The story of our family business called Rodinná firma Pleva is being told you by its founders Hanka and Milan Pleva. Make yourself comfortable because this is going to be a long talk.
Our joint business started right after the revolution – we have always been very diligent and active, so we welcomed the change of regime. My husband kept bees as a hobby for many years. He enjoyed apiculture, but we still weren't sure whether we could make a living for our family with three children this way.
Even then, we used propolis ointment and propolis tincture and knew that bee products have miraculous effects. In addition, customers who came to buy honey often asked about these products because they were in short supply everywhere. So, we manufactured about 50 pieces of tincture and "hit the streets" to see if anyone would be interested. The result surprised and amazed us. We sold everything within an hour. And the ointment with propolis had exactly the same results. From this point on, we changed our business plan from beekeeping to processing bee products and the number of our bee colonies has stabilized at 60.
Milan Pleva (right) with children at the bees in the woods behind Kostelec nad Orlicí
We had potatoes and everlasting strawflowers in reserve
The switch from employment to a career in business was rather precarious for us. So, we rented a field and planted potatoes there. We were counting on the fact that in case of failure we would at least have something to eat. In the next field we grew everlasting strawflowers that we wanted to dry and sell in various floral arrangements.
„I've always wanted my own little business. That's why I tried growing strawflowers in addition to bee products. But a lot of people had this idea, and so the dried flowers largely stayed in our attic, as dozens of vendors offered them on the market. I was not lazy and tried to make dry arrangements and candlesticks out of them. In a few chilly December days, I made money on them to buy winter boots for all three kids. They were already actively involved in our business - helping with candlesticks, rolling candles, stacking boxes, assembling ointments and cups, or selling with us. It meant a lot to us, you could say that they pulled the cart of business with us.“
The office was in a corner of the living room
Milan Pleva and his “home office” in a temporary residence in Potštejn
We used all our modest savings to buy raw materials and packaging, so we had to give up our comfort and set up our office in the living room. It was just an ordinary chair and a board that served as our desk.
There my husband dutifully did the bookkeeping, because we didn't have funds to have our own accountant, and in 1991 he started to learn by trial and error with our first computer. There were no courses and none of our friends and relatives knew how to use a computer, so he spent long days and nights in front of the screen.
The cellar was full of packaging
Paradoxically, however, the biggest problem of the business turned out to be somewhere else, namely in finding suitable packaging. In the beginning, we used containers for ointments and jars that we bought at pharmacies.
But we wanted to buy them at lower prices and sell cosmetics in nicer packaging. But there was no internet back then, and we only had telephone directories. So, we sat down and called and called until we found a company that would supply us with packaging. And then came the second stumbling block - the amount of packaging. The company was used to producing hundreds-of-thousands pieces and we needed about 3 thousand. After long negotiations, we agreed to 10 thousand pieces, and we kept the packaging for the propolis ointment and tincture in the cellar for many years.
„We also made the labels on our own. I wrote the names of the products on a typewriter on A4 self-adhesive paper. I cut them with scissors and glued on the products. It seems unbelievable today, but that was the beginning.“
I carried the products in a frame backpack
Nowadays, the beginnings of our sales seem like funny stories. I packed the ointments and tinctures into a frame backpack and at 4.30 took the train to Prague. At the marketplace, I stacked several boxes on top of each other, draped a tablecloth over them and displayed the products.
Milan Pleva selling in České Budějovice
I started at Havelská street market and Na Pankráci market. In 3 or 4 days I had sold out and headed home. The sales gradually increased, and so I gradually took up to the frame backpack a bag in one and the other hand. When I couldn't take any more, I started using a car - thanks to that I could also take honeys, which were in great demand.
Hanka and Milan Pleva selling in Jičín in 1996
The new manager built wooden stalls at Havelská street market, which he rented out. The price was rather high and the sales counter was huge by my standards, therefore I decided to sell more goods to keep costs down. The choice fell on nylon tights. In regular stores, they were expensive and there was no assortment to choose from, so I arranged with the manufacturer in Varnsdorf, and gradually I was selling almost his entire range of products and each customer could find her size or pattern.
