Early morning of February 24, 2022, Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine. President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin announced a so-called “special military operation,” and Russian troops hurled an offense in four main directions and carried out massive shelling of ten regions of Ukraine. The Verkhovna Rada endorsed a presidential order declaring martial law. Hundreds of thousands of people tried to leave the country in a panic, which caused many kilometers of traffic jams in the direction of Western Ukraine. Many businesses closed for a while or forever. The invasion led to a collapse of the economy, the cessation of air and sea transport, and many other negative consequences.
Vyacheslav Lysenko, a well-known Ukrainian businessman, investor, and mentor, was supposed to be on the other side of the globe that day; however, as a patriot of his country and a leader, he unequivocally decided not to flee anywhere. Moreover, on the tenth day of the war, he decided to open an “economic front” and run his entire business. The prime minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal, urged Ukrainians to go back to work and support the economic front of the state only on the 17th day of the invasion. We talked to Vyacheslav Lysenko about business during the war, aid to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (including from China), and what motivates and helps not to give up in these difficult times.
From February 24 on, everything changed in Ukraine. Can you describe Vyacheslav Lysenko before and after February 24?
— Before that date, I was a businessman with some leadership qualities. Since intentions are reflected in the results, my results are as follows: I am responsible for and associated with many companies and communities; I am one of the founders of the Young Business Club and a Board member of the CEO Club Ukraine. Accordingly, I considered myself a businessman and leader at that moment. On February 24, when the war began, I realized all roles were going to mix, and the first thing every man had to do was to worry about the safety of his close ones. When you see passing rockets from your window, you realize that the situation is critical — Ukraine is no longer a safe place. On that day, I had to literally become a warrior for my family. I didn’t want to believe this would happen and thought that rationality would win over madness, but as a businessman who calculates chances, my family and I planned what we would do in case of war. So everyone was prepared in advance, and we acted on the arrangements at 04:30 AM that very day.
Secondly, I organized the planned actions in case of war in all my companies, and each manager had to perform their function of taking care of people and preventing chaos. Among other issues, on February 24, I also had to become a community leader in helping to transform the people’s fear into action. A lot of people were paralyzed by fear. They had wild eyes; they were scared but didn’t know what to do. These people had to be organized; some were relocated to other cities, some to Western Ukraine or abroad.
On top of that, there was a clear understanding that something was missing, that our army was not quite ready, that our soldiers lacked the most basic means of protection, and “body armor” became the “top word” for the next month. When you learn that body armor can save a life by 30%, you realize this is an essential element. At that moment, our focus was to evacuate our people, families, and teammates, to find and purchase body armor. To do this, we needed money, and we donated our money and raised it as well. So for the first ten days, it was chaotic because everyone acted independently. But since we are businessmen, we quickly got organized among ourselves: some dealt with logistics, others collected the “donations,” others dealt with the needs of the front and procurement. After that, chaos turned into systematization. Yes, it was not easy because this systematization included all our teams and personnel. However, we quickly organized ourselves into a large and robust system, which, I believe, made remarkable results in evacuations, purchasing body armor, and financing. We collected 10 million in cashless payments alone, while other forms of assistance were 3-4 times as much.
Basically, you supposed that this event could happen and was ready for it?
— No matter how hard you prepare for war, you will never be ready. We must have had a plan “B” in case of war, and we kept saying in our community that we must have a “battle box” and understand what we put in it. So, in theory, yes, we were ready.
At that very moment, you had to fly abroad; it was an important and long-planned trip to the USA, Canada, and other countries. Why did you decide to stay?
— I was supposed to leave on February 23. On that day, high-ranking people came and told me that the war would start tomorrow. My decision was unequivocal; I immediately canceled my flight. I sighed with relief that I did not fly out because it would have been stressful for me when I was somewhere thousands of miles away and my family was home alone. A leader must be in his place on such occasions; that’s my view. And I was glad I stayed in Ukraine. Extreme situations are a norm for me; I grew up in extreme conditions. Of course, I could have taken my family out of the country on the 23rd, but there is a saying: no action, no reaction. We didn’t know where exactly the war would start; we could only assume it would localize in the country’s East. So until it began, I decided to wait for events to develop and, afterward implement a plan of action.
From the first days of the war, you were engaged in assisting the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). What “projects” did you manage to do for our military?
— There were many things we provided: pickup trucks, body armors, thermal imaging devices, medical equipment, tourniquets… Probably we dealt with almost everything that was needed, even armored cars. Sometimes there were very individual requests from our security services, for instance, thermal night vision scope with a range of over two kilometers, which was quite expensive equipment. Another example, when I went to pick up jeeps, I got a call that we needed to buy a specific sight. It costs €12,700. I had this amount, but it turned out that the security service needed four devices for four units. I was in Poland then, and I had to buy it immediately. With the community’s help, we collected almost the entire sum overnight. Poles trusted us (that we would pay for the last item) and shipped all four sights. They said, “You can wire money later.” I said, “I promise I’ll come to Kyiv and send the money immediately.” It was comforting when this equipment came to the front, and the guys sent me a “report”: one unit eliminated — 9 enemies during the night, the second — 12, the third — 7, and the fourth — 3. They also wrote, “How do you like that?” We translated it into a joke, and I said, “Well, kick the ass of the fourth unit. Why did they destroy only 3? They should try harder”!
