Stephen Fear, British entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist and author, with 50 years’ international business experience, has an established property empire and interests in a number of industries, including green technology, hotels, residential care and manufacturing. He’s a regular jet-setter, and in the past couple of years, the founder of the Fear Group has visited Georgia several times, and was planning his next business trip this year until the pandemic hit. But COVID-19 and grounded flights have not held him back from his usual busy life doing business. GEORGIA TODAY spoke to him to find out more.
STEPHEN- HOW DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT GEORGIA AND WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THE COUNTRY?
I first heard about it through Derek Pickup, who lives in Bristol and has been involved with Georgia over 30 years, chairing the Bristol-Tbilisi Twinning Association and appointed as the Honorary Consul of Georgia. He kept telling me how fantastic Georgia was and how wonderful the people were and that I really needed to go there and “just buy everything”. He’s a real champion for the country. We’ll say we’re investing in a project, say in Birmingham, and he’ll say “What about so-and-so project in Tbilisi?” But he was right. Particularly regarding the Georgian hospitality, and I’ve become very close to those Georgians I’ve made friends with.
ON COVID-19, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE CURRENT CHALLENGES AND WHAT MIGHT THE OPPORTUNITIES BE BEYOND THE PANDEMIC?
One of the key things is communication. Connectivity will continue in a different form. I’m used to flying to meet business associates all over the world. Now it’s just a daily commute to the living room! Meeting business associates online is easy enough to do with friends and old associates, but it’s harder when forming new relationships, especially for those lacking experience. Online business is a necessity and is something that will surely continue beyond COVID-19. If we don’t keep our economies going, it won’t be good for anyone, including those who fall sick with coronavirus. Hospitals and doctors need money, and while I mean no disrespect to the great public services we have, they tend to be the receivers of money not the producers, not the builders of the economy and though they are necessary to the existence of the economy, supporting such services falls to the entrepreneurs and businesspeople. It is our responsibility as entrepreneurs to feed these systems and to keep them going. Entrepreneurs looking into going in to an enterprise have this responsibility which goes way beyond making money for themselves, meaning they must feed back into their own communities. Humanity will survive this virus. It’s hit us particularly hard, but we must remain positive and outward-looking. I was very impressed with how Georgia first handled the pandemic, which says a lot not just for the government but for the people of Georgia for obeying the rules. It says a lot for law and order and democracy that they managed it so well.
TOURISM IS A BIG ECONOMIC DRIVER FOR GEORGIA, WHICH THIS YEAR HOSTED THE UNWTO EXECUTIVE COUNCIL IN TBILISI FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. WHAT’S YOUR VIEW ON GEORGIA’S TOURISM POTENTIAL?
Georgia has a real opportunity as soon as people can travel again. British people are used to going to Spain and France, to Europe. Georgia is a little further away, a little more exotic. There’s something about it, though: the great mountains for skiing and hiking, the sea-side resorts and the Black Sea beaches, the countryside for walking in and exotic nature for birdwatching. Georgia has some wonderful memories for me; there are some really wonderful places. Tbilisi is for anyone who wants to see a cosmopolitan city in food, atmosphere, and people. I never felt unsafe at all. And that hospitality.
WHAT DO YOU THINK GEORGIA SHOULD BE LOOKING TO DO TO BRING BACK TOURISM?
Georgia needs to stay a little bit upmarket, that little bit different. Not to run down those mass-tourism locations, but Georgia is something that can be marketed as exclusive without being expensive. The cities there have a cosmopolitan atmosphere, particularly Tbilisi. There’s a huge amount of interesting of places to go and see. And the majority of people under 40 speak excellent English, so there’s no obstacle to doing business there or visiting on holiday. I’ve always found it very straightforward communicating with Georgians. I found them to be progressive and having a deep love for their country and the work they do. Added to that, Georgia is well placed on the map, and these days less often confused with the US State.
ANY BUSINESS-FRIENDLY COUNTRY NEEDS A STABLE AND SECURE ENVIRONMENT. GEORGIA HAS PROVEN ITSELF TO BE COMMITTED TO STABILITY AND SECURITY IN THE REGION AND BEYOND. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON GEORGIA’S INVESTMENT POTENTIAL?
