Issue 2, 2019. April-May

   

A BILLION EUROS FOR GEORGIA: AN INTERVIEW WITH INVESTOR OLEG OSSINOVSKI

Investor.ge spoke with Oleg Ossinovski, the Head and Founder of AS Skinest Group, a major investor of Tbilisi Hills Golf & Residences, about his investments, the business climate in Georgia and his plans to develop golf in the country.

Oleg Ossinovski plans to mobilize a billion euros over the next decade for his latest project - a professional golf course and residential development in Tbilisi.

That might seem like a lot of money to invest in a project concerning a sport that many Georgians have never heard of. But Ossinovski is a man who likes to take risks.

"For more than 20 years, I have had my own businesses. In general, I have made investments in 15 countries, one of which is Georgia. Overall, my investments in Georgia are divided into three areas: hydropower, the railway sector and business development," he told Investor.ge.

"My company, AS Skinest Group, operates in the railway sector in Georgia. We have also built a hydropower plant in Georgia. However, I constantly diversify my portfolio, including in Georgia. I think this is important for business and not only - this is also positive for Georgia's economic development," he said.

Ossinovski added that "the economic course of Georgia, as well as the political course, is heading towards European integration. Here I will emphasize the efforts of Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia Giorgi Kobulia, [who has put forward] many liberal ideas directed towards an open economy."

That policy is important for investors, he noted.

"If the economy is not open, the perspectives for development are few. Georgia's economy is not very big, so it should be open and as liberal as possible - such as that of Singapore or Estonia. However, it should be noted that doing business in Georgia in general is not difficult. This country is attractive for investors, including myself," he said.

A Diverse Portfolio

Ossinovski believes that the real potential for construction in Tbilisi is in the suburbs, not the city center.

From hydropower plants to golf courses and residential housing complexes, Ossinovski has been actively investing in the country for a decade.

Originally from Estonia, he was drawn to Georgia by its open economy.

His company, AS Skinest Group, is involved in the railway sector and owns a hydropower plant.

Ossinovski underscored the potential for small hydropower plants in the country.

"In my opinion, it is a mistake that the development of low-volume hydropower plants has been suspended. Large hydropower plants carry with them many problems and risks, so it is important to develop many small hydropower plants. This does less damage to the environment and is generally less risky," he said, adding that it would benefit Georgia if the government were to make an "additional effort" to develop small hydropower plants.

"Electricity is not cheap in Georgia today, and a large portion is imported from Russia. It is important for Georgia to become energy independent."

"Concerning the railway, many countries have gone through this process and they have all come to the same conclusion. The infrastructure should remain in state ownership, but a state company should not operate on the shipping market because it hinders the competitiveness of the market. The state company will always defeat rivals, as it is not concerned with income and efficiency. Many countries have gone down this road and I hope Georgia will consider their example," said Ossinovski.

A Small Town within a City

"Over the next 10 years we plan to mobilize one billion euros for the project", Ossinovski says.

The golf course is a part of a much larger residential development, including homes, international school, kindergarten and playground for children, a 5-star hotel, tennis courts, soccer fields, gyms, a and a spa.

"This is a small version of a town, out of the real town, where you can find all the necessary things you need for a comfortable life and to enjoy your community", Ossinovski said.

First, however, Tbilisi needs to learn how to golf.

"Tbilisi Hills Golf & Residences has many plans to popularize golf. The priority is on learning," he said.

"Georgia will go the way of many countries in the world. Golf is not popular in Georgia because this sport has no history in Georgia; we will create this history. Georgians will play golf as well as people in other countries do. There are no stereotypes in this direction, golf is a game for everyone."

Tbilisi Hills Golf course is already a member of European Tour Destinations, which represent prestige golf clubs in Europe. That, Ossinovski said, should increase golf tourists coming to the country.

Ossinovski sees the project as a way to increase tourism to Georgia: golf is closely associated with luxury tourism, he noted.

"Golf-tourism promotes so-called luxurious tourism development, as it will attract a new tourist contingent - a tourist which spends more money in the country. So the country will gain an additional bonus from the golf mound," he said.

Future Investments

Ossinovski says he is always looking for new areas to invest in, and the Georgian government's open economy policy makes the country an attractive place for investors.

He cautioned, however, that there is room for improvement.

"One of the major problems in the Georgian economy today is the unbelievably high refinancing rate that the National Bank imposes. For example, if the National Bank today imposes a refinancing rate of seven percent in lari, whereas inflation in Georgia is two percent, this means that the National Bank is hindering economic growth," he said.

"This is not good, because it is important for the country to grow its economy. For instance, the process of the sale of land to foreigners is not clear to me for several reasons: Georgia imports products, so it is important to develop the agricultural sector in the country. Today, a large part of the agricultural land is not used, so it would be good if investors had the opportunity to use this land, even in the case of high taxes."

Ossinovski noted, however, that the country has a good tax system and a good attitude towards investors.

"The legislation is very friendly towards investors, so overall my expectations in the investment climate are justified. We are constantly looking for new projects. If we find a good project, we will certainly take up the opportunity," he said.