Petr Kellner, the reclusive Czech billionaire who built a business empire with $52 billion in assets over three decades to become the country’s richest man, died in a helicopter crash in Alaska. He was 56.
Kellner was among five people killed in the March 27 crash of the Airbus AS350 B3 chopper, which went down near the Knik Glacier in Alaska, according to local authorities. One passenger survived and is in stable condition. Kellner had been on vacation at a remote luxury lodge located 40-minute flight from Anchorage, according to a statement cited by the Associated Press.
After the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, Kellner had forged a holding company with interest spanning finance, telecommunications, manufacturing, media and biotechnology. Kellner’s death coincides with a critical juncture for the company, called PPF Group NV: the country’s largest private-equity group is negotiating the sale of its Czech and Slovak financial assets; it’s also nearing conclusion of a review of its telecommunication infrastructure unit.
“As a manager, he was the most content-oriented and least hierarchical person I’ve met,” said Jean-Pascal Duvieusart, who first got to know Kellner in 1999 and later joined his company, becoming a co-owner.
Going forward, minority shareholder Ladislav Bartonicek will manage all of PPF’s operations, the company said.
Kellner, an avid snowboarder and kite surfer, had a net worth of $15.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Born in 1964 in what was then Czechoslovakia, Kellner studied economics and worked as a salesman for an office-equipment distributor shortly after the Communist Party imploded in what became known as the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
When the state began selling assets such as industrial firms and refineries in a voucher-for-shares program, Kellner set up a fund in 1991 and acquired stakes in 202 companies. The fund wound up handling the sixth-biggest batch of assets offered for sale at the time, according to the firm, which then became known as PPF Group, and in which Kellner controlled about 99%.
Using vouchers and a loan, PPF started accumulating assets and built a 20% stake in Ceska Pojistovna, the country’s largest insurer, which Kellner turned around and into the bedrock of his wealth. He cashed out in 2013, selling the insurance assets to Italy’s Generali in a $3.3
PPF’s broad operations include the Home Credit Group unit, one of the largest consumer lenders in central and eastern Europe. The company has also expanded into China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan., and PPF’s assets totaled 44 billion euros ($52 billion) as of June 2020.
In the two pending transactions, PPF is negotiating a sale of financial assets to Moneta Money Bank AS in a share swap that could give PPF control over the Czech lender. The review of the telecom unit, called Cetin Group BV, may include a sale of a minority stake in the company, either directly or through the stock market.
While Kellner wasn’t publicly active in the political arena, his business in China caused some controversy at home. He had been among business leaders accompanying President Milos Zeman, a promoter of closer business ties with China, on his trips to Beijing.
Late in 2019, PPF and Home Credit sought to fend off allegations in local media that the lending arm had hired a public-relations agency to help improve China’s image back at home. Home Credit said its goal was only to “rationalize the public debate” and “weaken extreme positions in the public sphere” by presenting facts about doing business and life in the Asian nation.
Kellner had been a guest at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, which organizes heliskiing trips into the Alaska back-country. After the helicopter, which is owned by Soloy Helicopters of Wasilla, Alaska, didn’t return on the evening of March 27, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center dispatched a team to the last known location, where they discovered the debris and managed to airlift out the sole survivor, according to a statement.
Kellner kept a low public profile and was known to closely guard his private life. His company’s annual reports were a rare platform through which he shared his thoughts about business and personal priorities. In his most recent musings, the 2019 report, he lamented the damage wrought by the coronavirus crisis, saying “for someone like me, who loves to create and build, there is nothing worse than seeing decline and destruction.”
“He was very private because he was looking for the pleasures of the thing he was doing rather than looking for the pleasure of being recognized for the thing he was going,” said Duvieusart.