(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )
Three years ago Richard Debrot gave ski lessons in his native Switzerland to a family from Kazakhstan’s commercial center of Almaty.
The family he coached on the slopes of St. Mortiz was so warm to him, he said, that he wanted to learn more about Kazakhstan – and perhaps take his power-plant-renovation business to the country.
Debrot, who teaches skiing as a hobby, led a Swiss engineering team that modernized a coal-fired power plant in Bulgaria a few years ago. He wanted to do the same with the decades-old, coal-fired plants in the former Soviet Union.
The Bulgarian-project team evolved into Wollerau, Switzerland-based Power Synergy, which Debrot heads as chief executive officer.
Surveying former Soviet states convinced him that Kazakhstan “was the most open with regards to new business, wanting to make a change, leading change and wanting to leave an impact on the world. This is shown explicitly by the president’s (Nursultan Nazarbayev’s) speeches and business conduct.”
Early this year Debrot, who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Zurich, discovered two great tools to facilitate his quest for Kazakhstan deals.
One is the Astana Economic Forum, the fifth version of which he attended from May 22 to 24.
The other is the G-Global website. The main reason Forum organizers established the site in 2011 was to facilitate dialogue about dysfunction in the global economic and financial systems. The hope was that ideas would surface in the online discussions that could lead to solutions to the problems.
The name of the website grew out of the G-Global initiative that President Nazarbayev unveiled in December of 2011. The president contended that the G-8 and G-20 nations establish global economic policy in their own interests, not for the benefit of the world at large. He called for a much larger number of countries to set economic policy.
In addition to promoting big-picture economic dialogue, the G-Global website helps Americans and others wanting to do business in Kazakhstan.
Debrot took advantage of that function to post a business proposal on the site. Drawing on his Bulgaria success, he called for retrofitting Kazakhstan’s coal-fired power plants to make them cleaner and more efficient.
What the G-Global team saw as a proven way to help address today’s global energy challenge earned him about $1,700 — for the site’s best business paper.
When he posted the proposal, he said, he didn’t know the site was holding a competition for best business paper. So his prize was a surprise.
“To win a prize for my article” was a nice bonus, he noted. But “far more important was the credibility” he obtained from the Forum designating him an energy-solutions expert.
That credibility paid off in special recognition at the Astana Economic Forum and in business doors being opened for him, he said.
The recognition consisted of Forum organizers asking him to be one of the top business people, academics and others signing a memorandum of understanding to establish an Astana Economic Forum Global Venture Fund.
The deputy chair of the Astana Economic Forum’s organizing effort, Nurbek Achilov, came up with the idea for the fund, which will be used to finance investment projects in Kazakhstan and beyond.
Debrot said two of the many contacts he made at the Astana Economic Forum already have led to responses from Kazakhstan companies.
One contact opened the doors to a major power-generating firm. He will return to Kazakhstan within two months to meet the company’s power-division management and have a Power Synergy team make “a first visual inspection of their power plants.”
Debrot, who also holds a master’s degree from the famed Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University in the United States, said he realizes there is a long way between preliminary discussions with a company and a business deal.
“At this point, we are still at the very beginning of market entry to Kazakhstan, and the goal is to transfer the achieved success from Bulgaria to other territories,” he said.
But he couldn’t have asked for a quicker start in Kazakhstan than the Astana Economic Forum, the G-Global Website and connections with Kazakhs in Switzerland have provided him, he said.
“I started with the Kazakh Embassy in Switzerland to evaluate opportunities,” he said. “Then one thing led to the other. I became a member of the board of the Swiss-Kazakh Forum,” which fosters business relationships between Swiss companies and Kazakshtan.
Next winter he plans to introduce to the slopes of St. Moritz many of the Kazakhs whom he met initially as business contacts. Those contacts-turned-friends have displayed the “same warmth I experienced with the family from Almaty,” he said.
He said one of his lasting impressions of the Astana Economic Forum was the world-class caliber of the participants. This year the more than 8,000 attendees included heads of state, government ministers, renowned economists and several Nobel Prize winners.
The number of countries represented at the Forum has grown every year to 93 in 2012, said Murat Karimsakov, chairman of the executive body of the Eurasian Economic Club of Scientists Association, the main conference organizer. That’s because the Forum offers “thought-provoking discussions about global economic issues” as well as business opportunities, he said.
“Many of the people I met during the Forum are exceptional,”Debrot said. “I am excited when I get to spend a few minutes with individuals such as Tair Mansurov” or with ranking officials of the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Mansurov, a Kazakh, is a former United Nations undersecretary general who now heads the Eurasian Economic Community.
“This is really where the Astana Economic Forum helped me to be catapulted to very high international and political levels,” Debrot said.
He said he learned about the G-Global website by accident, while registering online for the Astana Economic Forum. The Forum website has a link to the G-Global website.
Debrot said he hopes more investors learn about the G-Global website and the Global Venture Fund in the months to come. “From my perspective, I believe they do not have the exposure they deserve,” he said. The venture fund was unveiled just two months ago at the Forum.
The next steps in Debrot’s effort to develop business in Kazakhstan are to “push further with the contacts made, add meat to the bone, generate projects across the country and truly add measurable impact to the environment, economy and thus social welfare.”
Kazakhstan is a huge business opportunity for Debrot because 85 percent of its electricity is coal-fired. Many of those plants are old, inefficient and highly polluting.
In fact, development banks such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank have called on Kazakhstan and other former Soviet countries to make a priority of modernizing their power plants and municipal heating systems.
The retrofitting in Bulgaria enabled the coal-fired plant to increase its output by 12.3 percent a year – from 875 megawatts to 982 megawatts. The additional capacity has generated $25 million more revenue a year, Debrot said.
The retrofitting also has slashed the plant’s annual emissions, starting with 1.1 million tons of carbon dioxide and 350,000 tons of sulfur dioxide.
“Some of the largest plants within the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) are located in Kazakhstan, and people around those plants and beyond suffer from environmental issues,” he said.
He hopes “to support the clean-up those acid-rain-producing coal-fired plants” as a way of bringing “a better environment to the people who live there.”
And what about the friendship with the Almaty family that got Debrot revved up about Kazakhstan in the first place?
“They came back to St. Moritz this past season,” he said. The friendship has blossomed “to the extent that I have an agreement with their 9-year-old son that next winter I will be speaking my first sentences in Russian and he will put a major effort into his English-language studies.”
(Feature photo: Hanon Barabaner, president of Estonia’s Institute of Economic Management, presents Valentina Kraush with a G-Global award. The Moscow resident was named best contributor to the G-Global platform debates. Courtesy photo.)
Hal Foster is a longtime journalist and journalism professor who has worked in the United States, Japan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. His news career has included writing and editing at the Los Angeles Times and nine years as a journalist in Japan. He is an associate professor of Communication at the new Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Catch one of his other blogs at en.tengrinews.kz.