I was recently in Baku on business. A friend of mine, Alex, who was CEO of a large Mongolian conglomerate, had reached out to me a few months earlier with an unusual request.
“Do you know anyone interested in acquiring a large gold deposit?” he asked.
“How large?” I said. “And what studies have been carried out to date?”
It was imperative to ask what works had been done. I was no expert in gold mining but I knew this much: it was risky business. When it comes to mining projects, it could take years and years for gold to come out of the ground. You don’t just buy a piece of land and start digging. Often, a project never even kicked off and you ended up losing lots of time and money. Also, and especially in a place like Mongolia, not all technical mining studies were alike. Some were undertaken by independent, professional organizations. Others included amateurs going around the country drilling holes with dubious equipment and machinery in a haphazard manner. On top of it all, much of the information and data on Mongolia mining licenses were from Soviet days.
“It’s an early stage proposition,” said Alex.
Sure, estimated reserves were huge. Enough to pique mining investors’ interest. Yet the opportunity carried significant risk. I wasn’t going to spend much time on it. That much I knew. But I was happy to make some calls for a friend.
“Leave it with me and I’ll come back to you,” I said.
Over the next few days I rang friends and acquaintances in London, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Canada who worked for mining investment companies. None of them got excited.
Finally, I called a family friend, Nader, who owns and runs a gold mine in Azerbaijan. To be honest, I called him not so much because I thought he’d be interested in a Mongolia gold license but more so because I thought I’d use the opportunity to catch up with him. It had been a while. So I was more than surprised to hear his reaction.
“Sounds really interesting. Send me all the details,” said Nader.
A few months and conference calls later, Alex and I flew out to Baku to meet with Nader. The purpose of the visit was straightforward: for both men to meet, discuss the opportunity at hand and for me to assess the chemistry – one of the most vital ingredients in making a deal happen – between them.
The meeting went better than expected and the two executives decided to move the discussion – around the acquisition of the Mongolian gold license – forward. Next, a team of engineers from Azerbaijan would fly to Mongolia to inspect the site. A good start.
Alex and I prepared to leave and return to London.
“My driver will take the two of you to the airport,” said Nader. “Oh, and send my best to your parents,” he said to me.
I recall being at home, sitting in front of the television one Autumn evening when my parents returned home from a friend’s party. I was about 17 years of age at the time.
As soon as they entered the house my attention turned away from whatever mind-numbing programme was playing toward my familial bearers of gossip.
From a young age I took a very keen interest in all the people who comprised my parents’ circle of friends and family. I was curious to know what each of them did for a living, how they did it and why they did it.
I was always more drawn to those who were in business for themselves, i.e. entrepreneurs. More so if there was an international angle to their line of work. And even more so if it involved emerging markets. Where there was risk and uncertainly I was hooked.
So when it came to my parents’ friends, I demanded to know all the latest news and what each of them was up to. It fascinated me. And, like I suppose all young people, the older I got the more questions I asked about the same people I’d seen and known throughout my life but had viewed with naive lens. As the days passed, I found myself wanting to know a lot more about the nuances, intricacies and backstories behind each of these characters.
“How was your evening,” I asked my parents, trying to get a feel for how their night went.
“We had a wonderful time. Dinner was great and everyone says hello,” said my mom.
My father never enjoyed gossiping much and was in the habit of revealing only very basic details when questioned. Though my mother didn’t willingly share juicy news, it was easier for me to extract intel from her. Therefore, she was the one I always pushed for details.
“Who was there? What’s the latest news? Tell me.” I asked her.
She chuckled. “Let me make some tea and I’ll tell you all about it,” said my mom.
Perfect. “I’ll have some tea, too,” I said.
A chat over tea
Comfortably seated with a cup of steaming cardamom tea before us, my mother began telling me about their evening.
It was like most of the parties they attended. Good food, lots of chitchat, some dancing and overall cheerful mood. I knew most of the people present relatively well and my mother didn’t have to spend long telling me what each of them had been up to.
I wouldn’t have described the updates as terribly exciting. Nothing caught my fancy. Then again, I knew full well that my mother always censored what she recounted. Some things, specifically more adult matters, she figured I had no reason to hear. Fair enough.
“Hmmm…so nothing new,” I said, feeling tempted to go sit in front of the television screen again.
“I forgot to mention. We did see an old friend we hadn’t seen in a while. Nader.”
“Cool,” I said as I got up and started walking over to the couch facing the television.
“He’s visiting from Baku,” she said.
“Azerbaijan?” I asked.
