FEI (now ThermoFisher): From Czech start-up to a world's leader

Jiří Očadlík has many years of experience in management of electron microscopy industry. A graduate of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague, he is now responsible for steering the FEI management team in Brno. Together we peak into the world of microscopy.

How would you describe the business FEI does globally to someone who does not have a clue?

FEI supports scientists and researchers by providing them with microscopes and similar devices that allow them to investigate the world in nanoscale — to look at atoms and molecules.

What kind of work is done in Brno?

Brno is the largest manufacturing centre within FEI and one of its biggest R&D centres for the electron microscopes.
When a company wants a new product, we define what it should look like and what it should do — what specifications and resolution it will have, how it will be better than the previous type. R&D designs and develops it. Product engineers secure the manufacturability of the product — where to get material, how to source it, how to make sure the system reliability is as expected.
About 30 % of our R&D capacity is in Brno, but we also cooperate with people mainly in Eindhoven (Netherlands), Hillsboro (headquaters on Oregon, USA), Bourdeaux (France) and Trondheim (Norway). Manufacturing in Brno provides more than 80 % of system shipments and more than 60 % of company revenue on the products done in this factory.

How can your microscopes be used in practise?

By scientists who do material development; for example when they deal with steel. Steel has been here for hundreds of years but they are still trying to find a better quality to be used in the car industry for example.
Another example is the investigation in live science, typically of the cell core. Researchers investigate how various proteins work together. There are simple proteins such as the flu virus but they slightly change every time so we don’t know how to cure it.
And of course there are mobile phones and computers. Companies work on the shrinkage of dimension. Producers of high-density chips like Intel, Toshiba or Samsung work with microscopes, too.

Who are your major clients in the Czech Republic?

Our peak client is here in Brno — CEITEC. We also do business with the Academy of Science or Charles University in Prague. The Czech Republic is a small market for FEI, though.

How long has FEI been active in Brno?

We started in 1993 as a Czech startup. We cooperated with Phillips exclusively. Three years later we became successful, our product was well-received on the market, and Phillips bought us. We united with FEI in 1997, and since then have been growing steeply. Nowadays we have about 650 employees in Brno. And all over the world, FEI has 2800 employees.

I imagine that in 1993 you didn’t have many foreign employees in Brno. How has it changed?

First foreign employee that was a typical expat started working here in 2004. And we sent a few people to Eindhoven and Portland, Oregon. So the cooperation with foreign entities has always been our policy.
However, it is not always easy to incorporate foreigners into a company. It creates some issues such as bilingual communication when messaging to everybody or organizing all hands meetings. We try to either speak English at all hands while having written presentation in Czech or vice versa. But different people have different language skills so it can influence the communication efficiency. And there are cultural differences. Foreigners can be very different and it can lead into misunderstanding.

How many foreign employees does FEI have in Brno?

About 20 if you count Slovaks as non-foreigners. Some of them come as expats for a two-year contract and are still employed by their original entity. Some merge with us locally. And it is visible that the number of foreigners in Brno is growing.

What do you think attracts more and more foreigners to Brno?

Universities and projects like CEITEC whose infrastructure is at worldwide top level. And the business composition that is hi-tech oriented. And also the location. Brno is a nice, clean city and the Czech Republic a beautiful country.

Do your foreign employees miss anything?

They miss professional secondary education for their kids. Two of our expats have actually sent their kids back home because of it. There is not an internationally certified school in which they would trust their kids could be well-educated in Brno. It is a very sensitive topic for parents.

Is there anything else the municipality of Brno could do to make the city more cosmopolitan?

We could push our city to invest money to attract international airlines at the Brno airport. But if you ask business people which international flights should be supported, they probably could not agree. Honeywell has its seats in the USA. We are happy to have a connection to Eindhoven. Somebody might want to go to Russia.
It is a tough job for Brno. And let’s not forget that only 150 kilometers from here is Schwechat. And another airport in Bratislava. And if the highway to Prague improves, it is only a two and half hours travel to that airport.
I believe our business in Brno could grow faster if there was a bigger international airport here. So yes, the airport would be nice. But if I don’t have a school here, I will never attract expats with kids.

What skills are you looking for in people when hiring right now?

It is a pretty big mix. We are looking for technicians for R&D, corporate technology, research or engineering. They should be highly-educated, very talented people with knowledge of physics, electronics and programming. We also need people who are good at finance; and we need people in IT, HR or logistics.


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