When did you first come to Ukraine and what brought you here?
When Ukraine became free in 1991 I came out here for Christmas. A little while after that a guy called John Hynansky gave me a call. He was a friend of my parents and he had the opportunity to bring Ford to Ukraine. He asked if I was interested in going in to business here and of course I said yes. So I came here in May 1992 like a guy off of a boat, with nothing but my suitcases. And now, 20 years later, you can see what we’ve got.
What was it like when you first arrived in Ukraine?
I came here almost immediately after independence. It was a bizarre feeling. Even though we were American, we were raised to be Ukrainian, and we’re very proud of our heritage. I was coming back to my homeland, even though I wasn’t born or raised here. It was really weird. I mean, if you take my life in the US, I went to Ukrainian school, I went to Ukrainian church, I spoke to my parents in Ukrainian, and our house was decorated in Ukrainian national style. So it was pretty cool to come here.
And after that first visit, I wanted to be here. I wanted to work here. So when Hynansky made me the offer I jumped on it, and in May ’92 I was back. I was 28 years old, single and willing to work, and that’s all that was needed.
How was it back then, trying to set up a business in Ukraine?
The whole story’s surreal if you think about it. First of all, I didn’t know anybody. Some guy met me at the airport and drove me to the National Hotel. I lived there for about three months. Even renting an apartment back then was virtually impossible because no one knew what they were doing. There was no business here. There was no currency. I came here when it was still the rouble, and they were trying to move to the coupon.
At that time, they were trading hard currency with local currency on the street, mostly outside TSUM. There were no cell phones, no Internet, and you couldn’t even make a phone call to the US. I just spent my days walking the streets, trying to rent real estate, trying to understand the banking system, even registering a business was completely unknown. I mean, our first company registration has the Hammer and Sickle stamp on it. I couldn’t do it now, but I was proud to be Ukrainian and I was proud to be here.
When did you manage to import your first cars to sell?
That year. The first car we imported was a Ford Scorpio for me. We made our first order for sale that year too. We ordered seven cars from Ford and sold them to the one guy who was converting local currency to hard currency because of the devaluation. But those early years it was squat. I think our best year was ’95 when we sold around 1,000 cars. It didn’t really become big business until 2007. Until then, it was really Mickey Mouse business, but to us it was big.
What do you consider the main milestones on your path to success?
The first was registering the company in 1992, and the next would be the opening of our first dealership in ’93, which was a garage. Then, we opened the first Ford dealership in ’97 and in ’99 we became the official distributor for Volvo. In ’04 we added Jaguar, Land Rover and Porsche and in 2006 we opened the multibrand Winner dealership. This year, of course, we celebrate 20 years of doing business and have sold 75,000 cars.
To what do you attribute the success of Winner Imports?
A love for the country. We love being Ukrainian. When you look at the people who come to do business here what you have is, firstly, the multinationals. They do business in one hundred and twenty countries, and Ukraine is one hundred twenty-one! They come in with all their systems and processes and they do business. Then you have your investors who view the country as an opportunity, and come and invest then get out. But we’re different. We’re expats of Ukrainian origin who’re proud to be here. You've got myself, you've got Petro Rondiak, Robert Kulewicz and Mark Parekh, and some others through time, and all of us have a tie to the country which gave us a tolerance. We dealt with all the nonsense because we’re here for a bigger reason. We weren’t just here to build a business and make money, we were here to build a business in the country that’s our homeland. That created something different. Another good choice we made was not to take on local partners. A lot of guys who came here in those early days felt they needed a local partner to navigate the waters and to provide land or real estate or whatever. We decided not to do that because we recognised the risks. A lot of westerners came here, took on local partners, gave them the know-how and then were pushed out of the business. Of course, there were risks in not having a local partner. There were a lot of issues in the beginning with the mafia, people running on us, extortion, corruption and everything else. But we were kind of protected because we were importing Ford, and Ford decides who it’s going to do business with. So it’s not something you can steal.
Has the car market in Ukraine recovered since the crisis, and how do you see the future for Winner Imports?
The market recovered and now it’s stagnant. The car market now is 235,000 units a year when it was up around 660,000. For the market to grow again, people need to make more money, they’re only going to make more money if the economy grows, the economy is only going to grow from internally or externally, and foreign direct investment is low because people don’t want to put up with this stuff. The future depends on the banks lending more money, but that’s only going to happen when there’s the stability to allow for foreign investment, or Ukraine growing on its own over time, but that’s the longest ride.
We have always have a positive outlook – no matter how hard it’s got, we’ve always remained positive, and that’s what keeps us going. The country still has tremendous potential. I mean, at the moment there are 4,600 cars sold per million of the population, and in Germany it’s 38,000. So the market can still grow seven, eight, nine times.
How has the country changed since you first arrived in 1991?
It’s different. It’s completely different. You can’t even compare it. But things haven’t happened as fast as one would want, and it goes forward and backward. The country doesn’t have a clear vision: it’s spreading itself between Europe and Russia. It’s making it very difficult for foreigners to come in. I mean, I can look anyone in the face and tell them there’s a lack of rule of law and corruption’s getting worse. But how often do people want to hear the elections are fraudulent and the systems are corrupt? It’s twenty years later but those things are still the same. People are tolerant, but why would people come here? They’ll take one look at the place and say, “I don’t need to be there.” We’re here because we’re Ukrainian. Not everyone has that
Your parents are obviously very patriotic. How was it for them to return to Ukraine?
My mum’s from Lviv and my dad’s from Sambir. My father is and will always be an extremely proud Ukrainian. He’ll live and die for this country. And I was raised that way. I mean, if I ever spoke English at home I got in trouble. My mum was more pragmatic, but for my dad it was an extremely emotional experience: he cried non-stop when Ukraine gained independence, and again the first time they came here. They’re older now, but they used to come all the time.
What do you like to do in your spare time and where do you like to do it?
My life is just work. As sad as it is, or pathetic as it is, that’s what I do. I work or I might hit a bar at ten or eleven at night. If it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be a social leper. What usually happens is an expat's wife gets caught up in the community, and then the guy follows. That’s how I make friends: my wife makes friends with someone else’s wife and then we all get together. We have three kids, and of course we want them to be happy. So my life revolves around work and the kids. I work, and we travel as a family.