According to the estimates of the Ministry of Education, about 118,000 first-graders should have entered the first grades last year. Equipping a new schoolboy can easily cost three and a half to six thousand crowns. The most expensive item is the backpack. Parents not only in the Czech Republic like to reach for the assortment of the company Topgal from Šternberk near Olomouc, which was founded more than 30 years ago by former physics teacher Radek Brynda.
“In the first grade, 40 percent of the children have backpacks from us. In the second grade, it’s around 30 percent,” says the founder and head of Topgal. There are no independent statistics, three Topgal products entered the TOP 10 in the Testino comparison test. The owners’ dream at the beginning of the business was that their products would become synonymous with school backpacks. Since then, the company has sold about two million of them.
Until 1993, when Brynda started selling shoes and manufacturing leather haberdashery, briefcases still dominated Czech education. They were carried in the hand. “As soon as the 90s came, I quit teaching, went to work as a bricklayer and then opened a shoe store. Then this opportunity came. I started selling leather goods and it worked, people wanted it. Then they asked me, if we don’t have something for the children at school,” he recalls.
He only had briefcases on offer, and in conversations with customers he often heard that they would prefer backpacks and that they had at least two separate compartments. This inspired Brynda, and in 1998 the company introduced its school backpack.
Since then, she has put many variants on the market, thousands of them have been sold, but times are changing, suddenly briefcases – i.e. backpacks with a closing lid – came back into fashion. “After 30 years, when our entire philosophy was based on school bags, customers want briefcases from us again. About 20 percent of the children have them,” says the boss.
Currently, Topgal backpacks can be found in 14 countries, predominantly in Central and Eastern Europe. Through its own online store, the company also directly serves Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. “We have been supplying to the Baltics and Ukraine for many years. We want to expand to Romania and Bulgaria,” says Brynda. He admits that doing business in Western markets is somewhat more complicated and the company had to adapt. “I’ll give the example of Germany. It’s a very conservative market, where when a child goes to school, he needs a briefcase. Although he uses it for about two years, whereas he can use the backpack for five years.”
To the west of the Czech border, he encountered different customer behavior, and according to him, what also works in these countries is “hustling”. Brynda tells about a lady from Italy who bought a backpack from Šternberk on the German Amazon. “Subsequently, we receive three or four orders from Italian clients, directly to our e-shop. They just say it,” he explains.
Hockey no, computer game yes
Anyone who would have expected that proven brands that place, for example, pictures of comic book heroes from Marvel or Disney on their backpacks will be popular among children, will be proven wrong by an experienced entrepreneur – it’s not that simple, they say.
“We made backpacks with NHL motifs, with Harry Potter, something from Disney and a lot more. But we found out that a movie comes out, it’s followed by a huge boom, mega-promotion. And in half a year another one comes out and suddenly there’s no interest,” says Brynda.
In addition, the licensees have a lot of say in the design of the backpack. “They might tell you that you have to stick to exact shades or that the size of the image is only that and not any other. That’s why I ended up with the NHL,” he says.
Today, the company focuses on classic design with universal motifs – for boys it offers, for example, football backpacks, with airplanes or agricultural machines, for girls it has a design with flowers or butterflies, and those with a predominant color, for example purple, are also used.
The only generally known motif found on the company’s backpacks is the popular Minecraft game from Microsoft. “It’s not licensed, Microsoft sees it as being played by kids across generations, and we’re advertising to them by putting it on our backpacks,” explains Brynda.
Trouble with wholesale and fine
Although today the company has sales of around 200 million crowns and only in the Czech Republic its profit is about 20 million, it was not always successful. It even nearly went bankrupt at the turn of the millennium. “The problem was that a large chain approached us to supply him with backpacks. He ordered three containers, that means let’s say 20 to 30 thousand pieces. They didn’t sign any contract, just an order. They took the backpacks, but in the conditions they had to pay for 60 days. The prices were really insanely low, which they justified by the fact that they buy a large volume, which is why they can have such low prices. But the problem was that after the season they returned half of the backpacks to us and did not pay for them,” recalls the Šternber businessman. During the three years between 2020 and 2022, the company lost what it had earned in the previous seven years and even went into the red.
Brynda says he owes the fact that he didn’t close the business to a lawyer friend. “He told me that if I gave up, it would be with me for the rest of my life. In 2004, the company started online trading so that it did not have to rely on retail chains. It took five years before she managed to get out of trouble and erase the loss. Although the financial crisis began four years later, Topgal was well on its way. Even then, he operated e-shops in Poland and Slovakia, for example. “Kids still go to school and they need backpacks,” Brynda explains, explaining why the company skyrocketed at the time.
Even though she is doing well now, sometimes she cannot avoid problems. For example, last autumn it received a fine of almost 11 million crowns from the Office for the Protection of Economic Competition. For Topgal setting minimum retail prices for its goods to customers. Brynda took it. After the ÚOHS conducted an investigation at the company’s headquarters, it terminated the problematic agreements and informed the customer that the sales prices are non-binding. He has a comment about it though.
“In the Czech Republic, there are 50,000 online stores for 10 million people. That is an absurd number. Now imagine that you set up an online store for a small amount of money. You sign a contract with me and you will present my goods, take photos from us and the like, and then you will sell the goods for 200 to 300 kroner cheaper than our recommended price. And you will sell them without keeping the warranty. When you receive a complaint, you will immediately write to Topgal to handle it.”
Now he will be more selective about who to sell the goods to. “We will really protect our brand in the sense of service. If someone wants to distribute us, they will meet the conditions that we want, which means service to the customer, at the level,” reveals the solution.
The company will probably remain in the family in the future, even if investors were interested in it. A few years ago, one of the daughters joined Brynd. “I admit that I was relieved. Not when I convinced her, but when she started to show that she really inherited that business spirit,” concludes the proud father.