As a teenager in the early 1990s, Ondrej Vlcek hacked his way into owning his first computer.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, the young coding enthusiast spotted a competition in a Prague shop window that challenged anyone to try to get past the robust security systems of one of its PCs.
The device itself was the reward, and “a few weeks later, I was bringing that computer to my home,” Vlcek recalled in an interview last year.
Since then, the 44-year-old has built his career firmly on the other side of the cyber battle. As chief executive of cyber security and antivirus software group Avast, his mission has been to help consumers protect their increasingly digital lives from audacious intruders and their growing armoury of hacking tools.
As the pandemic boosted demand for Avast’s cyber crime fighting services, larger US rival NortonLifeLock this week announced that it had agreed to buy the London-listed group in a consumer security deal that valued it at more than $8bn.
For Vlcek, the acquisition marks the culmination of a heady rise from the company intern in Avast’s early start-up days more than 25 years ago, to the helm of what had become one of Europe’s biggest blue-chip tech stocks. Per the terms of the deal, he will join Norton, which has a more than $15bn market capitalisation, becoming president and board member of a global cyber behemoth.
“He put in the time to work himself up that ladder,” said Kelby Barton, who served as Avast’s general counsel at its Prague headquarters until the end of March, before moving to work at US technology group Quiq this month.
Barton describes Vlcek as an “entrepreneurial” leader with dogged determination. “He is very committed to the cause . . . And he doesn’t suffer fools that are not.”
Born in 1977 to an actor and a TV news presenter in what was then communist Czechoslovakia, a young Vlcek mastered the art of computing as the Velvet Revolution brought democracy and capitalism to Prague, and the internet era began to take hold.
At 18, he joined Avast — then known as Alwil — alongside only half a dozen other employees. Loyal to the company from then on, he accumulated a deep technical understanding of the antivirus software it sells via its “freemium” business model, before later serving stints as the chief technology officer and chief operating officer.
“Avast has always been a product and customer-led company — and Ondrej is at the heart of the product,” said Siddharth Patel, partner at CVC Capital, which was lead investor in Avast’s last private equity funding round in 2014. Patel, who sat on Avast’s board between 2014 and 2018, described his working style as “calm competence”.
But it was guidance from Vlcek’s late mentor and boss Vince Steckler — who as chief executive between 2009 and 2019 grew Avast’s revenues from around $20m to around $800m — that helped prime him for leadership, according to Alan Rassaby, Avast’s former chief of staff.
“Ondrej found Vince and Vince found Ondrej,” Rassaby said. “Ondrej brought terrific strategic skills, he was a big thinker and also commanded the respect of the Czech staff. Vince really recognised immediately that the go-to guy was Ondrej.”
Vlcek was appointed chief executive in mid-2019, just over a year after the company floated on the London stock exchange in one of the capital’s largest-ever tech listings.
As a leader, employees paint Ondrej as a willing listener — to both his staff and his customers — with a welcoming open-door policy in the office. In his new position, he promptly made the time to travel to Avast’s global offices to meet his employees personally, one staffer said.
His other statement move was to forgo his salary for £1 a year and give his $100,000 boardroom fee to charity. “I think all of us want to work for a company whose primary objective is not just to generate revenue,” he said in an interview at the time. “And if the CEO sends this pretty strong signal that I’m not just doing this job for a salary, but for many reasons — I think it’s quite powerful.”
But his tenure has not been without snafus. While advocating for consumer privacy, Vlcek was forced to head off Avast’s own privacy pains when an investigative news report found that the company was harvesting the internet browsing data of users who downloaded its antivirus program before selling it to advertisers through a subsidiary called Jumpshot.
Vlcek issued an apology, saying that he felt “personally responsible” for the episode, and was shuttering the Jumpshot business immediately, as it did not fit with the company’s “North Star”. The stock dropped more than 20 per cent at the time.
With the “spyware” scandal behind him, Vlcek has sought expansion in the form of a buyer. According to Vincent Pilette, Norton’s chief executive, Ondrej proposed they have breakfast in late 2019 while he was travelling to the Bay Area, and the two talked about the evolution of the cyber consumer market.
Both businesses had been diversifying from antivirus software into areas including identity theft protection and online privacy services, and expanding from covering computers to encompass mobile and smart home devices.
“At one point in time it became obvious that although we are in the same field, the strengths of the companies are different,” Pilette said, citing “technology and IP-related” dominance from Avast and Norton’s better-known brand.
“Neither of us are about ‘our job’, we are more about the mission . . . so we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try to combine our forces?’” he added.
While the tie-up could be painful in the short term — Pilette has indicated he plans to cut 1,000 jobs from the combined group — it will give the company more clout in an increasingly crowded space, as Big Tech groups such as Google, Microsoft and Apple increasingly build more security protections directly into their operating systems.
Experts say that the fate of consumer cyber security depends largely on marketing and convincing unwitting citizens to pay for services traditionally only sought-after by enterprises. For his advocates, Vlcek’s success may not end with cyber security, however.
“He will reinvent himself again. Talking to him previously, he has tossed around ‘what will Ondrej Vlcek version 2 be?’” said Rassaby. “He’s got a large career in front of him, he’s got another 20-plus years in which to make his mark.”