By Hannah Beckett
“My father said, ‘Please come.’ We had to start from the beginning again, but he knew he had a whole family on his team. So we came.” Petrof sisters Susan and Ivana share the story of reclaiming their family heritage with me over lunch at Petrof Hall. “I took a full year to make my decision,” Susan says. At the time, she was running a successful pharmacy and enjoying working in the medical industry with her husband. Ivana had been traveling the world. The Petrof sisters’ generation had experienced the end of communism in the Czech Republic as young women in their 20s. “The year I was born, 1968, there was a revolution that failed. The Russian occupation destroyed everything and there was no chance to change the regime. Finally, in 1989 we succeeded. After that, everything was very open for us. We could go to the Western countries, not just the East. It was a very big change for our generation.” Ivana in particular had dreamed of traveling, and she took full advantage of the newfound opportunities that the West offered.
Then, in 1998, they got a call from their father. “My father was only eight years old when the company was nationalized in 1948. From that time on, no Petrof was allowed in the factory. Later he was told that even if he passed exams to work at the factory, he would never be employed there since his last name was Petrof.” It took seven years for Jan Petrof to navigate the privatization process. In the end, the Petrofs were given 4% of their company back from the State and had to buy the other 96%.
Susan decided to join her father at Petrof and started working in the marketing department. “Back then, marketing was not such a big deal as it is today,” she says with a laugh. Two years later, she became a business director. “We had just designed a new line of pianos and were charging 30% more for these than our other lines. I had to figure out how to make these successful, so we organized a competition with 2,000 music schools worldwide to select the name of our new product line. The competition was called “Give Me My Name.” This gave us a lot of international attention.” It was an early success for Susan. The prize for the best name was two pianos: one for the student who had come up with the name, the other for their music school. A concert on the newly-named Mistral piano helped launch the piano’s success.
Rebranding is no easy task. During the fifty years of State ownership, Petrof produced large quantities of low-end pianos. Many dealers were used to Petrof being a cheap, entry-level piano, and even preferred that over the high-end pianos Petrof makes now. Since becoming president of Petrof in 2004, Susan has had her work cut out for her. “It takes time to make the organizational adjustments to shift focus from quantity to quality.” The Petrof factory is home to an anechoic chamber, which serves as an important tool for the R&D department. Built in 1994, the chamber allows acoustic analysis in a completely isolated and echo-free room. R&D manager Tadeas Doskocil demonstrates how the software is able to measure things like sustain, resonance, and inharmonicity. He spends a lot of time inside the eerily quiet chamber setting up pianos for analysis. While it’s an important part of his work, he explains that mathematical accuracy isn’t the only factor in making a design change. “A massive part of the evolution of the piano is the feedback from the pianists. 80-90% of our choices are made based on what musicians tell us. If the software works correctly, it helps us interpret the feedback that they give us into scientific terms which can inform the decisions we make on the next model. We never make a change just based on software results.”
As if re-designing a fleet of pianos and re-structuring a company wasn’t enough work, the piano world is extremely susceptible to economic and political crises. Thankfully, the Petrof factory is set up to be sustainable in difficult times. Petrof is unique in the industry in its ability to make most of its components in-house. Asia has become a huge supplier of parts in the industry, but Petrof has yet to join many other companies in outsourcing supply.
“It takes time, money, and people to maintain control of a product made in-house,” Susan explains. While it is one of her many challenges, maintaining such an isolated production is not without its benefits. Today, most manufacturers continue to struggle with supply-chain-related issues stemming from COVID-19, but Petrof has been able to dodge many of the delays caused by the epidemic. Because of their built-in wood-crafting skills, they’ve also been able to tap into other revenue streams, including making high-end furniture, speakers, and acoustic panels. “Diversification is good in a crisis,” Susan says, “Especially when you’re primarily in the piano industry.”
Currently, she’s in the middle of navigating the war between Russia and Ukraine. “We cannot sell to Russia right now, and they’re a huge market for us. We also have many Petrof schools and musicians in Ukraine whom we support. It’s very difficult. We have to always find new markets. I’ll never be able to retire!” Susan says with a laugh. “Every year is a new challenge. Maybe we are crazy people to stay in the piano business and still produce in Europe!”
