Dan the postman sat exhausted and alone in his Royal Mail van and bowed his head towards the steering wheel as he wept.
It was July 2020, the day the first Covid lockdown ended and crowds of people were streaming past the postman’s red van, parked in an English city centre. Dan was one of thousands of Royal Mail employees who had toiled for months through the pandemic, mostly working in solitary overdrive as masked, unvaccinated key workers. The staff of the 500-year-old company weren’t just delivering letters but Covid test kits, medicine and more. Everyone was ordering everything online—food, clothes, shoes, buggies, even bags of soil.
“I broke,” Dan said. “There was a build-up of emotion and anxiety. It was the tipping point. I just burst. I felt absolutely hopeless. I felt I had no control over who I was or how I operated.” He called his manager and went on sick leave.
A few weeks earlier, during the lockdown, a fossil-fuel billionaire from the Czech Republic called Daniel Křetínský bought 5 per cent of Royal Mail through his investment company. At first, no one took much notice of the purchase by Křetínský, who is nicknamed the Czech sphinx because of his reluctance to speak in public. But he kept buying, becoming the postal company’s largest shareholder, with a 15 per cent stake by March 2021. He owned 21 per cent a year later. By March 2023, his stake had risen to 25 per cent. The question was, what would he do with it?
Křetínský wields influence over Royal Mail at a time of deep crisis for the company. Losses are mounting and morale plummeting. Absence due to sickness is triple the average and 50 per cent higher than before the pandemic. The future of the company—which has roots going back to 1516, when Henry VIII appointed a Master of the Posts—is in doubt.
The implications of that are serious both for postal workers and for the rest of the British public. And the more one digs into Křetínský’s interest in Royal Mail, the more it becomes clear that this story has profound consequences for our national life. It forces us to confront the relationship between the powerful and the people who work in their companies; to examine the role of billionaires in the fates of historic assets; and to ask whether there is a risk that our cherished national institutions—and hard-won labour rights—could be turned upside down by people with their own commercial priorities. When Křetínský bought that first stake, these questions came to the fore—and as his influence has expanded, they have only grown more urgent.
This is all the more true because of the rate at which his activities in the UK are increasing. In January, Křetínský and his representatives met Kevin Hollinrake, minister for enterprise, markets and small business. At this meeting they discussed “a wide range of issues across their current and potential future UK investments,” Hollinrake said. In February, Křetínský’s energy company won a significant government contract to provide electricity, worth hundreds of millions of pounds. In effect, it gives him the green light to proceed with building a gas-fired power plant and battery storage project in Yorkshire. This is a billionaire who means business.
Křetínský was born in communist Czechoslovakia in 1975. His mother was a judge and his father is a professor of computer science. In 1989, when he was 14, the Berlin Wall fell. A tidal wave of privatisation flooded across eastern Europe, creating a new class of capitalist entrepreneur. Following a route paved by that earlier generation, the 47-year-old tycoon has built a European business empire. He has amassed his fortune—which now stands at $9.2bn, according to Forbes—at EPH Group, a little-known private company that he transformed into one of Europe’s largest energy providers in just 14 years. Křetínský turbo-charged EPH by acquiring coal mines and gas-fired power plants from better-known companies which were selling polluting fossil-fuel assets as part of their transition to renewable energy. His company owns a large stake in a Slovakian pipeline that has been a major transporter of Russian gas into the European Union.
Křetínský outlined his vision in a rare public speech in 2015 to students in Prague: “We want to make money in industries that are dying because we think they’ll die much more slowly than the general consensus says.” He was dressed as he often is, with a white shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and his characteristic rectangular spectacles and closely cropped hair. “Going with the crowd and following trends is always a mistake,” he said. EPH generated 28 per cent of its energy from coal in 2022. Environmentalists have slated the company, branding it a “coal villain” and “fossil hyena.”
Křetínský has used his fossil fuel profits to buy stakes in other companies, including 27 per cent of West Ham United Football Club, 10 per cent of Sainsbury’s, 49 per cent of Le Nouveau Monde, the main shareholder of France’s Le Monde newspaper and 29.9 per cent of Dutch delivery company PostNL. He also owns several Czech media outlets and AC Sparta Prague, his country’s most famous soccer club. According to Jérôme Lefilliâtre, a journalist at French newspaper Libération, Křetínský’s hero is John Pierpont Morgan, the 19th-century American capitalist who founded the biggest US bank, JPMorgan Chase. JPMorgan bankers including Chuka Umunna, the former Labour member of parliament, advise Křetínský on deals.
