Expat books executive has helped Kazakhstan turn many pages on progress

04 февраля 2013, 20:47

Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Bizhan Faramarzi came to Kazakhstan looking for opportunities in the oil business.

Over the next two decades, the American-educated Iranian would build a successful operation in Kazakhstan. But not in oil.

Bizhan is the biggest distributor of international newspapers and magazines in the country. His company, Almaty-based Polygon International, also operates bookstores in major hotels and other locations.

In addition, he supplies most of the books to Kazakhstan’s English-language universities, drawing on 2,000 publishers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.

He also partners with the International Herald Tribune to hold seminars aimed at acquainting international companies with investment opportunities in Kazakhstan. And he recently started a company to conduct vocational training in a country whose once-formidable vocational-education system collapsed when the Soviet Union did.

Bizhan’s plunge into the publications, investment and educational business was an accident.

The third generation of his family in the oil business, he thought Kazakhstan had the potential to become a force in the global energy industry. In fact, he founded Polygon International in February of 1993 as an oil operation.

But he was a voracious reader of the quality English-language newspapers and magazines he enjoyed while studying in the United States in the 1970s – and he couldn’t find them in Kazakhstan.

“So I called a friend of mine in the Financial Times and asked him if he could somehow manage to send me several copies every day,” Bizhan said.

The friend did a lot more than that. A week later, he asked if Bizhan wanted to be the sole distributor of the Financial Times in Kazakhstan.

And not only the Financial Times, but other publications the Financial Times Company wanted to distribute in the former Soviet Union. They included such big names as the American-owned International Herald Tribune, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek and Business Week, the British-owned Economist and the German-owned Der Spiegel and Focus.

His friend’s offer came as a “shock to me because I had no idea” what was involved in distributing publications, Bizhan said. He quickly found out.

The first problem was getting publications through customs in a timely way. Initially, it took three weeks.

President Nazarbayev and Bizhan Faramarzi at the Fourth Kazakhstan Investment Summit in Almaty in June 2010. Photo courtesy of Bizhan Faramarzi

President Nazarbayev and Bizhan Faramarzi at the Fourth Kazakhstan Investment Summit in Almaty in June 2010. Photo courtesy of Bizhan Faramarzi

A chance meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s press secretary solved that problem – but not before the president himself intervened, Bizhan said.

Bizhan told the press secretary that “getting daily and weekly papers and magazines three weeks later was like receiving fresh vegetables three weeks later.” By then, the vegetables had spoiled.

President Nazarbayev instructed customs to clear incoming publications “the very same day of their arrival, with priority,” Bizhan said.

The order had an immediate impact. Customs cleared a backlog of Bizhan’s publications the same day it received the decree.

That directive “made the business grow so fast that I could not find time for anything else, including the oil business,” Bizhan said. Polygon International had suddenly shifted from an energy to a publications operation.

Bizhan got into the book business two years later. In 1995 the Intercontinental and Hyatt hotels in Almaty told him they were interested in shops on their premises that could sell newspapers, magazines and books.

In one swoop, Polygon had expanded from a distribution-only to a distribution-and-retailing operation.

Besides the International and Hyatt, it now has shops in the Tien Shan Grand and Dostyk hotels in Almaty and the Rixos in Astana. Polygon also operates a bookstore in Almaty for students and low-income groups.

Meanwhile, a Western-style university in Almaty that was teaching most of its courses in English was having headaches getting English-language textbooks and reference books into the country. The institution, the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, asked Polygon International to take that chore off its hands.

Its success with KIMEP led to Polygon serving most of the Kazakhstan universities that offer sizable chunks of coursework in English. They include the country’s flagship, the three-year-old Nazarbayev University in Astana.

Polygon also supplies texts and reference works to most of the international schools in Kazakhstan that teach in English. They include Haileybury, Miras, Tianshan, QSI, the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, Kazakhstan International School and Almaty International School.

