Ukraine Stories: leading a business in wartime

Ukrainian-Swiss Business Hub in Lugano during the Ukraine Recovery Conference, 4-5 July 2022.(Credit: Aylin Elci)

Reconstruction was at the heart of the Ukraine recovery conference, held 4-5 July in Lugano, Switzerland. Geneva Solutions met top business leaders who shared their experience of leading a business in wartime

The Ukrainian-Swiss Business Hub at the Pestalozzi hotel across the convention centre is busy. Top CEOs of the country have gathered to speak about entrepreneurship. Borys Shestopalov is one of them. He lost five of his seven factories since the beginning of war, which has dramatically changed his business. He shows us a video filmed two months ago where his factory in south Ukraine is engulfed in flames.

 “This is my grain storage, after it was hit by rockets. There were about 2 million dollars’ worth of sunflower grains and wheat in there”, he explains. Another of his factories in southeast Ukraine is now at the hands of the Russians. “We’re a patriotic Ukrainian company and it’s impossible for us to work there. From the first day of the war, we knew we would have to give up that factory.”

 Shestopalov’s company produces grains, bread and dry goods of all sorts. Since the beginning of war, he works with the army, the World Food Programme and the government, something he has never done before. He is in Lugano with the CEO club, a networking enterprise which brings together 230 of the top business leaders in Ukraine.

 Sergey Gaydaychuck, the director of the CEO club, divided his members into silos and turned them into a “business army” to best support the needs of the country. So far, they have raised 30 million dollars. Although the situation remains difficult for all – even for the few businesses that still generate profit as they give back everything to the community – he remains hopeful. 

 “Entrepreneurs always look for new opportunities and new solutions,” he says and he comments on Boris’ situation, “I have no doubt he will recover his business”. Still, everything developed before war needs to be reconstructed according to Gaydaychuck.

 Maksim Korestkiy and Roman Ivaniuk are the CEOs of Blackshield Capital Group, a multi-million asset management company, specialised in analysis and investment for ultra high net worth individuals – mostly Ukrainians. Before the war, their plan was to expand out of Kyiv with branches around the world but “running a business in a no-fly zone like Ukraine became nearly impossible”, says Ivaniuk about the start of the war. 

 Luckily, Blackshield registered in 2017 as a self-regulatory organisation in Switzerland and is currently waiting for an upgraded licence from the Finma, the Swiss financial market supervisory authority. They have moved their headquarters to Zurich and have already started relocating employees – mostly women, as it’s still difficult to get men out of Ukraine.

 “We eventually wanted to become an international company, but with war, we were forced to do so”, says Ivaniuk. Most of their customers now live abroad and Blackshield – which will be renamed BI9 in Switzerland – is already looking for a broader scope of clients and employees.

 “I hope that the Swiss environment will be friendly for new businesses coming from Ukraine and that it will understand the challenges we’ve been through, says Ivaniuk. His partner Korestkiy adds: “It’s not about charity; we will be beneficial to the Swiss economy.”

 As a top Ukrainian company, they take their role very seriously. Their hope is to create a Ukrainian private equity fund to support local business even if “for now, there are no such opportunities because of the war.” 

 In the meantime, according to Ivaniuk, companies like his are “the bridge that will help Swiss investors and European investors to take part in the financing of the Ukrainian restoration”.