“He’s very ambitious,” said Lefilliâtre, who has written a book on Křetínský. “He wants to be one of the top billionaires in Europe.” The journalist added: “If he needs to fire people he will do it. He won’t be afraid of it. I mean, he is a businessman. What is most important for him is he won’t lose money with a business.”
Royal Mail lost £1bn in the 12 months to 26th March, raising the possibility of a breakup or a devastating restructuring if its fortunes don’t improve. Managers blame the loss on striking workers and high levels of absence. Trade union leaders blame bosses for “gross mismanagement” and creating a “toxic environment” to work in.
It's hard to imagine Britain without Royal Mail. People may grumble on their doorsteps about delivery delays, but posties—as postal workers call themselves—have connected the UK for centuries and have worked their way deep into the national story. Almost two thousand died fighting for the Post Office Rifles in the First World War. Postman Pat, a classic animated BBC TV series about a friendly rural postman, was given a 21st-century reboot and is entertaining new generations of children. Knitters make decorative hats for letterboxes—eccentric creations they describe as random acts of crochet kindness. Collectors buy Royal Mail stamps commemorating coronations and other national occasions.
Křetínský’s objective at Royal Mail is a mystery, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man with his nickname. A rare newspaper interview in late May offered a morsel of insight. However, the best clues to his strategy emerge from changes made since he became a shareholder, and from his past endeavours. These changes worry postal workers.
For Dan and thousands of postal workers like him, Royal Mail is more than a business—it’s a public service, like teaching, nursing or policing. Royal Mail staff celebrate having what they call “trust on the doorstep.” Managers value this too. Royal Mail chief executive Simon Thompson called that trust “magical.”
Dan’s grandfather was also a postman. He embodied the public service ideal in the eyes of his grandson. As a child, Dan marvelled at how many people greeted them when they walked to the shops together. “He knew everybody,” Dan said. “I have always been proud to be a postie. I am proud of what it represents, delivering a service to every home in the country.”
Getting to know customers isn’t just a social perk, according to Wayne Liddle, who worked as a postman after serving in the Royal Artillery. “You need to build customer relationships because you finish your round quicker,” Liddle explained. “It’s not just about making friends with the old lady at number 14. It’s that she will take a parcel for the guy across the road who’s always out but constantly ordering parcels. She saves you time.”
Over the last four decades, the public service ethos at Royal Mail has increasingly had to compete with another value: profitability. The change began when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government privatised state-owned companies such as British Telecom, British Gas and the water suppliers in the 1980s. Thatcher didn’t sell Royal Mail—she said she wasn’t prepared to privatise the queen’s head—but she turned the tide on state ownership.
Tony Blair’s New Labour government took a step towards privatising Royal Mail in 2000, with the Postal Services Act. Then, in 2013, after almost five centuries of state ownership, the coalition government of Conservative prime minister David Cameron sold shares in Royal Mail on the London Stock Exchange. Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable supported the sale. Postal workers didn’t. In a union ballot, 96 per cent voted against it, even though they were each promised about £1,500 worth of shares.
“It felt a strange thing, owning shares in Royal Mail,” Kevin Jolley, a postman at the time of privatisation, told me. He stopped work after a post van struck him in a depot on a rainy day in 2014, sending him crashing to the ground. “I class Royal Mail as being our company, belonging to the nation—every single person in this country.” It is a common view, and the prospect of rich individuals—let alone one billionaire—buying up great swathes of the company was always likely to provoke disquiet.
Sure enough, privatisation triggered an identity crisis. “Managers promoted a new identity as a profit-making business while workers held onto the legacy identity as a public service,” said Mislav Radić, an assistant professor at Bocconi University in Milan who has studied Royal Mail.
Tensions between workers and managers grew as the core business of delivering letters declined. Royal Mail is required by law to deliver letters to any and all of Britain’s more than 31m addresses six days a week, for the price of a postage stamp. But as email usage has increased, the volume of letters has plummeted—the total in the latest financial year, 7.3bn, representing just half the figure of a decade ago.