It has great potential, which is one of the reasons I originally went there. I was surprised at how easy it was to get to know people, at how willing they were to offer help. The people working on a mining project we were looking into, from the digger and truck drivers to the miners, were all so friendly and giving. This counts when you go to a new country looking to do business. Of all the places I’ve been, the language challenges, getting people to do things, and trust are key factors. When Georgians say they will do something, in my experience, they do it. As an investor looking to grow a business somewhere, this is a real benefit. It’s one thing to have something in writing, but if you can’t trust your partner to keep their word, it can be very difficult to get a business off the ground. We’ve found the Georgians very easy to work with. They want to see investment working for Georgia. I see Georgia as a small country with a big heart.
WHICH AREAS MIGHT BE OF SPECIAL INTEREST TO BRITISH BUSINESSES, GIVEN YOUR EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE OF GEORGIA?
We were very interested in the hotel business in Georgia, and also mining. My concern, and this is with the hotel industry globally, is that we can’t tell how soon it will recover. There are certainly opportunities, though. Skiing and beach holidays will be popular again post-pandemic, and there will be opportunities to keep our eyes open for, among them closed-down hotels that were under-capitalized before this started and now looking for investment and refurbishment. We’ll certainly be looking to see what there is, and where possible to get back the original management. After all, they built up the business, and it would be sad to pick over the bones of what they and their families lost, as no-one was expecting what happened. If the pandemic ends within 12 months, the time to start looking for investments is now, to prepare your business to be in poll position in a year’s time. And I would encourage any international businessperson looking to invest in Georgia to remember the people that built those businesses, and see if you can re-employ them and involve them in the project. I’ve found in my life that involving local people in your business stands you in much better stead for success. There’s a lot going for manufacturing in Georgia too, because of the Free Trade Agreements Georgia has all around the world. And this is something we at Fear Group are looking into. I’d say anyone wanting to set up a manufacturing business should start looking early, because I think after this pandemic ends, there will be quite a few people clamoring to do business in Georgia, which is a gateway to Asia, in a great location and with a lot to offer.
YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS ARE A GROWING AND EVER-MORE ENCOURAGED POOL OF TALENT IN GEORGIA. WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL THERE, AND WHAT CAN BE DONE TO EXPAND THE MOVEMENT?
Georgia has a lot of young (and not-so-young) entrepreneurs who want to create. It’s become a very modern democracy in my view, and has tremendous potential, with a decent size landmass and a lot of young people. Setting up a mentoring scheme in the cities would be a good thing. One of the problems for people first going into business is where to get advice from, but the government should ensure those giving out advice are suitably qualified and experienced enough to do so. When you start out as an entrepreneur, even in a small family business, it can be very lonely when things go wrong and you have no-one to turn to. Sometimes, getting a little bit of the right advice at that difficult pinch-point can turn a small business that might collapse into a global enterprise. So, I think an advice structure is good and is a sign of a strong democracy. The issue is that those who are successful rarely have the time to devote to helping others. It takes a special someone, and the government should look into finding such people. Entrepreneurs should be all about progressing the society they live in by creating prosperity and wealth. Because it’s not only about the wealth you get, but a lot of that needs to go back into society to prop up the bottom and create a rounded entrepreneurial spirit, something which is lacking in many countries. Georgia, because it’s a newer and well-established democracy, has the opportunity to do something very special in this regard. I gave a lecture to young entrepreneurs when I was in Tbilisi a couple of years ago, who showed great interest, and in fact still correspond with me to this day. I said to them: it is a very important thing that you do, go into enterprise, build your business, but build it with your heart in the foundation, not for just to make money. Opportunities don’t go away, and in a crisis there are more: gaps appear, and filling in those gaps and creating an enterprise there means considering others. When building our businesses, when you’ve made it and earned your millions, hold your hand out and pull up those still trying, because they are the ones who will build the prosperity in the world beyond this pandemic. If Georgia can just get through this, I see a great future for it in tourism, manufacturing, and aspiring entrepreneurs.
GEORGIAN AMBASSADORS IN THE UK, AMONG OTHERS, HAVE WORKED PARTICULARLY HARD TO STRENGTHEN GEORGIA-UK RELATIONS. WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE OF THOSE RELATIONS?
The Georgian ambassadors have been wonderful. They really do promote Georgia, and do so with class, style and thought. They really are inspirational. There’s a great connection between Georgia and the UK. With proactive ambassadors such as we currently have in the UK, Sophio Katsarava, the relations will continue, and Brexit shouldn’t interfere with that: the individuals are the same, the friendships haven’t changed. The Fear Group for one remains interested in Georgia. I’d be there now if not for the virus. We’re looking into opportunities right now, in fact, including our old mining ambitions, which COVID-19 put on hold, and we’re in negotiations specific to Georgia. Of course, GEORGIA TODAY will be the first to know the results of these negotiations.