This story starts with computers, but then expands far beyond, to constructions in petrochemistry across the world and aircraft industry. The UNIS group includes 22 companies representing a turnover of almost USD 50 million, over 600 employees (most of them in Brno) and operations in 10 countries.
I spoke with Jiří Kovář, the co-founder and CEO, about the ups and downs of doing business from Brno and the key factors to their success. His interview is the 12th in a series with the personalities behind notable Brno companies that operate internationally.
UNIS was established in 1990 by three employees of Chepos, an engineering company with international recognition. “We were one of the first Czechoslovak companies to do business with foreign countries,” Jiří recalls. The early ISO 9001 certification also helped them to a fast success.
The company started with reselling PCs & related components (this part of business was later detached to UNIS Computers) and as a system integrator for automation in industry, which remains one of their key areas even today. Apart from that, their other business line was a distribution of IT parts done together with a German partner.
In 1998, the company underwent a major expansion: the founders took advantage of their experience in the control systems and promoted the company from a supplier to the role of an EPC contractor.
Engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts is a common model for undertaking large-scale and complex infrastructure projects. The contractor is obliged to deliver a complete facility to a developer who needs only turn a key to start operating the facility. The contractor must deliver that facility for a guaranteed price by a guaranteed date and it must perform to the specified level.
Since then, UNIS manages to design, engineer deliver and construct truly complex works mainly in the energy, oil, gas and petrochemistry industries. Their portfolio currently includes a number of constructions in Belorussia, Russia (for which, UNIS has set up daughter companies in each of these countries) and Iraq (with their main client being the Ministry of Oil).
Their most demanding facility built to date is undoubtedly an atmospheric distillation unit located 50 km from the Arctic Circle. “A similar challenge proved to be the construction in Iraq where the design needs to be able to resist temperatures around 55 °C. Or in Arctic Russia, to resist minus 55 °C,” Jiří adds.
Aircrafts, academic spin-off and the lab
And the diversification does not end here yet. In 1999, UNIS started to produce electronics for aircraft engines. Jiří has been building aircraft models since his childhood, later became a private pilot of airplanes and helicopters. And here’s where he brought his passion into the business. This – the development and production of control units for aircraft engines – is now another of their key areas of business. For example they participate in renovation of the largest engines currently produced, the transport aircraft Antonov Ruslan.
In 2002, the company developed its own information system (MES PHARIS) for production planning and control. Their licences are being sold home and abroad, they have implementation partners in Spain, Hungary and Romania.
Developing IT solutions is still the core of their business portfolio. In 2007, UNIS co-founded Invea Tech, originally a research project considered to be the first Czech academic spin-off. Invea Tech was later divided into Flowmon Networks (cyber security) and Netcope Technologies. We’ve already covered Flowmon networks in our previous article – read the interview here.
Six years ago, UNIS built an accredited laboratory where experts explore how mobile phones and computers affect the electronics of an aircraft control engine during a flight. Now, the laboratory is used by companies from the aviation and automotive industries, for vibration and environment tests.
We still haven’t named all the daughter companies – there’s still UNIS Real, UNIS Invest or UNIS Power (a part of the Brno traditional company První brněnská acquired back into Czech ownership from ABB, Alstom and others) serving foreign public utilities or incinerators in Germany and Hungary. UNIS is also a member of the Network Security Monitoring Cluster and The Association of the Czech AeroSpace Industry where Jiří served as a president for 6 years.
“Brno provides a fine work-life balance. It gained a high reputation as a technology hub,” Jiří says proudly. He specifically mentions the motorbike Grand Prix and the Brno Fairs that help their company to network in the international business, and also promote Brno as a city. He also has some critique to offer, though. As many of the CEOs we’ve spoken before, he mentions the poor flight connection and the discouraging state of the train station. Transport is the area to which the city management should pay special attention in order to improve the international business image of the city.
Cooperation with local universities has a long tradition, too. Many of UNIS current clients from the former Soviet republics or Middle East studied in Brno, which was the bond that often started their partnership. The company hires graduates and supervises their thesis every year. Jiří himself is a member of the scientific board at the Faculty of business and management.
UNIS in numbers
|Turnover (in mil CZK)||688||913||970|
|EBITDA (in mil CZK)||15||90||132|
|Employees in Brno||460||510||510|
Jiří was born in Brno, graduated from Brno University of Technology and completed postgraduate studies at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. His career started and always continued in Brno, apart from his work for Chepos in Iraq in the 1980s. He has one daughter. In his free time, he enjoys flying and everything related to it. He never says no to travelling, whether for business or pleasure, and even to unusual and often risky places.