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A multimillion-dollar business owner now introduces returnable racks.

Translated by Milo Dvorak

25. 4. 2024

Business Newsletter #28

Good morning,

I had been thinking and looking for a suitable article to bring you this Thursday for so long that I simply forgot to do my work, so I have taken the opportunity to go ahead with today's news instead. Admittedly, I initially thought, judging by the article cover image, it was going to be about bicycle racks. That was not the case at all, actually.

Published by on 25 April 2024.

newsletter 28
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Ladislav Olšbauer arrives at the Vinohrady café a few minutes late and hesitates to shake hands upon the greeting because his hand is dirty. "My chain fell off on the way here and I had to put it back on," he smiles, holding a Brompton folding bike in his left hand. This British urban cycling legend, beloved even by bankers at London Citybank, is his passion. These bikes, foldable into the size of a laptop bag in seconds, are even offered by one of his companies, Circu, to other firms as an employee benefit or as a way to support sustainable commuting.

Sustainability is something that Olšbauer is truly interested in. Perhaps because he grew up in an industry not exactly known for its stellar reputation in terms of sustainability: FMCG, i.e., the sale of fast-moving consumer goods. In 1995, he founded ZOK – System with a partner, supplying racks to retail chains.

That allowed him to witness firsthand the development of supermarkets in the Czech Republic, where today there are more per capita than anywhere else in Europe. His clients included Tesco, Carrefour and Albert, and he gradually built the company into a business with revenues reaching three-quarters of a billion. After selling the majority stake, he is now only a passive shareholder, so he turned to a related field, but – jokingly – with far better karma.

"Our startup is developing foldable and returnable racks for one-time promotional use in stores," says Olšbauer over a croissant and cappuccino. Working with supermarkets and their suppliers, he noticed how much paper ended up in the bin: "It's meant for recycling, but let's face it, paper recycling is very energy-intensive. Not to mention cardboard contains a lot of chemicals."

Olšbauer isn't talking about just any paper, but about sturdy cardboard stands used for product promotions at special events. These are fully branded, containing product logos, and customers take various items from them. Store employees then crush and dispose of them, whereas key suppliers like Unilever, Procter & Gamble or Nestlé deliver them directly to the stores. It is with the Swiss food giant that Olšbauer is now testing his company POSpooling's returnable steel racks.

"We want to open up and simplify the use of these racks to all suppliers from the food and FMCG industries. The more suppliers that share the racks, the lower the environmental impact and costs will be," says Lenka Soal, Head of Trade Marketing at Nestlé.

"We've proved this works by successfully piloting the concept in Penny supermarkets," the startup founder describes, noting that the collaboration will continue and is expected to expand to more stores. The racks his company developed, which customers effectively rent for a certain period, are made of various metals, can be easily folded after the event, and have standardised dimensions for easy handling, for example on pallets.

Returnable racks by startup POSpooling

But that's not all, as he further elaborates: "We're developing, in cooperation with Sony Displays, the smart rack. These would not have paper labels with pictures and product names, but rather digital displays. They might also include a camera that adapts what is displayed based on who is standing at it." According to Olšbauer, this concept is still in a relatively early phase, but he has already invested several million crowns into startup POSpooling.

"The entry of a strategic investor is at play here; we'll see how it goes," says the fifty-year-old Olšbauer, noting that the development and prototyping of the folding racks took about a year and a half. The plan is to move the company forward a few steps, not just to supply returnable and foldable racks for special events in supermarkets, but also to handle logistics. This is currently managed by transportation companies, on which Olšbauer and his colleagues depend.

"Over the years I've been in business, I've realised how very wasteful it is. And this is a way to help sustainability even if only partially. Circular economy, which minimises waste, makes more and more sense to me," concludes Ladislav Olšbauer, folding his Brompton and heading out into the streets of Vinohrady.

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