Baku was such an evocative word in my psyche. Interesting. I returned and took a seat. “What does he do?”
“He’s in the import export business,” said my mother.
Very interesting. “What does he import or export?”
“I think caviar mainly. To the US. Lots of it in the Caspian Sea. But he’s also doing a project in telecommunications,” she said.
Nice. This was definitely beginning to get exciting. “Is he from Azerbaijan?”
“How did he end up there?”
“He went out there a while back. Now knows the President quite well,” she said.
Per aspera ad astra
I’ve known Nader for some time now. When I first heard of him he was well on his to success but still far from becoming the high profile businessman he turned out. His personal story is remarkable.
Like so many others, Nader had left his home country in search of opportunities and a better a life in a new world. Eventually, he landed in the US.
The move was not easy and settling in a new country far from smooth. The skills he had acquired in his previous life were not so applicable in America and he found it difficult to land the sort of work he desired. In effect, he was starting life from scratch, which is never easy no matter what your circumstances are. And, adding to the pressure, he had a wife and child.
Naturally, finding stability was of prime importance for Nader. While trying to secure regular income, the one skill he was able to monetise on and that paid the bills was swimming. Nader had, from a young age, trained as a swimmer and, fortunately, it enabled him to convince the owner of a sport and health club to give him a job.
This kept him going.
Nader earned a living giving swimming lessons and brokering small deals here and there.
He was known in our community for being very clever, highly tactful and driven but everyone knew he was also struggling.
During those early years Nader tried his hands at many different ventures ranging from the insurance business to real estate, with no major success. And with each setback and failure he built on his business and dealmaking experience.
In the meantime, he continued networking and building relationships. Also, he hustled and, wherever and whenever possible, he took calculated risks.
A matter of time
Nader was attracted to international markets.
One day, over lunch with someone in our community, who happened to be a professor of international business at Georgetown University, Nader learned of an interesting business opportunity. Specifically, to facilitate trade between the US and Azerbaijan.
One thing led to another and before long Nader was convinced that Azerbaijan held great promise. At the time, the country was far from the rich nation it has now become. Get in early, cut your teeth on the ground and reap the rewards later, he convinced himself.
He managed to visit Baku a few times a year at first, before starting to travel there more regularly and then finally deciding to move there.
It was a gamble. People thought he was crazy.
On the ground
Over the next 10 years, Nader met most of the powerful people in the Caspian nation. Azerbaijan was a much smaller pond than the US. And he a bigger fish there. One can make a bigger impact in a smaller setup.
Initially, he started by working on smaller deals. He wasn’t greedy and after each successful transaction never asked for too much. He was building his reputation as someone to be trusted and who could make meaningful contribution. Nader’s gaze had a long-term horizon.
In time, he met the former President, who, though older than Nader, took an interest in the driven young man who had come over from the US to Azerbaijan.
Before long, Nader caught the attention of leading businessmen in the US who were looking to do business with Azerbaijan. That’s when he began facilitating larger deals and, in turn, making handsome middleman fees.
There came a point when Nader became one of the most well-connected men in Azerbaijan. Someone most high profile Azeris knew or had heard of.
And though he eventually became comfortable financially and built the relationships he needed to broker the biggest deals, he wanted something else. He yearned to move away from the middle and to own a business that created something tangible.
So when an interesting mining opportunity knocked on his door, Nader didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge. Here was his chance to pretty much build up an operating business from scratch and to participate in the world of precious metals.
Lessons to be learned
To recap, Nader left one country to start a new life somewhere unfamiliar, where he didn’t speak the language fluently, arrived with a set of skills not easily transferrable, possessed almost no money and was responsible for taking care of a family. Yet he started afresh and worked his way up. Sure, he failed. Many times. In the process, he increased his knowledge and experience and built an A-list network of business & political contacts. Finally he became a successful mining entrepreneur.
Building long-lasting relationships are critical to success. Acting in a contrarian manner enables you to stand out. Nader moved to Azerbaijan to pursue unique business opportunities and spent years on the ground developing his contacts. At a time when few people were doing the same. How many people do that sort of thing?
Having tremendous drive and determination enabled him to garner the energy to keep going even after he left his home country, gave up everything and started a new life in the US.
The last time we caught up was in London at the Ritz Hotel. He said something I won’t forget. “The people I used to bring electric shavers for, from the US, many years ago when I first moved to Azerbaijan, now offer me USD100,000 watches as gifts.”
And the Mongolian gold deal?
Well, that’s another story…