The book publishers that Polygon represents include such gold-star names as Harper Collins, McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin, Prentice Hall, Random House, Sage Publications, Simon & Shuster, Taylor & Francis, Time Warner, John Wiley and Sons, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press.

When word got around that Polygon was importing newspapers, magazines and books for hotels, universities and schools, other customers lined up.

They included the American oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, foreign embassies and consulates in Astana and Almaty, and Kazakhstan government ministries.

Bizhan Faramarzi with Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris P.Droutsas, left, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Astana in December  2010. Photo courtesy of Bizhan Faramarzi

Bizhan Faramarzi with Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris P.Droutsas, left, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Astana in December  2010. Photo courtesy of Bizhan Faramarzi

Bizhan said he had a feeling early-on that a book-importing operation could be successful in Kazakhstan because he’d noticed that “people in Kazakhstan have a passion for books.”

“When I was invited to some friends’ homes, I noticed that in their living rooms, one entire wall -- sometimes two -- were covered with bookshelves,” he said. The books included Western classics, literature from Kazakhstan, Russia and other former-Soviet countries, and Asian and Middle Eastern works.

He remembers seeing youngsters “with books in their hands while waiting at a bus stop, or reading on the bus.”

One of the renowned newspapers that Polygon distributed, the International Herald Tribune, published a special advertising section about Kazakhstan in 1995. Its success prompted the Paris-based newspaper to ask Bizhan to help it organize an investment seminar in Almaty.

The first seminar attracted 800 people from 63 countries.

Government officials were thrilled when it led to millions of dollars worth of investment flowing into Kazakhstan.

Taking a page from the seminar’s success, Kazakhstan began sponsoring its own investment forums.

Today’s premier example is the Astana Economic Forum. It is both a platform for dialogue about global economic problems and an effort to keep overseas investment flowing in to – to help underwrite Kazakhstan’s development.

These investment events have helped Kazakhstan become one of the world’s most successful countries in attracting foreign revenue – more than $120 billion since independence in 1991.

An indication of the success of the International Herald Tribune/Polygon investment seminars is that they’re recurring events. The next one will be in New York in March of 2013.

In recent years, Kazakhstan’s development plans have included an effort to rebuild a vocational-education system that was excellent during Soviet times but has languished.

That collapse has led to shortages of blue-collar workers in many fields. Lack of welders able to do their work to the critical tolerances needed in oil operations has been a particular problem.

Kazakhstan has been trying to enlist international companies in its effort to rebuild its vocational-training establishment. The reason is that in some fields only non-Kazakh companies are able to teach the cutting-edge technology blue-collar workers need today.

Bizhan saw Kazakhstan’s vocational-training gap as both a business opportunity and a way to help the country that has been good to him for two decades.

In 2011 he founded the Polygon subsidiary Eurasian Training Alliance to support Kazakhstan’s vocational-training modernization efforts.

The objective of the subsidiary, which works with Pearson Edexcel and the German company SAP, is to help Kazakhstan vocational-training centers and universities deliver world-class training.

Graduates of the courses obtain “globally recognized certification,” Bizhan said.

To ensure that the quality of the training is maintained over the long haul, it is “independently audited under strict international standards,” he added.

One thing I like about the business that Bizhan has built is that everything he’s done has helped Kazakhstan in one way or another.

The newspapers and magazines he imports have offered the country fresh ideas. The books have helped educate people.

The investment seminars have helped bring in development money.

And the vocational training is providing Kazakhs with modern skills that help the country’s industries compete with foreign rivals.

It must be a satisfying legacy for a guy who came to Kazakhstan with the idea of simply cashing in on the country’s oil boom.

“If I had continued with the oil business, chances are I’d be a very rich man today,” Bizhan told me. “But the personal satisfaction I’ve enjoyed from helping Kazakhstan has been immense – and I have absolutely no regrets about the path I took.”

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