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Czech tycoon Kretinsky eyes German steel and big subsidies

July 28, 2023

While Europe was worrying about paying its energy bills, Daniel Kretinsky spent 2022 raking in cash that he now wants to invest in ThyssenKrupp's steel unit.

A picture of Daniel Kretinsky
Kretinsky presents a significantly more sophisticated image than other Czech business leaders after the Communist eraImage: EPH

The energy crisis helped the owner of Czech energy holding Energeticky Prumyslovy (EPH) post a record profit ­­of €4.6 billion ($5.09 billion) in 2022. Reports suggest that the Czech billionaire might use those funds to buy the steel unit of Germany's industrial giant ThyssenKrupp.

That has many, not for the first time, asking: who is Kretinsky, anyways?

On the surface, at least, the taciturn 48-year-old seems a contrast to the older, rather gruff and arrogant generation of Czech oligarchs that emerged in the post-communist years.

Suave and cosmopolitan, on the rare occasions he talks to the media Kretinsky likes to focus on his art collection, and do so while sipping green tea.

Acquisitions across Europe have given him an international profile the likes of which few Central European business magnates have achieved.

Jerome Lefilliatre, a media and business reporter who wrote a biography of Kretinsky in 2019, described him as "extremely intelligent, very ambitious, very determined, and very opportunistic — the perfect businessman," in an interview for French daily Le Monde in 2020.

German Minister of Economics Robert Habeck holds a placard stating the funding of the decarbonisation project "tkH2Steel" at Thyssenkrupp Steel in Duisburg, Germany, on July 26, 2023
As Economy Minister Habeck hands out hiuge state subsidies to decarbonize the steel industry, takeover fantasies run wildImage: Ina Fassbedner/AFP/Getty Images

But there is suspicion that Kretinsky's remarkable — and largely unexplained — rise to Czechia's second-richest person with a fortune of $9.4 billion (€8.49 billion), in fact relied heavily on the same networks as those earlier, unreconstructed tycoons.

Indeed, looking closer, the mask can slip, with the billionaire's words often at odds with his actions.

"To the extent that our results were due to the Russian invasion, I do not celebrate them," Kretinsky told the Czech edition of Forbes Magazine in April as he discussed EPH's bumper year."

Short-term bets against energy transition

At its core, Kretinsky's empire, which has an estimated value of over €9 billion, is also deeply old fashioned. EPH is built on coal and a simple bet against Europe's energy transition.

When Slovak oligarch group J&T and PPF — an investment vehicle owned by Czech oligarch Petr Kellner before he died in 2021 — founded EPH in 2009, Kretinsky became chairman and a 20% shareholder, pitching him into partnership with the top privatization barons of the post-communist era.

By 2014 he had full control and was building out EPH using Slovak pipeline operator Eustream — then the main carrier of Russian gas imports to Europe — as a cash cow on which he could leverage debt.

A feverish acquisition drive followed, as cut-price coal-based assets were bought from European energy giants keen to clean up their portfolios.

A coal excavator in a German lignite mine
As Russia cut gas supplies to Europe, Germany replaced some of it with coal power massively boosting Kretinsky's fortunesImage: Imago Images/Panthermedia/Martin33

A key deal was the 2016 capture by LEAG — a partnership with PPF — of a German lignite mine and power plants from Swedish state giant Vattenfall.

But the real kicker was Germany's decision to phase out coal from power production by 2038. The government in Berlin has agreed to pay €1.75 billion to have LEAG shutter four power plants slightly ahead of schedule, with further payments for other units to be kept as a back-up during the switch to renewable energy.

Now Germany's second-largest coal miner, EPH has gone on to buy ageing coal-based assets in seven other European countries, and controls strategic portions of the national networks of Italy and the UK.

"Most investors need to stress some sort of long-term horizon, but Kretinsky ditched that idea," says Jan Osicka from Masaryk University in Brno, Kretinsky's home town. "With hindsight there was clearly space for someone to make this bet on slower decarbonisation. The key for EPH was the scale," he told DW

The unwanted investor

However, Kretinsky hasn't kept all his eggs in one basket, spending recent years shopping enthusiastically in Western Europe.

Significant stakes have been acquired in supermarket chains in the UK, France and Germany. On Friday, embattled French retail giant Casino said Kretinsky was one of two candidates in the running to buy the debt-laden grocery chain. Stakes have also been taken in postal services in the UK and Netherlands.

Having previously joined a trend that sees the Czech media landscape being bought out by oligarchs seeking political clout, Kretinsky has sought to replicate the trick in France. But journalists at Le Monde blocked his attempt to secure control of France's newspaper of record, proclaiming commitment to an independent press.

In addition, Ukraine labelled German wholesale giant Metro a sponsor of war, claiming that "key shareholder [Kretinsky]… is closely linked to the oil, gas and banking sectors of Russia's economy."

German state subsidies aim to make steel green

Back to basics

Following these adventures, ThyssenKrupp Steel looks like a deal straight out of Kretinsky's old playbook.

An EPH spokesman failed to respond when asked if the billionaire is interested, but the carbon-heavy industrial giant is unlikely to be expensive. ThyssenKrupp has been trying to offload its steel business for some months — and it looks set for a subsidies bonanza.

Following huge worker protests, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck promised in June to do whatever it takes to help decarbonize the steel industry in order to preserve it. Berlin has readied €2 billion in support for a planned "green" steel plant running on hydrogen.   

In that climate, Kretinsky may fancy his chances of securing further support to keep the presses running, while EPH's nearby coal assets would likely happily supply energy.

"Kretinsky's assumption that government's would have to keep his energy assets afloat turned out correct, and you could make similar assumptions regarding ThyssenKrupp," said Osicka. "The German government has made it clear it won't allow these key industries to fall, and it's guaranteed that huge sums will be pumped into modernization." 

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe