As her first major act of outreach as honorary consul, Monika Vintrlikova has a formidable task ahead: welcoming the ambassador to the Czech Republic to Atlanta amid a pandemic the week before Thanksgiving.
But the businesswoman has thrown herself into the work, hoping to grow the profile of the Czech business community and deepen the strong economic links carefully cultivated by her predecessor.
Ms. Vintrlikova has taken up the post of George Novak, the vibrant 88-year-old whose life was interrupted by cancer before he could carry out his succession plan. He died in June; after that, COVID-19 put most public activities on hold.
Mr. Novak had recommended Ms.Vintrlikova for the job but was slated to spend a year orienting her on the role of an honorary consul. These diplomats officially and (more or less) permanently represent the country in a state or region where they’ve settled. They make up the bulk of the 70-plus countries with representation in Atlanta.
It’s not the Ms. Vintrlikova hadn’t had any preparation. A fellow native of the state of South Moravia, she’d learned a lot already from observing Mr. Novak, who was universally liked and tirelessly active on behalf of the central European nation of more than 10 million people.
He was accommodating but also clear-eyed, exerting his energies on projects that were impactful but achievable, she told Global Atlanta in an interview.
“I think the major lesson from George is keep your eyes open and try to fit the right networks with each other,” Ms. Vintrlikova said.
That was especially true in business, an arena where Mr. Novak was particularly experienced and where Ms. Vintrlikova said many Czech firms need help. Some believe that sales in the American market will be easy because of its size, failing to appreciate the patience required, she said.
“(George) was very open and friendly, but very realistic about what it takes to come to Georgia as a Czech company and do business here,” she told Global Atlanta. “His experience showed that it’s not just coming here and setting up the company and getting a phone number. It takes investment and personal involvement.”
Ms. Vintrlikova knows that first hand. The daughter of the founder of ALBAform Inc., a supplier of custom wire to the automotive industry, she took the leap across the pond after business school in Brno, (Mr. Novak’s hometown — she’d grown up just 37 miles away in Breclav).
When the company’s mostly German clients started expanding to the U.S., they sought suppliers with certifications that most American firms lacked. Sensing an opportunity, Ms. Vintrlikova and her husband, Jan Vintrlik, who serves as president of the company, decided to take the leap.
Leaving her sister’s family in charge of the Czech operation, they moved their two children to Georgia to be in the middle of the Southeast’s growing automotive cluster.
“We were one of the companies that said yes. The growth was very gradual,” she said, noting that they started with a small machine and Czech employees brought over to train locals. “We started with a few small projects. Today, after seven years of production here in Georgia, we employ 120 local employees and we are completely dependent on the U.S. workforce.”
Ms. Vintrlikova hopes to be a guide for other Czech firms following the lead of ALBAform and SILON, which put a $20 million factory in Peachtree City in 2017.
The goal is to enhance economic diplomacy at a time of recovery when companies will be looking for new sources of growth.
So far, though, her work has been more prosaic — handling requests for passport renewals and other documents that tend to characterize diplomatic work, with the activity level intensified by the pandemic. Though she lives far north of Atlanta, Ms. Vintrlikova maintains an office in Sandy Springs that she visits each Wednesday to handle in-person business. Many Czechs who had abandoned their citizenship upon moving to the United States, she said, are now realizing the value of holding an EU passport with travel restrictions in place
Then, of course, there is the ambassador visit slated for Nov. 19-20.
Hynek Kmoníček will pass through Atlanta for two days to officially install Ms. Vintrlikova as honorary consul and commemorate Mr. Novak. He’ll be fresh off a trip to New Orleans, where he will host a meeting of all 24 honorary consuls representing the Czech Republic around the United States.
Working with the embassy in Washington and three career consulates in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the honorary consuls have been integral to the Czech Republic’s diplomatic outreach in the United States, said Zdeněk Beránek, deputy chief of mission at the Czech Embassy.
“Some of them are motivated by the affection to their old country or one of their ancestors. Some of them just happen to admire the Czech Republic. What they all have in common is that without them, our work would be much harder,” Mr. Beránek told Global Atlanta.
Ms. Vintrlikova has “big shoes to fill” in replacing Mr. Novak, he said.
“There is hardly anyone in the Czech Republic doing some kind of business with the U.S. who has never heard of George,” said Mr. Beránek.
But the embassy is confident that she is up to the task. Honorary consuls are often the tip of the spear for economic exchange, connecting entrepreneurs with organizations like CzechTrade and CzechInvest and helping them take advantage of a manufacturing- and export-oriented economy. That role suits the new honorary consul, he said.
“As for Monika, there is absolutely no doubt that she will be a great honorary consul,” Mr. Beranek said, noting that his country recognizes the importance of also promoting Atlanta and Georgia and driving cultural and educational exchange.
Mr. Novak orchestrated trade missions from Atlanta and exchanges between Georgia Tech and the VUT Brno in the past. Both he and Ms. Vintrlikova have been constant supporters of the Czech School of Atlanta.
“I want to bring exhibitions and interesting people, as South Moravia is such a rich region on traditions and folklore,” she said, noting other similarities between Georgia and her home state.
“Fintech is significant in both places when it comes to business. And then of course, Georgians and South Moravians being southerners — conservative, proud people who are very heartfelt.”