CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: The Boss Who Took Up a Cane to Maintain Discipline. Who Was Emil Škoda?

Railway Giants: The Boss Who Took Up a Cane to Maintain Discipline. Who Was Emil Škoda?
photo: sevela.p. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/Emil Škoda
30 / 03 / 2024

Škoda Works is a famous brand known all over the world. In today's episode of Railway Giants, we unveil the secrets of the personal and professional life of Emil Škoda, the man who became synonymous with the success of the Czech industry.

Every experience is a good experience

It is November 1839, and we are in Pilsen, which has been an integral part of the Austrian Empire for more than 300 years. Here, in the west of the Czech Kingdom, Anna Říhová and the doctor František Škoda give birth to a son whom they name Emil. However, young Emil will not stay in Pilsen for long. After the death of his mother Anna, the whole family moves to Cheb, where Emil will attend grammar school. From a young age, Emil will deviate from his family's tradition. This culminates in his departure to Prague, and subsequently to Karlsruhe, where he will study at the polytechnic.

He also goes in another direction and tries to gain experience in the army. In 1859, he leaves as a volunteer to the Apennine Peninsula, where he fights for Austria against the combined forces of France and Sardinia. From the war, he not only brings back countless experiences but also a chronic stomach disease that will trouble him for the rest of his life.

As for his first practical experiences in the field of technology, he gains them in Saxony and Bremen. There, he will work in engineering factories. However, Bremen sides with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and problems are brewing. Emil, as a citizen of an enemy state, is expelled from the free city of Bremen. He has no choice but to return home.

Map of Emperor Ferdinand's Northern Railway in 1849 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Seize every opportunity

At home, his father's contacts play to his advantage, securing him a position at the Waldstein Engineering Plants in Pilsen. There, he starts as a chief engineer. This is a position that few 27-year-old engineers could even dream of. Although Emil landed this position partly through his father's influence, he excels at his job. He contributes to the development of the machinery, securing several significant orders for it. Among others, an order for the Northern Railway of Emperor Ferdinand, the largest railway project in the territory of the Austrian Empire. Just three years later, a new grand opportunity arises. The Waldstein family decides to sell their Pilsen machine works. Emil does not hesitate for long, seizes the opportunity, uses the family fortune, and buys the factory.

Thus, the Waldstein machine works become Škoda Works. In the following years, Emil decides to rebuild the machinery. He starts by building a foundry, forge, and other necessary facilities, turning a relatively small factory with a few dozen employees into a colossus employing around 4,000 workers.

Škoda Locomotive Works (Škoda) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Emil completely immerses himself in the new factory, spending all his time at work. This culminates in him renting a room a few minutes from the factory to avoid lengthy commutes. Notably, the owner of this apartment is a wealthy owner of nearly 200 horses, who is waging a persistent battle for passengers with the ever-expanding railway.

The factories would produce everything from equipment for sugar refineries and breweries, through mining and metallurgical products, and later even weapons. The SW (Skoda Works) brand becomes a synonym for reliability in the technical field. Emil's complete workaholism is only interrupted by marriage. He marries Hermína, the daughter of the apartment owner he rents from. The substantial dowry Emil receives helps his business overcome the economic downturn that Europe faces after the crash on the Vienna stock market in 1873.

My love is my work

Despite having 4 children with Hermína, he does not give them much special attention. The only child he truly cares about is his factories. He leaves their upbringing to his wife and especially to the German nurse Hermína chooses. When Emil has some free time, he spends it either hunting with his dog Devil, or studying historical works.

After turning fifty, Emil begins to show the effects of mental and physical strain more significantly. He is exhausted, among other things, by disputes with the army command, during which he tries to push through his ideas that he could then implement himself. He is troubled by spendthrift relatives. He himself has traits of Harpagon, and excessive spending is simply something he cannot get over. Nervous strain leads to increasing irritability in Emil's behavior. When he significantly worsens his standing in government circles by rudely refusing an offer to be elevated to the baronial rank, it is clear that his best days are behind him.

In the twilight of his life, in 1899, he eventually becomes a member of the Vienna House of Lords and receives several honors. After this appointment, he is forced by the pressure of banks, which are gradually taking a leading role in the market, to transform his ever-growing enterprise into a joint-stock company, in which he becomes the holder of 55% of the shares, president, and general manager. Emil finds this transformation of his beloved child hard to bear. He attends only 3 board meetings and cannot manage more.

Náhrobek Emila Škody v Plzni, Zdroj: Wikimeda Commonst, Miaow Miaow, Public Domain

In August 1900, he takes his last breath on a train journey from the Gastein spa. Most of the workers from his factory attend the grand funeral in Pilsen. His body is laid to eternal rest in a glass coffin in the tomb at Mikuláš cemetery. In 1903, the tomb is adorned with a tombstone featuring the bronze inscription "Emil Ritter von Skoda," a work by the Italian sculptor Raffaello Romanelli.