Daniel Kunin Kusto Group Leadership
(Photo : Courtesy)

Kusto Group was founded by a group of Kazakh entrepreneurs led by Yerkin Tatishev in 2002. The company's earliest ventures focused on initiating reforms to turn failing businesses in their home country into profitable enterprises. Today, Kusto Group has operations across the globe in oil and gas, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and real estate.

Kusto Group: Driving growth and change

The growth and success of the multi-sector conglomerate parallels the transformation of Kazakhstan into a leading economy among emerging markets in the region and beyond.

Kusto Group's managing director, Daniel Kunin, has extensive experience working in emerging markets. As a senior advisor to the Government of Georgia for six years, he was part of an effort to introduce economic reforms that would turn the country from a failing state into an internationally rated business-friendly market. It was during this time that Kunin was first introduced to the Kusto Group team.

"We quickly became friends," he says. "What attracted me to join their project was my friendship with the owners and their genuine entrepreneurial spirit, which runs right through the business."

Since joining Kusto Group, Kunin has become an integral part of the company's leadership team and a key factor in the development and success of many Kusto ventures.

When Kunin came on board, the company was looking to continue to expand and diversify its international portfolio. To facilitate this growth, Kusto Group relocated its company headquarters to Singapore.

"We had previously successfully built businesses and investments in Southeast Asia prior to the move, notably in Vietnam - but we felt that moving there would open us up to larger and more diverse markets and opportunities," says Kunin on the company's relocation. "Singapore is obviously in and of itself a thriving financial centre too, which we felt would give us greater access to capital markets."

Seizing new investment opportunities

In 2014, Kunin helped lead Kusto Group's acquisition of Israeli paint giant, Tambour. This purchase of an already established and market-leading company was a first for the company.

"It's fair to say that buying Tambour was a new step for us," Kunin acknowledges, "but I wouldn't call it a change in strategy, per se - more a recognition that as we grow, we're becoming involved in larger and larger transactions. Kusto Group's investment strategy is founded upon entrepreneurship that is also opportunistic - that doesn't necessarily have to be acquisitions - but it is almost always about transformation. Today, Tambour looks very different from when we acquired it - not only has it grown it is also more focused. I expect it to look different in five years' time as well as we continue transforming and growing it."

Kusto Group continues its goal of transforming Tambour from a national champion into a global leader in the paint industry. And while the company is not currently seeking out opportunities similar to the Tambour acquisition, Kunin doesn't rule out the possibility. Today, the company has leveraged joint ventures and partnerships as a way to achieve effective growth.

"We've recently launched some very exciting projects with US agricultural leaders to bring cutting-edge technology to Kazakhstan and the figures involved in those ventures are even larger than the size of the Tambour deal. These are transformative projects, and that's what makes them so exciting."

Kazakhstan's watershed moment

Even though Kusto Group's success has given it a more global perspective, the company remains committed to its roots and the country of Kazakhstan. Through its agricultural operations in the country, Kusto Group aims to be part of Kazakhstan's ascendance as a global leader in agriculture. Kunin believes that this will be possible through the introduction of innovative technologies that have the potential to improve yields, effectively manage natural resources, improve sustainability and bring new jobs to the country.

"Our recent projects with Tyson Foods, Valmont Corporation and others to bring state-of-the-technology to Kazakhstan are, as the Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin himself has said, a major step forward for the country. They bring jobs, know-how, increased efficiency, better yields, enhanced predictability and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to sustainability that is fundamental for agriculture to succeed. By better managing and using water for example, not only do crop yields have better performance, but the entire resource is better utilised. The future in agriculture is all about sustainability and if this is not on the top of the list, this business cannot succeed.

"Kazakhstan is already a major exporter of wheat - a legacy of the Soviet period - and the next step is to diversify crop exports and expand and develop Kazakhstan's protein production, particularly beef and lamb. What is required is capital, hard work and entrepreneurs who are willing to deploy it effectively. That's where we come in, together with our partners and the other stakeholders."

Kazakhstan has a rich heritage of agriculture, strategic geographic location, and a wealth of land resources. According to Kunin, these foundational elements paired with the newest technology and industry best practices will enable the country to achieve its agricultural potential.

"Precision agriculture, which we're championing in Kazakhstan, helps to cut down on water use and doesn't deplete the land in the way that mechanised agriculture elsewhere does. Kazakhstan's natural advantage of land also means its more sustainable. No forests need to be cut down to support agriculture in Kazakhstan! Rather, the culture has a unique strength in land management, animal husbandry and sustainable practices towards nature," says Kunin.

"As our agriculture efforts demonstrate, the signs are positive that international investors are placing their trust in the country," he says. "In my experience, emerging economies discover there is a threshold they need to cross before investors will place their capital in the country long-term. This requires institutional maturity in the country's governance structures and a predictability around the rule of law that comes after long periods of stability. Kazakhstan has reached that stage. It is now the stand-out leader in this neighbourhood."

Sustaining Kusto Group's expansion and success

Daniel Kunin believes the key to sustaining Kusto Group's success lies in selecting the right people and making bold, but calculated investment decisions. The company has made internal employee training and improving communication a priority.

According to Kunin, "The Kusto culture, which is to seek out and seize opportunities without fear of failure, is consistent across the business thanks to the excellent people that lead and operate it. It also means people who are not afraid to make decisions, to take calculated risks and to believe in themselves, but people who are comfortable with some uncertainty, people who enjoy challenges, and people who know how to work in a team."

As Kusto Group and Kunin look to the next decade, the company continues to look for the next opportunity while maintaining its strategies of embracing new technologies and focusing on long-term growth.

"You never know what might be around the corner; that's always been the Kusto way and it's why I'm here," says Kunin. "We're lucky that we can take a medium to long-term view on our investments. When you're not required to perform based on quarterly results, you can afford to make larger, more complicated investments with larger rewards over the longer term. That suits us. It may sound like a cliché, but Kusto is all about long term value creation, establishing sustainable retained earnings, reinvestment and constant growth - rather than quick or timed exits."