But new opportunities continue to arise; there has been increased demand in the Middle East and Eastern Asian markets. While the Czech Republic experienced a 20% inflation rate in the last year, Susan is always trying to stay one step ahead of the industry. “We love pianos and we love musicians, and the satisfaction of working in the musical world helps keep us going.” It’s this love for the musician community that led her to build the Petrof Gallery.
Situated just across the street from the factory, the Petrof Gallery is more than just a piano showroom. Repurposing the unused industrial space was an opportunity to upgrade the showroom and provide a much-needed cultural center for the 100,000 residents of Hradec Králové. “People used to say to us, ‘You have such beautiful pianos but no beautiful showroom at the factory!’ Now we have a new cultural center in our hometown, but it is not only for us, it is for all people in the Czech Republic.”
The grand piano showroom, surrounded by glass to let in natural light, features the Ant. Petrof concert grands on a stage. Sound panels line the ceiling and one interior wall to balance the acoustics bouncing off the windows and cement floor. Everything in the room is Czech, from the Bohemian crystal chandelier to the furniture. When not housing pianos, the room is used for balls, talk shows, town meetings, and of course, concerts. The sound-proofed doors open to the upright showroom, which is connected to the Petrof cafe and another multi-functional space that can seat nearly 500 people. “We use the large space for bigger concerts, but it also serves the community however they need it.” Susan gestures to the dozens of students seated inside who are taking their entrance exams for university. Over in the upright showroom, another young school group is being introduced to the piano world.
Upstairs, a conference room opens up to an artistic display of the various standard and custom finishes available on Petrof pianos. It’s a beautiful way to showcase the many unique cabinets Petrof has created. Unlike most companies, Petrof produces as many art-case uprights as it does grands, if not more. “It is so important for us to support the arts,” Susan says. Her most recent artistic collaboration is the Gemini piano - a literal art-case upright piano individually hand-painted by Czech artist, Maxim. The case parts of the piano are his canvas, and the piano comes with a matching custom piece that can be mounted to the back of the piano or hung on the wall above it.
The collaboration is illustrative of the work Susan has done at Petrof over the past twenty years. Her support of the arts extends far beyond pianos. Petrof Hall also serves as a revolving art gallery for Czech artists, and the line to exhibit extends through 2026. Susan’s daughter, Anna Prousková, shares her vision. Anna served as gallery director before becoming the CEO of Petrof, and followed a very similar path in the company as her mother. She has experience in marketing and sales, and was representing Petrof at trade shows around the world by the time she was 18 years old. As the 6th generation of family to work at Petrof, Anna’s decision to work alongside her mother wasn’t just about her love of the arts. “As a kid, I did not perceive the adults talking about the factory all the time very well. But my mom showed me how nice it is, working with kind people, and I learned to care about the product.”
Petrof is one of the very few remaining family-owned and -operated piano manufacturers in the world. The dynamic world of the European piano has seen no shortage of change, but Petrof has managed to adapt to each era. It’s a story that Ivana has worked for years to preserve through the development of the Petrof Museum. Pianos from the past 158 years are represented there, alongside the story of the company through the past six generations of Petrofs. The walls are lined with anniversary photo collages of every member of the Petrof company, a tradition that started in 1909 as a birthday gift for Antonin Petrof. The most recent collage was made in honor of the 150th anniversary of Petrof. Many of the employees photographed have been there for decades, pre-dating Jan’s privatization of the company.
The Petrof family extends now to artists all over the world through the Petrof Art Family project, an association of musicians who support Petrof’s work and include established artists as well as the upcoming generation of musicians. Pioneering the future of the piano industry is no easy task, but it’s one every piano manufacturer has to assume. For artists, a concert stage is often the beginning of their journey. But for the piano, the stage is the final destination in a journey that spans a century of design and craftsmanship. Whether it’s the elite Ant. Petrof concert pianos or the latest redesigned upright piano, FLOW, Petrof is dedicated to crafting a piano that supports artists of all natures in their drive to create and innovate.