Some people could be said to have a big heart. That undoubtedly applies to the owner of the Carollinum Company Tamara Kotvalová. Although, in her case, that big heart is also deeply divided. She lived in various countries and a part of it belongs to each one. She also leaves a part to her family, another to her business, and a sizeable portion also goes to charity. Who knows, maybe she has more than one heart.
What citizenship do you actually have? And where do you feel at home – in Czechia, Slovakia, or Croatia?
I have Czech citizenship, this is where my home is. I am grateful to Czechia for accepting me and allowing me to do business here. The Czech pragmatism and hard-working nature are close to my heart, but I also feel like a Slovak. I am an emotional person and I experience strong feelings about the situations I go through in life. I put my heart into everything that I do, and people close to me know just how eager I am – and that's a quality more typical of Slovak people. Croatia has taught me how to rest. It's a place where I can relax and meditate. My dad was an ambassador in Greece, which is another country I enjoy very much and like coming back to.
As a child, you lived with your parents in the former Soviet Union, then in Yugoslavia, you experienced Czechoslovakia. All of those countries fell apart. Did that elicit a strong emotional response?
My memories of Moscow are very hazy. I went to primary school in Belgrade, and it's true that if you live through your childhood somewhere, the place becomes forever etched in your memory, it gets under your skin. And so, you kind of automatically feel love for the country, it becomes extremely close to your heart. That was also why I took the war in former Yugoslavia the hardest. It worried our entire family because a lot of our friends lived in Croatia and Serbia. It was an extremely painful period for us; we felt so powerless. I also watched the major changes that went on in other countries, but I must admit that I had other things on my mind at the time. My two older children were very young and I was raising them alone, I had a demanding job and was doing my best to provide for the family. It was a time of new opportunities and new challenges for me. I was on the road a lot, which also affected me.
You either worked or lived in Slovakia, Czechia, Russia, Croatia, Germany... Are the mentalities of these nations very different?
Extremely. And what they say is true – the further east you go, the more emotion and warmth you'll encounter, the more west you go, the more meticulousness and perfectionism there is. Working with people of various nationalities throughout my more than twenty-five years as an entrepreneur was a major life experience for me. I started out in Russia. Russians are very warm and driven by emotion. A similarly emotional nation are the Italians, whom I've bought cosmetics from in the past, and the French, whom we did business with when Carollinum Company was running the Simple Concept Store. The southern nature is close to my heart, which is one of the reasons why I am drawn to the Adriatic. I don't feel any kind of work-related stress there, but the reason for that is partly the fact that I don't really do business in Croatia in the true sense of the word. Conversely, the most important thing for me in business is the renowned meticulousness, correctness, and reliability that I feel in the Germans and primarily in the Swiss.
Do you also go back to Slovakia?
My family still lives in eastern Slovakia, I can still feel my dad's legacy in the Tatras. He worked on developing and building the modern Tatras as we know them today. To this day, I get phone calls from the High Tatras Administrative Office asking if I could accept an award on my father's behalf for everything he did for the region. I am proud of him and I know that he would be overjoyed. I must have inherited my propensity for building from him. When I finish something, I feel an amazing sense of accomplishment and I realize how he must have felt. Even though he's not with us anymore, I still feel his presence.
Do you feel that the relations between Czechs and Slovaks have changed?
I feel that they're still the same. There are Czechs who love Slovaks and others who are not their biggest fans. But as things tend to go between "siblings", sometimes they're inseparable, sometimes they "talk" more, other times less. I am lucky to know Czech people who love Slovaks and who view the brother-sister relationship in a positive light. I quite regularly take my Czech friends to the Tatras, and when I see how good they feel there, it makes me happy. A lot of them reminisce about the times when they visited Slovakia as children with their parents. I spend every winter in the Tatras, which is why I know that more and more Czechs are visiting every year and they are among the most valued tourists in the region.
Your family business Carollinum is, I assume, stabilized; you threw yourself into real estate in recent years. Where do you see yourself in the future? Will you just keep an eye on Carollinum from afar and let development activities take precedence, or will real estate remain secondary?
Carollinum is my "fourth child", it's close to my heart. It will always be my number one. My children are helping me manage it these days. It's a family business partly because of the people who work here and the fact that they make the company what it is and pour their hearts into it. It is also thanks to them that we are able to keep growing and initiating new projects. There is still a lot that we want to achieve with Carollinum... Real estate is a hobby, one that is slowly but surely turning into a business. I only started actively buying land and properties in Croatia, where I try to spend my summers, to rest up and recharge. But I'm bad at doing nothing, especially when I see interesting opportunities around me. During the Covid period and afterward, Croatia turned into a desirable destination even for tourists who wouldn't visit as commonly before, such as Scandinavians or Americans. There are still opportunities to buy a prime piece of land or property; I personally only buy beachfront.
You come across as a woman of instant decisions who could completely turn her life around in a matter of minutes, but being an entrepreneur means you need to plan prudently for the future. Are these qualities at odds within you, or do they complement each other instead?