Křetínský is “very ambitious. He wants to be one of the top billionaires in Europe”
There was, however, an obvious solution to the letter drought, which may help to explain why Křetínský was interested in a company confronting such big challenges. Year after year, Dan and his colleagues found more and more parcels in the sacks they carried on their morning walks. Royal Mail parcel deliveries have increased gradually—but perceptibly—over the last decade, to 1.2bn in the latest financial year.
A surge in online shopping during the Covid lockdowns boosted Royal Mail’s parcels, profits and share price. But the pandemic also gravely strained the company and its employees. They struggled to deliver the letters on time as well as more parcels. Just 74.7 per cent of first-class mail was delivered the next working day in the 12 months to the end of March 2021, down from 91.4 per cent a decade earlier.
As the pandemic receded and the online shopping boom abated in early 2022, Royal Mail’s crisis spiralled out of control. Simon Thompson, the CEO whose subsequent career challenges have made plenty of newspaper headlines of late, planned an overhaul. He wanted to reduce the workforce by 10,000; massively increase automation; reorganise delivery routes and establish new postal drone routes to serve outlying islands; and start the working day later to shift more parcels at night. Union leaders had secured an agreement with Royal Mail to allow postal workers to participate in creating new services. But as the pandemic ended, managers weren’t interested in such ideas, Dan said. Working conditions deteriorated as stressed posties quit, making it even harder for those who stayed to do their jobs and take leave, he added.
Thompson needed postal workers to cooperate for his plan to work. But the Royal Mail hierarchy antagonised them by paying £567m of pandemic profits to shareholders—Křetínský and many others—instead of investing more in operations. Workers were rewarded with an unconditional pay rise of just 2 per cent in 2022—while inflation rose as high as 11.1 per cent. The pay rise would increase to 5.5 per cent if workers accepted certain terms. Instead, on 19th July 2022, they voted 97.6 per cent in favour of striking. They walked out on 18 days that year, an expensive decision during the worst cost-of-living crisis in memory, because striking workers don’t get paid. Dan wondered how those with children made ends meet.
The day after the strike vote was announced, doubts over whether Royal Mail could survive started to be voiced. The parent company revealed that it would change its name: International Distributions Services would replace Royal Mail on the London Stock Exchange. The Royal Mail brand would now only apply to an unprofitable domestic subsidiary. Another subsidiary that operated alongside it—the Amsterdam-based international parcels business General Logistics Systems, known as GLS—made a £296m profit in the latest financial year.
Management at the parent company vowed on that July day not to use GLS profits to subsidise Royal Mail losses. They also said the two subsidiaries might be spun off to become separate companies. Financial analysts expected GLS to benefit from such a breakup and doubted Royal Mail could thrive on its own. “We expect the market will ascribe minimal value to Royal Mail,” Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, said in a research note.
Vesa Equity Investment, the company through which Křetínský bought shares in Royal Mail, is a “supportive minority shareholder” and “fully supports Royal Mail’s continuing operations,” said his spokesman Daniel Častvaj. In late May Křetínský gave his first UK newspaper interview, to the Sunday Times. He ruled out bidding for full control of the postal company, which he said he expected to stay on the stock market. “It's good if every British citizen can invest in the shares,” Křetínský told the newspaper. “Both Royal Mail and GLS have to be successful companies,” but Royal Mail had to “adapt itself to the new reality,” he added.
In January, Royal Mail’s faltering performance, and concern about the bitter dispute between staff and management, prompted parliament to investigate. A committee of MPs called trade union representatives and Thompson, the CEO, to explain what was happening.
“Sitting behind all of this is boardroom politics and boardroom power struggles about who owns Royal Mail,” Dave Ward told MPs. Ward is general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, which represents 115,000 postal workers. He suggested Křetínský’s Vesa might be planning a private equity-style takeover, a possibility that Křetínský has since dismissed.
When Thompson’s turn to testify came, an MP asked him whether his management style was “toxic and confrontational.” Thompson denied this. He said Royal Mail was spending £250m a year on sick pay, due to the sickness rate being triple the average. Another MP asked if the sickness was a sign something was wrong with the company. Thompson said, “an enormous amount of our sickness is actually in a small proportion of the team.”
But MPs uncovered a dystopian drama at Royal Mail. Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chaired the committee, asked Thompson whether Royal Mail used technology to track postmen and women on their rounds to make them go faster. “That is not something we do,” Thompson replied.
