Today we are featuring European expatriate entrepreneur Christopher de Gruben, who lives and works in Mongolia. You can check out his company and website over at M.A.D. Investment Solutions.
1. Please tell us briefly about your bio and background. Your typical Asia Expat ends up in a city like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Tokyo. How did you find your calling in Mongolia?
Well, actually I have always had a fascination with Asia but a lot of my childhood was spent in the Soviet Union and other centrally planned economies. Mongolia was a perfect mix of both of my passions but most importantly I witnessed the transition from centrally planned economies to market economies a number of times. I quickly realised that it tended to follow the same process regardless of the country. If you look at all of the ex-soviet countries, at one point or another, the real estate market is privatised and goes from extremely low price levels to a massive boom within a few years. As I travelled through Mongolia as a tourist 8 years ago I thought that Mongolia was just starting its boom phase and I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. I have never looked back.
2. What sorts of opportunities for careers or business exist for young aspiring entrepreneurs and career-minded individuals? People looking for a career in an emerging market might not view Mongolia as the best jumping off point.
Actually I think that Mongolia is a great start for a career, it is a challenging environment but one filled with incredible opportunities. I have not yet turned 30 and yet I will soon be the CEO of a listed company on the TSXv, how many others can say the same?
Mongolia provides young entrepreneurs with unparalleled opportunities for success. Bear in mind that Mongolia is the fastest growing country in the world (expected 18% GDP growth in 2012) with unimaginable wealth in terms of resources and a very small population. It offers everything that an entrepreneur could dream of: Low cost of entry, ready market, little competition, high disposable income, growing economy, massive FDI inflows, no discrimination (in terms of taxation or legal) against foreign entities and of course low taxes. If an entrepreneur achieves success in Mongolia, it is the best possible platform in my mind for working towards the next emerging market.
3. Is there a specific skill-set, talent, or character that is particularly sought out in Mongolia? What does an individual need to succeed there, whether for business or for careers?
Being adaptable is vital, the working and the investment environments in Mongolia are changing constantly so it is vital to be able to see the storms coming and adapt to a fast moving environment. The second most attribute I would say is essential for working in Mongolia is being sociable, Mongolia, like many nomadic cultures, has a tradition of hospitality and a strength of relationships that is seldom seen in the western world. Business and personal well-being in Mongolia rely entirely on the relationships you will make, it is a small community where everyone knows everyone else and having the right relationships is essential.
I would also add that in my personal opinion there is a definite requirement for patience, the Mongolian bureaucracy and administration are often complicated and illogical but its a process that everyone must go through and learn to appreciate in its own rights.
4. Can you tell us about some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on? How about the most challenging? In what ways was this experience more valuable than it would have been back in your home country?
The most interesting project (and at the same time the most challenging) I have worked on so far (and still working on) is the IPO of the company, I went from managing the day to day operations of the business to discussing complicated financial engineering solutions with brokers all around the world about how to best list the business, where it should be listed, under what terms etc…
Listing a company is a thousand little details that have to be gotten just right so that investors see the right returns and are given a real incentive to invest in your company instead of the thousands of other stocks they could invest in. The balance is hard to get right and we don’t know yet if we have achieved the right mix. Beyond that the process of listing itself has been an uphill struggle that has been incredibly expensive, frustrating and a steep learning experience but in the end it is certainly the high point of my career so far and the most rewarding experience.
5. You’ve worked in Brussels, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Mongolia – all in fairly different roles and industries. Can you comment on the relative positives and negatives you faced in each destination, from both a career and entrepreneurship perspective?
All my other jobs were for large international corporations, mostly financial services where I was a number in the system and I had to abide by rules, regulations, chains of command and so forth. Moving to Mongolia and being an entrepreneur allowed me to put my money and reputation where my mouth was and see if I could do better on my own. I am still in the process of finding out but early indications are positive. I work better if free to do my own thing but most important of all, as I have learned, is to surround yourself with a team of able and intelligent people.
When I was working within the financial services, I was given repetitive specific tasks that I learned to complete well but as an entrepreneur I was forced to become a jack-of-all-trades and had to learn accounting and all sorts of trades which I never really enjoyed. I very quickly learned that I was filled with weaknesses and shortcomings and had to find capable people to support me and drive the business forward. Today’s success of our company is only thanks to the team effort that went into it. While I am CEO in title, our office is constantly filled with debates with my partners who don’t agree with me and we don’t move forward until we have found the perfect solutions.
Having now lived as an entrepreneur for a few years, I think I would find it hard to go back to being a number in a large institution, even if it does provide for better job security, it doesn’t provide me with the adrenaline that running my own business does.
The negative side of being an entrepreneur: there is no such thing as holidays, no one to forward emails to and no one to take decisions for me, its a 24/7 job and I have never worked so hard than when I decided to do my own company.
6. Language fluency is increasingly becoming a basic requirement for international professionals. How much of a barrier has your lack of fluency been during your time in Mongolia? How did you get past this obstacle?
Speaking and writing Mongolian is certainly a plus but having said this, Mongolians are incredible polyglots and can speak a wide variety of languages, removing the absolute need for expats to speak Mongolian. Everyone who comes here should learn the basics of Mongolia, be able to go about small daily tasks but business is generally conducted in English and the majority of the Mongolian business community will speak either English or Russian.
7. The opportunities in Mongolia right now seem to mostly be related to natural resources. Are there opportunities that young expatriate entrepreneurs can take advantage of over there? We’d love your “boots-on-the-ground” feedback.
While the growth in the GDP in Mongolia is of course mining driven, I think the vast majority of opportunities for young entrepreneurs lie in the supply chain and the services sectors. Mongolia has a desperate need for talented young individuals to set up basic services and supply services that don’t yet exist in this market. What is exciting about being an entrepreneur in Mongolia is that you can come in and from day one have a monopoly on a certain type of business as there is no or at least very little competition. Having said this, Mongolians are astute business individuals and keen entrepreneurs and will take on any idea that they can see has a market so be ready to have competition as soon as you have proven your concept.
8. Do you have any warnings or precautions to give to prospective careerists and entrepreneurs interested in breaking into this emerging market?
Mongolia is a challenging and aggressive work environment, it is -40 in winter and you often feel like you in live in a village, I have seen many young expats arrive in Mongolia only to loose themselves in all night parties, girlfriends and alcohol. Those same young expats very quickly burn out and cannot take the stressful environment within Mongolia and leave within 6 months of arrival. I personally never drink alcohol in Mongolia, barely go out to bars and never the nightclubs.
The reality is that I am in Mongolia for the opportunities it provides, not for its weather nor its food, I remain focused on making the most of the opportunities here and this is how I manage to now consider myself a veteran in Mongolia. Of course there is a happy medium that the vast majority of expats here enjoy. Mongolia is a place where people come to work and work hard, as far as I see it those who are too lazy to take the experience seriously will be overtaken by those more enthusiastic, be they foreign or Mongolian.