in our tracks. Much of our marketing materials were already printed and ready to go. It was going to be costly and time consuming to change our brand name. But we had no choice.
We moved to Plan B and selected another male name — Oskar! I knew that our team would have a lot of fun with this brand name and at least it stood out against the incumbents’ brands. Afterall, brand recognition was all about getting known in a positive way and we were about to deliver on that in spades! We scrambled and successfully launched a brand that was about to put Czechia on notice and generate a whole lot of excitement!
Next week, we’ll talk about some of the trials and strategies of coming into a country as the third operator instead of the first.
~ Karla xoxo
Detsky Dum, the building in the center of Prague where we had our first office temporarily rented from Regus.
A caricature of Al Tolstoy having an important meeting in his broom closet turned CEO office.
Oskar logo versus Filip logo.
I knew that our team would have a lot of fun with this brand name and at least it stood out against the incumbents’ brands.
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.