Postal workers disagreed. After the hearing was broadcast on the internet, MPs received more than 1,000 emails, mostly from posties, casting doubt on various points made by Thompson. They said that a device they carried to track parcels and services—called a Postal Digital Assistant, or PDA—tracked them too. Posties challenged other assertions made by their boss. Many workers who contacted the committee didn’t want their names disclosed for fear of repercussions. Half a dozen postal workers declined to comment for this article for the same reason. Dan asked for his surname not to be published.
The MPs made an unusual decision. They recalled Thompson to testify in parliament again, and this time they asked him and fellow witnesses to swear an oath to tell the truth. At the second hearing, in February, MPs showed Thompson documents that indicated that PDAs were used to track the speed at which workers delivered the post and to dissuade them from stopping on their rounds. A screen in the parliamentary hearing room displayed street maps covered with large and small yellow dots.
“What are those yellow dots?” asked Jones, the committee chair.
“Those yellow dots display dwell time,” Thompson replied.
“What is dwell time?” Jones asked.
“Time where a postal worker is stationary,” Thompson said.
“…As I understand it, those dots get bigger if they are stood still for longer,” Jones said.
“Yes, that’s right,” Thompson replied.
Jones showed documents that indicated that data from the PDAs was used to rank postal workers against their colleagues. Thompson told the committee that PDA data had been used in 16 misconduct cases in the previous three months.
“Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Mr Thompson misled the committee when he first gave evidence,” the committee concluded in a March report. “The issues at Royal Mail have caused the committee great concern.”
What Thompson referred to as “dwell time” is crucial to being an effective postal worker, according to Liddle, the former soldier who quit working as postman in 2022, exhausted by the job. Dwell time is when postal workers talk to customers, he said. Eliminating it weakens the relationship with customers and exhausts the company’s main asset: its people, he said.
The parliamentary investigation didn’t deter Křetínský. Days after the committee published its report, he raised his shareholding to 24 per cent. As rumours spread in the press on 27th March that Royal Mail might be put into insolvency, he raised his stake again, to 25 per cent.
Each additional Royal Mail share Křetínský has acquired has increased his voting power and made postal workers more curious about him. But most news articles that mention his name aren’t about the man. They are about what he buys: a £65m mansion in Hampstead; a €43m château near Paris; 10.3 per cent of US retailer Foot Locker; 45 per cent of German wholesaler Metro; and 10 per cent of French supermarket chain Casino, which he is seeking to control with a new investment of more than €1bn.
Křetínský’s money talks. Most of the time, the sphinx prefers to stay silent.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Patrik Tkáč, a Slovak dealmaker, was among the eastern Europeans eager to take advantage of the new capitalist order. In 1999 his new bank, J&T, hired Křetínský, then an ambitious law graduate. And when, in 2009, Tkáč and Czech billionaire Petr Kellner started the new energy company EPH, Křetínský took on the chairmanship. (When Kellner died in 2021, he was the Czech Republic’s richest man; Křetínský is in a long-term relationship with his daughter Anna Kellnerová, an Olympic showjumper.) He expanded EPH by purchasing fossil fuel assets in Poland, Germany, Italy and the UK. He increased his stake until he became EPH’s controlling shareholder.
The bet on fossil fuels yielded big results when energy prices soared after Russia invaded Ukraine. Revenue nearly doubled to €37.1bn last year and profit tripled to €3.8bn. (EPH says it plans to stop using coal by the end of 2030 and invest in natural gas, biomass and hydrogen instead—but questions remain over whether and how this will be achieved.)
Křetínský used his carbon profits to buy retail, logistics, real estate and media assets across Europe. In 2019, a particularly high-profile acquisition forced him into the spotlight in France, when he bought 49 per cent of the main shareholder of Le Monde. The purchase caused uproar among Le Monde’s staff because Křetínský risked becoming the first shareholder to be admitted without the newsroom being consulted first. More than 460 journalists signed an article expressing concern about the perceived threat to editorial independence.
The controversy forced Křetínský to speak publicly about his values. He gave a speech in Paris and wrote an article in the Libération newspaper in which he acknowledged the importance of democracy and free speech. “The press has an essential democratic role,” Křetínský wrote.