Hanka Plevová, sleeping in the car
A passenger car was no longer enough, so I bought a Škoda 1203 van in its prime. But it was a very slow vehicle, so I left it in Prague as a mobile warehouse. Warehouse space in Prague was very expensive at that time, so I had to think economically. Over the weekend I parked it on Letná, where there was plenty of space. Unfortunately, one Friday I was carrying new hosiery into my mobile storage unit, and someone apparently watched my activity and “cleaned it out” over the weekend. That's why I moved my warehouse into my friend's caravan.
Overnight stay was not very comfortable
I used to sleep in dormitories or at the main railway station. Neither location was very pleasant. In the dormitory there used to be 10 to 15 people in one room, and you had no idea who your roommate was. Moreover, I always kept the proceeds from the previous days in my waist bag, so it was quite dangerous. Sleeping at the Main Railway Station was not the most comfortable - to avoid lying on the floor, I always got 2 banana boxes from the local greengrocers. There were several of us sleeping there in this way, so I was simply one of the local homeless.
When I started driving, my sleepovers became a luxury - I drove to a quiet alley and slept in the car. Unfortunately, hygiene was still taking place at the railway station or in public toilets :-).
I didn't stop all day
When my husband left for Prague by express train in the dark on Monday, I started a three-shift operation, but all three shifts were mine - I was on my own. I was looking for packaging suppliers, answering letters, packing deliveries, and of course making candles and other products. On Friday I even went to Hradec Králové to sell.
Hanka Plevová with her mother in the new establishment in 1999
I had three small children at home who not only needed cooked meal, to be washed and put to sleep, but also to be cuddled, listened to and to play with their mum. After I signed homework and practiced multiplication with my oldest, I ran straight to dry the hay or feed our sheep and rabbits. Those 12 years of trotting took a toll on my health.
The products were waiting for authorisation even for a whole year
We wanted to have a complete line of bee cosmetics including spray, creams, royal jelly and propolis lotions and shampoo, but it was quite difficult to get authorisation. In point of fact, state institutions were not used to private companies, let alone individuals. Some of our products have been waiting a whole year to be authorised for manufacture. But the waiting paid off and we even got a manufacturing authorisation for bee venom ointment - and since then we have been still the only ones in the Czech Republic who process bee venom into cosmetics.
To manufacture cosmetics, we bought a small house, which served as a former apprenticeship centre. I was manufacturing there myself and in addition I was working as a sales representative. I was visiting drugstores, beekeeping stores and health food stores and offered our products. There was a lot of interest.
In 1994, problems came
We were expanding our product range, but the original production facility no longer had enough capacity for us. We decided to buy a plot of land and build a new establishment in Potštejn. Thanks to my active mother, who handled the inheritance proceedings, we managed to get the plot. However, the construction was complicated by heavy waterlogging of the site, which required additional construction costs of 1 million crowns.
Foundation plate of the new establishment had to be 1 m high because of the subsoil (1997)
But our troubles were far from over. Hypoteční banka, which provided us with a loan, was sold to the Nomura financial group, which froze everything, including loans. We invested our own money in the construction, and a loan was not in sight. After considerable difficulties, we reached an agreement with Komerční banka, although the interest and the fee for arranging the loan were truly high.
Construction of a new establishment in Potštejn (1998)
The construction was subsequently complicated by millennial water that flooded the village where our construction company was based. Its owner asked us if we could suspend construction for 6 months so that he could help the affected villagers. We were solidary. The final inspection process and correspondence with the authorities took so long that we did not open the new establishment until 2 April 1999.
New establishment before completion (1999)
The business was going well, but there were problems too
We produced healing products, a honey line for the skin, and a line of cosmetics with propolis and royal jelly. We added shampoos and hair lotions and expanded our product range with herbal pillows, which my wife sewed herself for a while. Well, we've always been used to do things with our own hands.
But we still faced problems – the authorities were coming to check what they had already checked four times and a lot of paperwork was taking our time and draining energy. We were always on the move and earning money to repay the loan. We didn't get our first vacation until 12 years after the revolution, without a single day of rest or a free weekend.
