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A Changing Business Climate in Ukraine - 2005-04-25

A Changing Business Climate in Ukraine

Interview with Morgan Williams, Director, Government Affairs, SigmaBleyzer Investment Group

Conducted by Adrian Karmazyn, Program Manager, Ukrainian Service, Voice of America, at a recent US-Ukraine Business Forum in New York City

Transcript

AK: “What has changed in the last half year in terms of the way American business was looking at Ukraine then, and the way it’s looking at Ukraine now?”

MW: “There’s been a significant change, because six months ago, many investors in Ukraine and many businesses were developing an exit strategy. They were thinking “we better be thinking what we’re going to do, and maybe we would want to exit from Ukraine or, at least, just consolidate our positions and not put any more money in Ukraine. But today, it’s exactly the opposite; most businesses are taking a brand new look at Ukraine, saying “were are the opportunities, what should we be doing out there, how can we expand or how can we raise more investment funds for Ukraine”, and, like SigmaBleyzer, they are launching a new investment fund, and they have not done that now for seven or so years because of the environment in Ukraine, but the day after the inauguration, we’re out looking for new funds for Ukraine and lot of other people are, too. So, it’s been a 100% change in the way business looks at Ukraine.”

AK: “There may have been some traditional networks here, maybe diaspora Ukrainian-Americans, or other people that had gotten involved with Ukraine, interacting with Ukrainian business. What’s the next step now to make sure that American companies know about the investment opportunities in Ukraine, and that perhaps businessmen in areas that haven’t been touched by Western investment – maybe in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk or Odesa – they haven’t really worked with Americans -- how do you see that connection being made?”

MW: “Well, I think it’s very important that those with Ukrainian heritage take a new look at Ukraine, because many of them came out to Ukraine, looked for partners, made some investments – and many of them did get burned. But I think now is a whole new situation, and they ought to take a new look at it…. I think … the Orange Revolution kind of did that for us. It was a major event, and so many people know about it that just because of this conference, every meeting we’re having in Washington now is full, and so there is a whole new environment – which is good – and so there are many opportunities in Ukraine, many areas that haven’t been explored yet, it’s still a totally undercapitalized, underdeveloped marked, and then, of course, the Yushchenko government needs to deliver on their promises to make specific, concrete legislative and legal changes, administrative changes, and other changes. So, six months from now, all the things, many the things that were real problems in the past [will] have been eliminated, so people don’t walk away six months, a year from now saying “I wish we hadn’t come here” or be disillusioned. So yes, investors and potential investors need to deliver – the Yushchenko government, also, needs to deliver tangible bottom line results.”

AK: “Why would a businessman here, an investor, investment fund, a banker, any American - why would they go to Ukraine, as opposed to going to such save havens, if you will, like China or India or other places that are really growing and competitive – what’s Ukraine’s advantage?”

MW: “Well, many of the larger companies, of course, they are always looking for investments in all the major countries, and Ukraine with almost fifty million people and the size of France, I mean is the major player over there in south-eastern Europe and, along with Romania and Bulgaria, Ukraine is now saying “we want to be on the fast track for the EU”, and even if that’s a long time coming, it still makes it a hot investment climate. Many people are concerned about investments in China, the government there really hasn’t changed and so, many people are saying “now with the Yushchenko government….”, and, of course, Georgia and other places, but Ukraine is so much bigger than Georgia, it’s bigger than Moldova, so it is a huge market and has access through the Black Sea and into Russia to a lot of other large markets, so actually, Ukraine is a very significant opportunity around the world. Lot of problems in South America, lot of problems in other parts of the world, And so, that part of Europe that is involved in Euro-Atlantic integration, as we say, is becoming a hot property, and, of course, if some of the people’s populist movements become stronger in some of those other countries – I think, south-eastern Europe is a good place to invest in the coming time.”

AK: “Is there anything in particular that Ukrainians should be doing now as individual businessmen to take advantage of the new opportunities?”

MW: “When people first started to invest in Ukraine everybody said “we’re going to have a joint venture, we’re going to have a partnership,” and they were looking for partners. Well, it didn’t take very long – first few years – to find out, there really was an extreme shortage of reliable partners in Ukraine. And businesses out there now, the first thing they need to do is to be able to get their business in order, get their books in order, and also their presentations to try to prove to people that they can be a reliable long-term partner and [that] they will live by the rules and [that] they are not going to take their investment partner to a song and dance like they did in the past. I can just tell you -- the list is a mile long of people who looked for a partners in Ukraine, who took a partner, and then wished , they hadn’t taken a partner, or who left, because they could not find a reliable partner to produce potatoes, or produce apples, or produce steel - or whatever [was] needed out there. And with a new legal environment and a new spirit, a business has got to convince a Western company they not going be like Ukrainian partners in the past. And with modern accounting and modern way of doing business, they can convince a partner that that’s what they need to do, to be attractive in this market place.”

AK: “Ukraine is a great market of 50 million people who you can sell things to. They are talented people, who can build things, great things, and sell them to other countries - that’s where the economic strength of the country lies, both as a market and a place to create things. How are these resources best utilized?”

MW: “Ukraine still has a huge industrial base that’s underutilized in many cases, their agriculture is totally underutilized, and, if you think about, almost every apartment and home in Ukraine needs to be remodeled, every city needs to be redone, remodeled. Businesses need capital and you have just a great opportunity in terms of the whole home industry, the agriculture industry and cities. Just rebuilding apartments, rebuilding cities and rebuilding the farms is just a huge investment and a huge opportunity…. So, if the Ukrainian government will get their act together and pass all the specific legislation they need to, the economic miracle would, finally, come to Ukraine. But, one of the major problems is a huge shortage of long-term capital. You just can’t borrow money in Ukraine for three to five years for remodeling your apartment or to buy a tractor, and there is no money for fifteen or twenty years to buy land or buy an apartment or home. And that’s a big issue. The Yushchenko government, we think, the number one issue is to find ways to bring in long-term capital for businesses, for cities, for farms and for homeowners. [If] they do that, than they are going to be in good shape – and Ukraine is going to be in good shape.”

AK: “And are you confident that the prosperity that American investors will potentially enjoy from Ukraine, is this also going to be enjoyed by the Ukrainian people – which is often a concern in Ukrainian politics – that investment bring prosperity for Ukrainians?”

MW: “SigmaBleyzer, by buying businesses, by stabilizing, we’re creating jobs, we’re creating permanent jobs, we’re creating value. You have got to have a lot of people who come into Ukraine be willing to create value, short-term value and long-term value, and it’ going to take all kinds of financial institutions, all kinds of investors with huge amounts of money to do that, and then the benefits really start down for the average Ukrainian who now has a tractor, who bought a piece of land, who now fixed up his apartment or financed his small business, or he now has hot water and good streets and good plumbing services from his city. So, the way to bring benefits to the average Ukrainian is through capital and through providing financial assistance in these four areas, at least these four areas that I mentioned.

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