Your business is located in different areas of the country. What’s happening with business right now? How did you manage to rebuild it and what challenges have you faced? Is it possible to make money during war?
— You can always make money; the only question is HOW? Look at the number of looters who made money on grief and blood. For some, war is a war; for others, it’s a dear mother-in-law, as they say. I think this is a case when you wish there were capital punishment in our country because such people should have been sent to the front line.
Businesses have been put under tremendous stress. Only a few companies had a plan “B” in case the war started, but the reality was still different. Remember the first few days: everything was paralyzed; people were leaving, dozens of kilometers of traffic jams and general panic. But on the tenth day, I suggested that my companies start working. Of course, initially, employees were shocked. Some managers called me and asked: “Boss, have you thought this through?” In the end, we got to work. Then, there was an interesting effect. Twenty days after we started working, they thanked me, saying, “We were getting tired, not of reading the news, but of not being engaged in the work.” I told top managers and executives, “Let them work, give them any work; even mix buckwheat with rice. One needs to work at this moment! Any work is better than nothing.” So we found these opportunities. Then we started calling thousands of clients and asking how they were doing; we introduced ourselves and explained that we didn’t want to sell them anything. We just asked them where they were, if they needed our help, maybe they needed some advice about evacuation, and people were shocked that a commercial company would call and offer them support.
Of course, when the chaos and first shock were gone and people needed to buy gear, other work has begun for us.
Our company started actively helping with logistics for the front because, for example, in China, a tourniquet costs $5, while in Europe, it is $20. We ended the first month of the war with huge losses. But I told the team I was happy to pay them all their salaries because they were still a team. I said that we should have several phases: Phase 1 — all teams have to reach the break-even point; Phase 2 — if we become a profitable company, all the money we make goes to the AFU. So in the second month, the team didn’t just reach break-even; they made good money. At the report meeting, I pressed the money transfer button in front of them. Of course, they felt involved. I also told them, “Look, this is your front. You’re helping thousands of soldiers to receive vital things now.” All the thermal imaging cameras and other equipment for the military are of standard quality and at a reasonable price is coming from China.
So China indirectly and unknowingly “helped” Ukraine in its fight against Russia?
— We can say so. We helped many people buy a lot more equipment for the Ukrainian army, and we delivered it to them at a cost price because we also donated the money we earned to AFU.
Speaking of China, some of your businesses are related to China, shipping, and logistics. How is it working right now? Why do you think the Chinese took a neutral position in the conflict?
— As a transit country, Russia has always had a big chunk in logistics from China. When the war started, Russia withdrew our clients’ cargoes for quite a large amount. We were lucky enough because it was the Chinese New Year holidays in February, and not many shipments were sent during this period. Otherwise, there would have been much more cargo, and I don’t even know if the company would have “survived” that period.
Historically, China was always neutral between warring countries. It might even be their philosophy. Some time ago, a Chinese politician told me the parable of the three emperors. When one emperor went to war with the second, the third stayed behind to watch. When the first began to win, he began to help the second. When the second began to win, he began to support the first. So he helped one and then the other. After a while, when both became weak, he conquered them both. It seems to me that the Chinese economy, as a result of this struggle between the two countries, has not taken either side because, at this point, the Chinese economy is not suffering. The Ukrainian economy is suffering, and the Russian and the European economies will suffer. Many economies will suffer, but China will take advantage while not taking sides. If the Chinese government shares the idea of strengthening China, it becomes clear why it has chosen one of these “successful” tactics.
You are one of the founders of the international Young Business Club. It has branches worldwide, and there were also Russians in the club. The club had big plans. What is happening in it now?
— As shareholders, we immediately decided to dismiss all Russians from the club who support the war, all those who have business in Russia and pay taxes there, and anyone, regardless of nationality, who supports aggression in Ukraine. It was a definite shock when one of the Russian shareholders in London supported the “special operation.” I told him that we have no future with him. After he did what Russia does — he made a raider takeover of our club, and under the aegis such as “Ukrainians are all insane,” he pulled all the members to himself. Well, it is not a big deal; life will put everything in its place. There were about 58% Russians in our clubs, so we had to transform them and give these clubs to local partners who are now developing them. Young Business Club brand cannot have people who support the war. The situation is like this right now. Yes, maybe we will take many steps back because of it, but war makes you draw a clear line and see things in black or white. Unfortunately, you have to choose at such moments, and we made our choice – to stand with Ukraine.
You are a board member of the CEO Club Ukraine. Can you share about its activity now?
