UPDATE 6-Czech billionaire Kellner killed in helicopter crash on Alaska ski trip

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* The richest person in the country

* PPF group assets 44 billion euros last year

* For Factbox on PPF Companies, click (Add Accident Details, NTSB Survivor, State Police)

By Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, March 29 (Reuters) – U.S. safety inspectors on Monday searched for clues as to the causes of the Alaskan mountainside helicopter crash that killed billionaire Petr Kellner, the richest man in Czech Republic and founder of the PPF investment group, on a weekend ski trip.

Kellner, 56, was among five people, including the pilot, who died on Saturday when the helicopter struck a snow-capped slope in the Chugach Mountains near the Knik Glacier, about 64 km northeast of Anchorage, the most large city in Alaska, officials said.

One person survived the crash, David Horvath, 48, a resident of the Czech Republic. He remained in serious but stable condition in a hospital in the Anchorage area, according to Alaska State Police. Another Czech national, Benjamin Larochaix, 50, was among the dead.

Kellner, who avoided public attention but was pictured in an annual PPF on a snowboard, was part of a group that had taken a day-long heli-skiing trip before the crash, police said of state.

A spokeswoman for the exclusive Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, where the crash victims stayed, said Kellner has been a frequent guest since 2012.

Authorities launched a search for the helicopter on Saturday evening after the plane was reported late for its return and located the wreckage shortly thereafter. The bodies of the victims were found on Sunday.

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team discovered that the helicopter, an Airbus AS350B3, had crashed about 15 feet (4.5 meters) below a ridge line and slipped 900 feet (274 meters) down the slope before coming to a stop, agency spokesman Eric Weiss said. .

Photos of the crash site, at an altitude of about 5,500 feet (1,676 meters), showed the aircraft largely intact. NTSB member Tom Chapman said at a briefing in Washington on Monday that investigators had yet to interview the survivor.

“The area is very hilly, both in terms of terrain and weather,” Chapman said.

As with all NTSB investigations, agency inspectors will look at a wide variety of factors that may have contributed to the crash, including airworthiness, human performance, weather and operations, Weiss said.

Kellner was a dominant figure in the post-Communist era of the Czech Republic, amassing wealth estimated at $ 17.5 billion according to Forbes. He ranked as the 68th richest person in the world on the Forbes 2020 list, tied with media giant Rupert Murdoch and his family.

PPF in a statement expressed its “deepest sorrow” at the death of its founder and 98.9% shareholder.

Ladislav Bartonicek, a 30-year PPF veteran who owns just over 0.5% of the capital, will assume the management role, the company said.

PPF’s third-largest shareholder, Jean-Pascal Duvieusart, also with just over 0.5%, said the company will continue to build and follow Kellner’s vision.

“Petr was someone who was really extraordinary in terms of energy, in terms of creativity, in terms of willingness to build new things,” Duvieusart said in a telephone interview.

Kellner is survived by his wife Renata and four children.

He started selling photocopiers when the country opened up after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. He set up the PPF with partners for the country’s privatization program.

With holdings in finance, telecommunications, manufacturing, media and biotechnology, PPF reported assets of 44 billion euros ($ 51.8 billion) as of mid-2020.

PPF controls telecommunications companies in Central and Eastern Europe, including O2 Czech Republic, Telenor CEE and CETIN.

His largest company is the consumer lender Home Credit, active in markets such as Russia, China and India.

Home Credit was one of the early entrants to the Chinese market, starting to lend there as the first fully foreign-owned business in 2010.

His business there was defended by Czech leaders, whom critics saw as a hijacking of the country’s human rights diplomacy course established by the first post-Communist leader, Vaclav Havel.

President Milos Zeman sought warm relations with China and brought Kellner to a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014.

Kellner also funded a think tank set up by former President Vaclav Klaus, the architect of the 1990s privatization that enabled the Kellner business to flourish.

“His life story was an example of the exploited opportunity offered to young people by economic transformation,” Klaus said.

Kellner had recently focused on its home market, with PPF acquiring a stake in MONETA Money Bank and offering to merge it with its Air Bank and parts of Home Credit. MONETA stock fell 1.7% on Monday.

Last year, PPF finalized the acquisition of Central European Media Enterprises, a group of television stations, from Time Warner.

(1 = 0.8490 €)

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka, Jason Hovet; additional reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Alaska, Robert Muller in Prague and Peter Szekely in New York; edited by Louise Heavens, Jason Neely and Lisa Shumaker)



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