Nabeghlavi: How a Swiss-Georgian Friendship Brought a Mineral Water to Success
Thomas Diem is not an investor. The 74-year-old Swiss from Zurich is a psychiatrist. His vocation was people, not investing money for profit. Yet today, Diem is an associate of one of the largest Georgian mineral water companies, the Margebeli Holding, which has the well-known Nabeghlavi in its portfolio.
This extraordinary story began back in the early 1990s when Thomas Diem visited Georgia for the first time and fell in love with the country and its self-conscious people. During a later visit in 1997, on the search for old and forgotten musical works, he met Avtandil Svimonishvili and they visited the abandoned mineral water bottling factory in Nabeghlavi in Western Georgia.
“I found a soulmate,” Diem tells GEORGIA TODAY of his meeting Svimonishvili. “We are both patriots of small countries, and we both believe that financial profit is only justified if the employees and the country profits, too.”
With this philosophy, together they founded a company for bottling Nabeghlavi water. In the beginning, it was a struggle to keep going and the first five or six years were spent trying to find investing partners, dealing with the hassle of bureaucracy and fighting against dubious competitors, “and doing so in a fair and respectable way,” Diem recalls.
He started with a venture capital contribution of 40,000 Swiss Francs but had to increase his investment step by step – until after six years, a bigger investor showed up. “It was never an option for me to let my partners down. The natural loyalty among us was an essential part of our success.”
At the initial stages of set-up, Diem traveled to Georgia several times a year to bring potential investors to see the project. This changed as the next generation took over. Mikheil Svimonishvili, the son of co-founder Avtandil and former Minister of Agriculture in the Saakashvili period, is now the operational chief, while Thomas Diem's own son has also taken on an active role in the Margebeli Holding.
And water is not their only business anymore. The Margebeli Holding is active in agro production, food processing and food distribution, too. They grow fruits and farm cattle, they produce tomato sauce, pickled cucumbers and apple jam, and distribute products – the whole chain from the field to the supermarket. And soon they will begin a trial bottling fruit juices.
“I'm a huge fan of Switzerland,” says Mikheil Svimonishvili, who spent a number of years studying there. He wants to bring as much Switzerland to Georgia as possible – not the best idea when taken from a strictly economical point of view: “We have higher costs, but at the same time also higher quality,” he says.
Such high standards have also been applied to the latest project of the Margebeli Holding, a cooperation with the Austrian juice producer Rauch. “Our bottling plant is state-of-the-art, which is why it costs as much as it would in Switzerland,” says Mikheil Svimonishvili. He doesn't believe in the philosophy that for Eastern Europe second-hand technology is sufficient.
Thomas Diem will turn 75 this year, 20 years after the beginning of his engagement in Georgia. Financially, his investment has paid off, although this was never his priority. “I have gained experience I wouldn't want to have missed thanks to my investment,” Diem tells us. “The experience of handling financial problems and strategic mistakes, but also the experience that even aged 55, one can start a totally new project in life.”
He finishes by saying he is happy to see the company’s spirit being carried forward with the next generation.