— The CEO Club has demonstrated that it is a solid and powerful structure that brings together real leaders. The CEO Club immediately donated a vast amount of its money to buy the most necessary equipment in the first days of the war. It was crucial. To compare, the government paid for the first body armor only on the 28th day of the war, and we had already bought several thousands of body armor by that time. The CEO Club system proved to be more effective than many government organizations. It wasn’t a one-time thing; it’s still a very effective machine. If a hospital is short of something, or someone needs to be transported or taken out of the occupied territory — CEO Club quickly solves almost any problem. Even if some issue must be brought to the government, it’s an effective tool. Now, the CEO Club even has the right to demand our government when we see that there are some distortions. For example, the situation with Danylo Hetmantsev. Whether they hear us or not, we’ll see later, but we are trying to become a subject, not an object. Before that, business was always viewed as an object; it could be robbed, “bent over,” or demanded, but it was business that hired officials. Therefore, the CEO Club has the right to demand decent treatment of this community because a huge amount of aid has been given to the front, both by the community itself and by each member of this community individually. Many members have spent millions of dollars on aid without announcing it; they were simply helping the country.
What does the business community say about the war and business during the war? What did business people face first (challenges, relocation, restructuring, new opportunities, mistakes, etc.)?
— We have already begun to look at what will happen next. We understand that war always ends with some peace agreement, and business people are now in the process of restoring business. We’re talking about what changes we need to make to take advantage of the reset situation. That is, we want to see changes in the management system, in the extreme case over the business, so that there are some moratoriums on inspections so that we have the opportunity to reboot. And if the companies restart, then the country will restart too. That’s what we’re talking about; we’re also working out programs we want the government to accept. We spend a lot of time talking about that and, of course, about the war.
What advice would you give business people or those thinking about starting a business in the current situation? What should they do? What is or will be a promising area?
— It depends on what kind of businessman to advise because there are entrepreneurs whose business is just on hold and those who have put it on hold themselves. The sooner they start to restore it, the better for them. The faster they get started, the quicker their income will grow. A lot of people have lost business right now. So I would recommend looking at those niches and laws, which now give some advantage. For example, importing goods from Ukraine is exempt from duties for a year. This is a competitive advantage to look at. I always say one thing to business people: one must know what they are good at. Let me provide an example. One day a dentist came to me (he has a chain of dental clinics here) and said, “I want to invest in construction in London.” I said, “Ok, but what do you know about construction?” Nothing. Then I explained that, as far as I’m concerned, this is the best way to lose money. It is better to open a clinic in London or elsewhere. Everyone should develop what they are an expert in. You became successful because you have specific skills. But when people generally want a radically different thing, it seems to be a mistake in my view.
Could you share your opinion as an investor: is this the wrong time to invest?
— Investments are frozen right now; investments prefer stability. At the same time, investments also like instability because, at this point, you can enter a deal to buy something (real estate, companies, etc.) at the bottom of the price range. I believe that our market is not at the bottom yet. So those who have resources should wait for a little because, soon, state property will be sold through open sources. As soon as the situation improves, as soon as there is an understanding of the result of military operations, it will be possible to consider the Ukrainian investment market.
Life and business during the war: how do you cope with it? What helps you not to give up? What motivates you personally?
— This is not the first time I found myself in a crisis. I’ve started from scratch four times in my life. For me, war is one of those crises. But it is probably one of my most challenging crises because psychologically, I told myself that I could lose everything now and that I would be forced to start again, in this country or another.
As for the motivation, several things always help me. It is like a learned skill. The first is discipline. For example, I learn English every morning, which is already a habit. Secondly, it is imperative to monitor your physical condition, no matter where you are. For example, we lived in the car for the first month of the war. But you can always find a place to do push-ups, pull-ups, etc. It would help if you work out systematically; otherwise, you would be unable to withstand it. Thirdly, you must watch your diet during these moments, because people often eat their fears and the refrigerator becomes the most visited place. Some people drink to their worries; many people start smoking. They use external antidepressants. If you feel bad, a good idea for an antidepressant is to run a cross-country race or do physical exercises until you feel better psychologically. Some meditate, read, or listen to music. I sometimes listen to patriotic music, which gives me the energy to act. But this must be done regularly; nothing works if done chaotically.
What if this war drags on for a long time? — People, especially businessmen, are super-adaptable creatures. The war has been going on in Israel for decades, and everything is fine; the country is prospering. So I think we will adapt to any conditions in the same way. People who aim to succeed, who choose to act under any conditions, will be successful, even if the war goes on for decades. Those who justify themselves that they can’t do something “because of war” will indeed become victims. I have seen many businessmen from Donbas, who suffered because they had assets in the areas where the “orcs” passed through, but their phrases, with profanity, can only be admired. They say, “Oh, man, we’ll have to rebuild and do it all over again. But I already know how to do it because I already did it after Donetsk. So the second time will be easier”… I understand that it is difficult for them, they are certainly not happy about what has happened. But still, it is a stimulus to action, to find solutions. The business of people with this type of psychology will be successful even if the war goes on for years. But let’s hope that the war will not drag on.