After long and difficult peripeteias, we were delighted with the new building and the beautiful operation premises. But as always, all the funds went into business. We lived in an apartment with no doors, no carpets, and no tiles. I told myself that next year I would like at least curtains, but I was waiting almost three years for them. The business not only burdened us financially, but also in terms of time. We didn't take the kids on holiday and waited until it was time off. The biggest peak always came before Christmas, when we were selling at marketplaces and finished on 23 December.
Kids do business with us today
When we paid off the loan, so heavy a load fell off our heart that it must have been heard all over Potštejn. We were worried about missing or less responsible sales representatives, but when our son Lukáš helped us with their selection, the situation calmed down.
from the left: Milan, Lukáš, Veronika, Martin, and Hanka Pleva
Our youngest son Martin graduated from the Secondary Technical School of Chemistry in Pardubice, joined the company in 2007 and now he oversees production, raw materials, suppliers, operates all the machines, and supports the employees in Potštejn, including us.
Our middle son Lukáš is an engineer, graduated from the Masaryk Institute of Higher Studies at the Czech Technical University in Prague and understands all IT in the company. Although he has been helping us in the company since college, he joined our business full time in 2014. He pampers the website, takes care of marketing, foreign countries, sales representatives, sales offers, sales, and clients.
Our daughter Petra returned from Prague to her native village and in the past, she helped in the company, but now she set off on her own journey.
Daughter-in-law Veronika also graduated from the Secondary Technical School of Chemistry in Pardubice, during her maternity leave she started to keep bees and help in the company with catalogues and new products.
„Business was completely new to us and we threw ourselves into it with our typical vigour. We both love our work, even though it has been and is associated with a lot of unpleasant paperwork and ambiguities in laws. We have made many business friends through our business, and we enjoy meeting them and we are fine with them. We are also grateful that our children have endured this with us. And that they are our friends and partners today. This is why it was worth experiencing too. We also have eight wonderful grandchildren, and we are very curious to see which of them will be a chemist, beekeeper, or painter...“
Thanks to young blood and fresh ideas, our product range is constantly expanding and changing – we focus on purely natural products and carefully select every ingredient we choose to work with. We care about the high quality and satisfaction of our customers.
Each year is full of discoveries and a deeper communion with nature
Hanka and Milan Pleva in their blooming garden
Because nature has the best and most functional ideas, we took inspiration therefrom and get down to transforming our garden into a flowery meadow, where we can provide the bees with plenty of grazing. At the same time, we plant many flowers and shrubs all over the company's area in Potštejn so that bees like it there and live well. In 2019 we plan to manufacture several insect hotels for solitary bees and other insects that want to stay with us for a few nights or weeks.
In glass or packaging-free. And, moreover, in a new design
We are going back to nature and the roots of our business in packaging materials too. We want to sell our products, where possible, in glass. In addition to trying to minimize the production of plastics during manufacture, processing, and packaging, we decided to address packaging-free shops. We see a sense and the future in packaging-free stores. At the same time, we are aware that the customers who come there are exactly the kind of customers who will be interested in and enjoy what we do.
We gradually repack products that we cannot yet pack in glass into new designs. Our old designs have served us well for seventeen years, but gradually the time has come for a change, so we are gradually dressing up new and older products with new packaging. We are constantly improving the formulations of existing products and expanding our range with new efficient products with natural ingredients..
Recognition from both experts and consumer
Hanka and Milan Pleva are receiving the award for Family Business of the Year 2018
In August, we received the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Region as part of the Year of Family Business 2018. Our joy at how others see our work was crowned by winning the public vote in the Family Business of the Year 2018 competition. We are delighted that our customers nominated us directly and sent us an incredible number of votes. Such an award is a great reward for our daily work and a real motivation for new projects.
We are very pleased about this, and we are also pleased about other little things - when customers write to us that our advisory articles have really helped them with their problems, when some of them appreciate that we cooperate with regional companies and sheltered workshops, when customers contact us that our cosmetics and bee products are good and suit them. Then we know that our work is meaningful.
Our company is like that flowery meadow - we walk untrodden paths in it, but it is a tremendously adventurous and joyful wandering. Especially when bees are buzzing diligently from afar.