I have come to learn that I have good intuition. My zodiac sign is Virgo, which is known for its pragmatic nature, but I also know how to make quick decisions. I listen to the people I've been working with for many years, they have a breadth of experience and their opinions are important to me. I know how to get a feel for a situation and the decision then comes to me naturally. Being quick in business is a must.
Another field you focus on is charity – WWII veterans, child cancer patients, the elderly. Helping them must be wonderful but also extremely emotionally draining when you come across sad stories. What helps you stay mentally balanced?
I was born under a "lucky star" and it gives me great strength and optimism. I'm a positive person and even though I've had many difficult and not-so-nice moments in life, I try not to dwell on them. My pragmatic self tells me that I can't do anything about the situation and that there's no point in agonizing over it, which is why I'm able to deal with grief and sorrow relatively quickly. I'll tell myself that it's important to keep going, fighting, and to find joy in my accomplishments. If we never learned what it feels like to be sad and in pain, we could never feel joy and happiness as intensely. When I stop being actively involved in business, I want to focus more on charity. I would like to have my own foundation and projects one day. We're putting some things together in this area but there just isn't as much time as we'd need right now. We need to grow into that.
You have famous ancestors – your uncle and father (Editor's note: Jozef and Ján Nálepka) were members of the guerilla resistance. Are you not sad that war heroes are often forgotten, that national pride is fading? And how does Czech and Slovak patriotism compare?
The younger generation is not as afraid of war anymore, likely because the two world ones feel "so long ago" to them. Moreover, they encounter war every day due to the internet and social media, they've learned to live with it. But we should never forget the horrors of World War II. We should listen to those who have experienced it, their legacy and memories are crucial for understanding what that time was like. Czech national pride isn't as strong as it is in Slovakia, but that's partly caused by the fact that we're not as emotional. I feel the strongest sense of patriotism around the Adriatic. Perhaps also because they had to fight for their country. They didn't have such strict rules mandating that they display the national flag in their windows on certain days during socialism. The Croatians honor their flag. Whenever there's a holiday and they can fly it outside their homes, they're extremely proud to do so.
In a Vogue interview last year, you answered the question, "What would you do if you could go back in time?" with, "I would stop the world of IT. Computers, cellphones." One would think that, given what you do, you would be in complete harmony with that world...
I feel that people don't talk as much because of computers and social media, they don't meet as much. They might chat and text more, but the meeting in person just doesn't happen then. Young people can barely write a letter, they struggle to pick up a pen and paper and leave a little bit of themselves, their feelings and deep-seated emotions, on the page. We represent Montblanc on the Czech market; I still enjoy the world of fountain pens and beautiful paper. I like writing in ink, I like talking to people. That just isn't possible in the digital world, a world that isn't even realistic.
A DYNAMIC LIFE
When you talk to Tamara about her life, you come to realize that it involves a lot of hectic moments and very little rest. "I do lead a hectic life, but I found out that it suits me and is unlikely to change even when I reach eighty," she confirms. "It's exciting for me, I channel my passion into any new project and it is exactly my passion that helps me convince and motivate the people around me. I tried having a more relaxed summer, but I realized that I missed the stress. I can't teĺl whether it's a good thing but it seems that I just can't live without the speed and momentum."
Slovakia is very dear to Tamara. We couldn't help but touch on the recent Slovak election results. "I'd like to refrain from expressing an opinion on the political landscape in Slovakia or in Czechia," she says firmly. "I was married to a politician, and I know all too well that you can't do well by everyone in politics. It often divides people, and even though I have my own opinions, I don't talk about them, and never would I force them on anybody. I try to do the opposite, to be a person that brings people together. I do business – it's something I'm good at. I'll leave politics to others who understand it."
Tamara Kotvalová (born September 13, 1963, in Warsaw) is the owner of 4 boutiques in Prague: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breitling, and Carollinum, is an exclusive wholesale representative of 4 brands, and her company provides watchmaking services.
She was born to the family of the diplomat Jozef Nálepka and a mother of Slovak origin who taught in college. Her uncle was the guerilla resistance commander Ján Nálepka, her cousin is the actress Světlana Nálepková.
She went to kindergarten in Moscow and primary school in Belgrade. Then, her family moved to Prague, where Tamara studied education in high school. Kotvalová then moved to Slovakia, where she worked as a teacher in the sanatorium for children. In 1991, she returned to Czechia. In Prague, she found a job in a German trading company.
In 1996, she established Carollinum. They became the exclusive retailer for Montblanc in Czechia. Two years later, the company opened an Alfred Dunhill franchise store.
Kotvalová also dabbled in fashion. In 2009, she opened an exclusive multi-brand boutique called Simple Concept Store. However, clients steered the company into focusing exclusively on watches. She opened mono-brand boutiques for Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Breitling. She has recently been doing business in real estate.
She helps the Sun For All foundation, the Children's Homes Friends Club and she sponsors the Motol Hospital oncology department for children. She received the Moral Authority award as well as a commemorative medal for her long-term support of World War II veterans.
Kotvalová has three children – a daughter, Daniela, and sons, Martin and Matěj.