Growing up in Czechoslovakia before the fall of communism, Daniel Laco could never bring himself to embrace the party line that was taught in school each day. His teachers often lectured that it was only a matter of time before capitalism collapsed and communism would spread to the far corners of the world.
“We were taught that capitalism is bad,” Laco said in Billings recently. “They always told us that the natural phase of evolution started with primitive societies, then feudalism, then capitalism.” But communism, he was told, represented the next step in human evolution.
If you bought what the Marxist propagandists were selling, people in Eastern Bloc countries existed in an egalitarian “workers’ paradise.” But reality included waiting in long lines for shoddy merchandise and being under constant surveillance by government spies.
“Honestly, I didn’t believe it,” Laco said of the propaganda. “My grandfather and my father were different thinking people. I never bought into it.”
Czechoslovakia governed itself during the decades separating the two world wars. But communists seized power at the end of World War II after the ouster of the invading Nazis. The country remained in communist control until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where Laco lives.
In 1994, Laco traveled to Billings where he interned at MasterLube, a Billings chain of quick-lube stores. Laco said MasterLube owner Bill Simmons and other local business owners taught him about the free enterprise system and the importance of customer service, a concept that was especially foreign to people who had lived under communist rule.
“When I came here, I was a small student learning from a big professor,” he said of Simmons.
MasterLube has become well known both for its steadfast focus on customer service and for a business model that encourages its employees to develop to their full potential.
Laco has put those same concepts to use in his own venture, a business training company that he started soon after Slovakia switched to a market economy. He also borrowed MasterLube’s concepts when he started his own quick-lube business in 2000. Simmons is an investor in the business, and Laco’s son, Michal, worked with MasterLube employees in 2009. Michal is now attending the London School of Economics.
During his visit to Billings, Laco credited Simmons for getting him started in business. But Simmons said his friend deserves the credit.
“Daniel knows more about business than I do,” Simmons said.
“Slovakia has become a jewel of central Europe with an economy on par with New York City. A lot of that is because of Daniel’s efforts,” Simmons said.
Slovakia is now a world leader in the automotive industry. Major industrial companies from the European Union and the United States have made investments.
“In 1999, you couldn’t breathe the air in Bratislava, but now it’s much better,” Simmons said. “The waterfront along the Danube has undergone an extraordinary transition.”
Despite the remarkable progress, Laco says there’s still work to be done.
“The cars built in Slovakia are on the same par as those made in Germany,” he said. “Our production industry is world class, but on the other hand in some services, like health care, we are still very far from be being where we want to be.”
When you consider how far Slovakia has come in such a short time, the future looks bright for a former communist satellite.