01 Mar 2010

Sole Mates

At any given moment around the world, some twenty countries and territories are likely to be populated by just one HBS graduate. The Bulletin recently checked in with several such solitary alums, and here’s what they report.
by Garry Emmons


Thomas Downing (MBA ’81): LIBERIA
Liberia’s rain forest is the largest in West Africa; its importance to the country is as great as the threat to its existence. Illegal logging fueled Liberia’s recent civil war: “Blood timber” financed the violence, just as blood diamonds have in other African conflicts. The civil war has ended but the pressure on the forests only mounts. The government is trying to open them to well-controlled commercial logging but most of the companies entering Liberia’s forests today are unqualified and unscrupulous. Bribery drives the allocation process. The government is not yet capable of enforcing its own protective laws.

I learned all this firsthand as CFO of Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA). An American citizen, I came here in 2006 to work in a USAID-sponsored project aimed at combating corruption in state-owned enterprises. Here’s one case I encountered: A “company” with no telephone, office, or experience applied to the FDA to work 1 million acres of forest, a concession worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Every word of the company’s forty-page proposal was plagiarized from a U.S. Forest Service report on woodlands 7,000 miles away. And even though I exposed it, that proposal only went into remission, and I expect we haven’t seen the last of it. When it comes to corruption here, the bad guys don’t even have to be clever. But, to her credit, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is Africa’s first elected female head of state and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, has made anticorruption one of the top priorities of her government. She understands that corruption is crippling the country.

My job is exciting — exhilarating, even. Every day, I deal with people who are shaping the country’s future. I meet world-class scientists who wouldn’t give me ten minutes in the developed world, but in Monrovia, they’ll explain everything I ever wanted to know about carbon exchange, deforestation drivers, species displacement, and so on. My work colleagues, both Liberian and expatriate, are absorbed by their work and live their lives with extraordinary intensity. They’re rebuilding from war, fighting corruption, reforming the judiciary, and cracking the mysteries of forest and climate interaction. And then there are my Liberian friends outside of work. Many of them are young people who, while earning $100 or $200 a month, take care of their children (usually as single mothers), support their parents and siblings, get to work every day on time, work toward a degree at night (paying their own tuition), and manage to save enough to slowly build a house. While generally excited by democracy, Liberians are understandably impatient for roads and clinics to be rehabilitated, suspicious of government, and disgusted by corruption. They worry about school fees, the price of rice, the cost of fuel, and the crime rate.

For me personally, Liberia is an enjoyable place. Health care is a little scary: The X-ray machine at the major hospital doesn’t work. I have no health insurance, and the roads are dangerous. There are few cultural attractions; Monrovia has only one movie theater, and it’s overrun by cats. But the beach is very nice. Anyway, I’m always working. I don’t have much time for diversion.

Cyril Comte (MBA ’99): MARTINIQUE
With its pristine beaches, lagoons, rain forests, and big volcano, Mont Pelée, Martinique is one of the most beautiful and varied islands in the Caribbean. It’s a piece of France in the Americas. I’m a French citizen, and I’ve been here for almost ten years, running a family enterprise that dates back to the 1960s. Along with a few automobile-related businesses in the French West Indies, we are the distributor for Toyota, Suzuki, and Chevrolet in Martinique, as well as Audi, Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Suzuki in French Guiana. I enjoy the hands-on nature of running my own small company, having the opportunity to focus on different businesses at different stages of development. In small markets, the feedback on your actions can be swift and gratifying. But it can be humbling, too: The reality checks come even faster when you make the wrong moves. I have had my share of those.

Over the past nine years at my company, we’ve developed a constructive, respectful, and strike-free relationship with our labor partners, which has helped the firm’s development. On the regional level, however, 2009 saw weeks of road blockades and forced business closings due to contentious negotiations between the unions and the state and other employers. A real black swan. This has worsened an economy already weakened by the global financial crisis. Such conditions test the resilience of a company and its leadership. So far so good.

In spite of difficult labor relations based on a history of division and confrontation, I love the entrepreneurial spirit and opportunity found on this small island. We need to make some improvements, however. We must revamp a model of development that is skewed toward imports and consumption instead of production and exports. As a member of the entrepreneurs union and chief of its economic commission, I am quite active in the ongoing work of labor and government relations to better our economic environment. The key for us will be to create a thriving tourism industry. We still lack quality service and infrastructure, and with personnel costs that match European standards, we can compete only on the basis of high-quality French Caribbean service. We do have one luxury hotel that already exhibits that standard: the Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa. It is absolutely delightful. We need more like it, and to do that, we need more tourists from North America and other places. To achieve that, we must work hand in hand with local politicians and the public administration, one thing we’ve not done so well to date.

