Hard-Core Investors Staying Put Despite Endless Crises

KIEV, Ukraine -- Weak competition, high profits still make nation a promised land for some businesses. No matter what Ukraine throws at them, a small, hard-core group of foreign investors – from giant multinational corporations to lone expatriates – weathers the turbulence.

A conveyor line at the Trostyanets chocolate factory in Sumy Oblast, the biggest Kraft Foods factory in Ukraine.

They stay through crisis and boom times, “blue” and “orange” politicians, a hryvnia worth 4.6 to the dollar and a national currency that trades closer to 10.

They stay put when other foreigners get scared away by headlines of rampant corruption, a sea of bureaucratic red tape and political chaos. Who are these determined businesspeople? Do they make a lot of money here? If so, how do they manage to swim in Ukraine’s muddy waters?

“Ukraine is the best kept secret in Europe,” insisted George Logush, vice president of Kraft Foods International and area director for Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “The European media did a wonderful job, focusing on negative things and rarely showing positive aspects. [To them, I say]: ‘Thank you for sheltering this market for us from the competitors.”

Kraft Foods Ukraine is part of Kraft Foods, the world’s second-largest food and beverage company. It is one of the most successful investors in Ukraine, known by Ukrainians for Korona and Milka chocolate, Jacobs coffee, Lux potato chips, holding a leading position in all three categories. In 14 years, Kraft invested more than $150 million into Ukraine’s economy and increased its business by 100 percent, Logush said, a feat that “would not be possible in very many countries.” Today, the Kraft group boasts annual revenue in Ukraine of about $400 million on domestically-produced products, and more on imports, such as coffee.

The company arrived in 1995, when the economy was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union four years earlier. The hryvnia, the new national currency, had not yet arrived. In its place, until 1996, Ukrainians used the karbovanets, a coupon-like form of payments.

One of the keys to Kraft’s success, Logush said, has been the company’s ability to take advantage of hard times to introduce new product lines. “Now we launch biscuits,” Logush said. “Crisis is the time when you can shake up the established order, because it’s being shaken anyway.”

Yet Kraft remains one of a relatively small number of multinational corporations and foreign investors who have ventured into Ukraine, a vast and largely untapped market of 46 million citizens.

The nation has attracted a mere $35 billion in foreign investment since independence. By comparison, nearly $200 billion has poured into neighboring Poland, a European Union member with eight million fewer citizens than Ukraine, since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Many investors have stayed out because of corruption, red tape and political squabbles between ex-Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych's "blue" forces and the "orange" ones led by the now-dissolved alliance of President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Jorge Zukoski, president of the American Chamber of Commerce, said Kraft’s success is shared by many foreign investors brave enough to tiptoe into the market. They stay, Zukoski said, because they’re generating higher profits than they might in other nations. By establishing themselves first, companies such as Kraft grew fast, faced limited competition and can look forward to high growth rates ahead.

Zukoski said it helps to be in a place for the long run.

“At the end of the day, the large strategic and institutional investors that we represent see the current global financial crisis as a short-term blip on the radar screen. They look at Ukraine as a 50- to 75-year play and understand that there are very few countries left in the world that have the potential to drive future growth for their companies.” Despite the challenges and difficulties, chamber members keep striving for a Ukraine that is “competitive and well-positioned when global growth resumes,” Zukoski said.

But for some investors, the headaches of doing business in Ukraine are simply too much. And, while normal economic cycles are manageable, sometimes Ukraine’s off-the-charts corruption is not.

“The crisis did not affect our business in Ukraine as much as the corruption,” said Hanan Mor, owner of an investment company, in an interview with Israel’s Calcalist newspaper. “That is why we are stopping any business initiatives in this country.”

But the cheerleading and individual success stories cannot hide the fact that, by many measures, Ukraine’s business climate remains unfavorable. The list of grievances is long: unstable legislation, corruption, red tape, non-transparent taxation system, raider attacks, abuse of intellectual property and auctioneer rights.

Politicians are aware of the problems, even if they seem unwilling or unable to improve the situation. As parliamentarian Nataliya Korolevska told an investors' conference in February: "As the world investment capital reaches $1.5 trillion, Ukraine has to do everything to participate in the process under competitive terms.”

Hard-core investors say instability is part of the game.

“I’ve been here for 15 years and this country has never been stable. I wouldn’t advise anybody to stay out of Ukraine, just because they want to wait for the next election,” said Glen Willard, a 15-year business veteran in Ukraine and founder of Willard, an advertising and public relations company.

Willard admitted that the worst part of doing business in Ukraine is its unpredictability. “Other than that, business is not easy anytime, anywhere,” Willard said: “So just get over it.”

Kraft’s Logush also said Ukraine is not for the squeamish.

“If you need to find an excuse to leave the country, you’ll find it,” Logush said. “Particularly, in terms of political instability, I think people are just extremely shortsighted and purposely blind. How long has democracy been in Ukraine?”

American businessman Paul Waters is one of hundreds of expatriates who have thrived on the Ukrainian market. Since arriving 17 years ago, Waters appears to have done a little bit of everything in Ukraine and he has no intention of leaving. From steel trading to the construction business, software and solar panel systems development, Waters said that “Ukraine has been very kind to me. I could be sitting on my boat in California fishing. But in Ukraine, I am enjoying everything. It’s not a Disneyland, it is real,” Waters said.

Waters did, however, confess that it took him awhile to get accepted. He also was cheated several times by Ukrainian partners.

“When I arrived, there were all these Soviet bosses, running businesses and, certainly, they were not as open to our ideas,” Waters said. Ukrainian companies still lack efficient administrators, but they have plenty of highly educated people, computer wizards and other professional standouts to choose from, according to Waters.

Seasoned foreign investors have had success in the financial, insurance and telecommunication sectors, as well as food production and construction, according to Konstantin Stepanov, chief analyst at Sokrat investment group.

The leading individual foreign direct investment in Ukraine’s all-important metal sector came from the $4.8 billion re-sale of the former Kryvorizhstal steel mill in Kryviy Rih, the nation’s largest steelmaker, to ArcelorMittal Steel in 2005. The sale followed a scandalous purchase by a group led by Ukrainian billionaires Rinat Akhmetov and Victor Pinchuk, who bought the steel mill for six times less than what ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company, paid in an open auction.

So, 18 years after independence, Ukraine still represents a big gamble with big potential payoffs – and terrible downsides. It’s a high-risk, high-reward game, Logush admitted. But many are betting that emerging economies will get out of the crisis more quickly than developed ones.

“Which of them will [foreign investors] gamble on first? The ones with the greatest multiplier effect, the largest scales, like China and Brazil. But they always want to spread the risks,” Logush said. “I think those who’ll go into the Ukrainian economy will do very well.”

Source: Kyiv Post