The article angered Jakub Patočka, a Czech journalist critical of Křetínský. He contacted an editor at Libération and sent over an article arguing that Křetínský’s Czech media outlets criticised politicians who didn’t promote his agenda and were sceptical about the climate movement. During the Black Lives Matter protests, Patočka wrote in his article, one of Křetínský’s magazines put an image of a black Adolf Hitler on its cover and a headline that translates as: “Black Lives Matter—Will we kneel before all the criminals who said they wanted to mend their ways?”
The Libération editor showed Patočka’s article to Lefilliâtre. “We were OK for publishing it,” Lefilliâtre said. “I don’t know what happened after that.” This editor said the article was an opinion piece and they were expecting an investigation with more reporting. The article wasn’t published.
Křetínský’s connections to Libération run deeper than his own article. Denis Olivennes, the former director general of Libération in post when Křetínský’s article was published in 2020, and current president of the company that owns the paper, is also president of the supervisory board of Křetínský’s CMI France, which owns French magazines Elle and Marianne. Last year, Křetínský agreed to lend Libération €14m to stabilise its finances. “Denis Olivennes has never been involved in the publication (or non-publication) of any article in Libération,” a spokesman for Olivennes wrote in response to questions. The spokesman stressed that the loan would never impinge on the editorial independence of Libération.
"The only reason Daniel Křetínský is interested in media is to influence the public debate in his favour,” Patočka said in an interview. “The fact Libération accepted money from him after publishing his article whitewashing his profile, while refusing to publish my response, speaks for itself.”
Křetínský has “absolutely no influence” over his media outlets, said his spokesman, Daniel Častvaj. “We may not always agree with their editorial decisions, but we fully respect their editorial freedom and would never act in any way to undermine this,” he said.
Cat Hobbs, the founder of We Own It, a campaign to renationalise Royal Mail, energy, water, transport and health services, is wary of the way privatisation empowers billionaires. “Privatisation has failed,” Hobbs said during a protest near parliament in February, as she posted hundreds of letters from people who agree with her under the revolving door of a government office. “We were promised better services, lower costs and more sense of ownership and we got the complete opposite—higher costs, worse services, less accountability.”
Worldwide, governments have sold more than $3.6trn worth of state-owned companies since 1988. And according to the Economist, the wealth of crony capitalists—who often have close connections to the state and operate in sectors such as natural resources, property, banking and construction—has risen from $315bn (or 1 per cent of global GDP) 25 years ago, to $3trn (or nearly 3 per cent of global GDP) today. The Czech Republic ranks second after Russia on the Economist’s Crony Capitalism Index. Jiří Pehe, an adviser to former Czech president Václav Havel in the 1990s, wrote in response that the foundations of crony capitalism in his country were laid during the process of privatisation after the Berlin Wall fell.
According to a 2022 poll by Survation, 68 per cent of the public want Royal Mail to be renationalised. But with the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, the cause of state ownership is weak in parliament. Besides, renationalisation wouldn’t guarantee improvements. Consider the Post Office, a former part of Royal Mail that the state still owns. In one of the worst corporate miscarriages of justice in UK history, the Post Office wrongly accused hundreds of sub-postmasters of fraud and theft over 15 years. Financial ruin and wrongful imprisonment followed—and four suicides have been linked to the case.
What can make a difference is negotiating improvements to the terms of employment. In April, Royal Mail managers and CWU union leaders reached agreement in their year-long dispute. They agreed to a 10 per cent pay rise over three years; to give 20 per cent of future profits to workers; no compulsory redundancies until April 2025; compulsory Sunday shifts for new employees only; and to start joint working groups to review the causes and cost of absence and to explore ideas that build a positive culture. Royal Mail pledged not to use technology to de-humanise the workplace or track individuals in real time.
In May, Royal Mail said Thompson would step down as CEO this year.
Dan intended to vote against the labour agreement. But two weeks after the Thompson announcement, the CWU suspended the ballot because it said the company wasn’t taking responsibility for the declining service.
Dan has decided to leave Royal Mail for a job at a non-profit. He has a parting idea for the company. He believes businesses will pay a premium for a reliable service where managers respect employees, who in turn respect their customers. Full conversion to electric vehicles would also respect the environment and be popular with customers, he said.
“If you have a healthy environment to work in then less people will be sick,” Dan said. “If the intention of Daniel Křetínský is to really care about the postal worker then he has to support renegotiation of the deal.”
The sphinx, inscrutable as ever, declined to comment.