The people of Martinique feel some dissatisfaction with our current institutional relationship with France. Yet at the same time, we lack a vision of where to go as a small territory. We have the highest standard of living in the Caribbean, but we miss a collective sense of pride in common achievement. Clearly, Martinique could be better at coming to terms with its own history and defining a shared ambition for the various components of its population. We shall work on it.

Viktor Mizo (MBA ’00): MACEDONIA
I’m the CEO of Invest Macedonia, the primary institution in the country responsible for attracting foreign investments. The prime minister asked me to take the job, and I report directly to him. It’s the highest nonpolitical position in the country and carries the rank of a government cabinet position. The job has taken me to some forty countries around the world, usually accompanying the prime minister on official visits while presenting the investment opportunities in the country, or meeting directly with potential investors.

Invest Macedonia’s role ranges from branding the country and promoting its investment opportunities, to organizing site visits and meetings for foreign investors, to negotiating investment deals and incentive packages. In little more than two years on the job, we’ve had some good results: The British automobile parts company Johnson Matthey and Triview/Haier, in a joint venture, are building plants, and other companies are interested in investing here. Macedonia is a small and newly independent country of proud people, a peaceful place guided by a hope for a better future. We are a candidate country for membership in the EU and NATO. It is one of the rare, truly multinational countries in Europe, where all religions and ethnicities can feel they belong. Macedonians can now travel visa free to all of Europe except for the UK and Ireland. People study English starting in primary school, so it is widely spoken here.

We are praised by the World Bank as the third best reforming economy in the world for 2009 and 32nd in the world in 2010 for the ease of doing business. We are very pro-business, with 10 percent corporate and personal income tax and one-stop company registration in only four hours. In our free economic zones, the government offers a special benefits package consisting of a 10-year tax holiday (corporate and personal), a 99-year land lease at concessionary rates, grants of up to $750K, no customs or duty taxes, and more. Macedonia’s economy has been stable since its independence in 1991 with strong GDP growth rates over the years and an expected GDP drop of only 0.6 percent for 2009 despite the recession. Areas that need improvement are infrastructure and reduced dependence on imported electricity. We should also, I believe, invest heavily in tourism to make Macedonia again the hot spot that it was during the days of Yugoslavia.

As part of the job and during my travels I’ve met quite a few HBS alumni as well as those who have visited Macedonia exploring investment opportunities. We have a group here in Macedonia of several people who have studied at the Kennedy School or have attended various Harvard programs or short courses.

As for diversion, to be honest, I don’t have much free time. But every chance I get, I like to go mountain biking near Skopje, the capital, or spend a weekend relaxing in my hometown beside beautiful Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest lakes in the world.

Oyunjargal Dashzeveg (AMP 171, 2006): MONGOLIA
I’ve been the CEO of Mongol Post Bank since 1998, when it had 50 employees and 9 branches and operated only in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Since then, we’ve expanded to 235 branches and 1,400 employees, with total assets 110 times those of 1998. Of course, no one can do this alone, and I was lucky to have full support from my executive officers and employees.

Just six years ago, Mongolia switched from a government-controlled economy to a market economy. Many foreign investors have expressed renewed interest in Mongolia due to its rich natural resources (e.g., copper, gold, coal, uranium) and its strategic geographic location relative to its neighbors, China and Russia. Last year, the government finalized contracts with well-known multinational mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe Mines to develop the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine, one of the largest recently discovered such deposits in the world. The business environment has become more attractive and favorable for foreign investors. Many elements of a market economy, political liberty, and human rights have entered Mongolian society. We are a kind and friendly people who are learning these essential values of democracy.

With gold and copper the country’s main exports, the drop in commodity prices and the global economic recession have hit Mongolia hard. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. (As far as I know, I am the only Mongolian ever to graduate from HBS! However, our newly elected president, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, is an alum of the Kennedy School.) The country’s small population limits its economic potential, but we are looking forward to GDP growth of 7 percent in 2010 and rapid growth in this decade. Thirty percent of the population lives in poverty, but I believe within the next ten years, our country could increase its per capita GDP to $10,000.

If I were an “economic czar” with sweeping powers, I would take action to speed up economic growth and improve the standard of living by providing a stable and effective legal environment for business operations; equal opportunities for the public and private sectors; investment in better education and health care; protection for the natural environment; and enforcement of existing laws and legislation. I would also utilize the country’s wealth to benefit both the Mongolian people and the business sector, while diversifying the economy into animal husbandry, food processing, light industries, and tourism. We must also cooperate with global companies, produce national franchises, and attract international investment.

Known for Chinggis Khaan (or Genghis Khan, as he is called in the Western world) and the Great Mongol Empire of the 13th century, we Mongols are proud of our long history; our vast untouched landscape; and our national character as a people. In the coming generations, I have no doubt that Mongolia will flourish.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1981, Section G
Class of MBA 1999, Section F
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Class of MBA 2000, Section D
Class of AMP 171

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