Kiska: Slovakia's self-made man

THE SLOVAK Kennedy is what the Trend weekly called Andrej Kiska, who takes the presidential office on June 15.

THE SLOVAK Kennedy is what the Trend weekly called Andrej Kiska, who takes the presidential office on June 15.

Kiska in fact admitted that John F. Kennedy was his favourite president and it is hardly a coincidence that Kiska found inspiration in an American. His life in many ways resembles the proverbial American dream: born in the town of Poprad under the High Tatras, he started as a guest worker in the United States in the early 1990s, almost immediately after the fall of communism. He spent 18 months abroad, doing cleaning jobs or working at a petrol station before returning to his homeland and experiencing a failure in business which, in line with the American business philosophy, left him broke but ready to push on.

“Yes, it did not work out, but after I returned from America I did not doubt for a second that I wanted to start a business,” Kiska said in an interview with the Sme daily in 2007. “I had almost no money then, but I had an immense appetite for it. I saw it work there; that everyone of us has internal predispositions for some things. A person has to find within themselves what they are good at.”

Perhaps thanks to his persistence, he finally found a hole in the market and together with his brother founded a hire-purchase company, Triangel, the first one on the market, and then its competitor, Quatro.

During the presidential campaign Kiska faced criticism for his past business dealings involving Triangel and Quatro, with his critics likening them to a loan shark operation. Kiska argues that his model indeed created a system of hire-purchase loans with affordable instalments, so “that people were able to buy a television or a car, because not everybody had the available cash to do so”.

The companies harvested success on the market and attracted thousands of clients. In 2005, Kiska sold his shares and became a rich man. Subsequently, he founded the Dobrý Anjel (Good Angel) charity project, along with his friend, businessman Igor Brossmann.

Kiska claims he put Sk30 million (about €1 million) into the project at its start. Before long Dobrý Anjel became very successful. By May 2014, the number of regular donors participating in the project exceeded 143,000, with Kiska admitting to Sme that after he became well-known through the presidential campaign, the number increased dramatically.

Kiska claims he felt he should be helping others early on, after he returned from the US and before he made a fortune.

“When one creates revenue and values, one starts thinking what sense it all has, and what should be happening in one’s life,” he told Sme in 2007, when his charity project was still rather new and included about 28,000 donors. First, he thought he should help his hometown, Poprad, perhaps by building a private hospital there, but finally he settled on the idea of a big project to help cancer patients.

Kiska does not hide that he was inspired by Western, mainly American, philanthropists.
“I’ve always considered it a normal duty,” he told Sme seven years ago.

Kiska’s work both in business and charity has brought him public acclaim. In 2006, he was awarded the title Manager of the Year by Trend, and in 2011 he won the Crystal Wing prize for philanthropy.

Kiska announced his presidential candidacy in 2012, and in May 2013 he left Dobrý Anjel altogether. Speculations about his motivation to run for president have abounded since the very start. Some have been critical, saying his candidacy throws a bad light on the charity project (see box about charity). Kiska’s explanation is that both in business and in charity he has struggled with various obstacles, which eventually led him to believe that the change needs to come from above, and he decided he could be the one to facilitate it.

In many ways, comparisons with JFK have some accuracy. Like Kennedy, Kiska is the youngest person to be elected as his country’s president. The two men are alike in their political orientation. Both men assumed their office with optimism and a project to bring about change. But whether Kiska can live up to the comparison remains to be seen.

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