Bulat Utemuratov is leading the list of the 50 most influential people in the Republic of Kazakhstan. His assets, according to Forbes, are estimated at 3.4 billion US dollars (as of May 2019). The businessman owns assets of enterprises in the banking and raw material areas, in the sector of real estate and telecommunications. The role of the businessman of such a level in Kazakhstan is under the spotlight of the media and the society. But hardly anybody gives a thought to the fact that the economy of the young state started from Bulat Utemuratov and such strong, ambitious people like him.
In the beginning of the nineties the leadership of the country faced serious economic problems: unavailability of hard currency and banking system, lifeless industry, lack of legislative and new cadre base. Citizens of the country which just gained its independence had yet to learn living in the new reality. At that time Bulat Utemuratov had graduated from the Economy Department of the Almaty Institute of National Economy (Narxoz) and moved up the career ladder fast from a lecturer in his alma mater up to a head of section at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations. The pivotal point in the future of the young businessman came as the government decided to open the Kazakhstani Trading House in Austria.
This new appointment was perceived by the 34-old head of the trading house as an “exile”. But it turned out to be a chance which changed the life and worldview of a young trade functionary that Bulat Utemuratov was in 1992. He got a unique opportunity to support his country and at the same time to make good contacts: the Kazakhstani official had now doors of trade, governmental and financial institutions open for him. The first step in trade and economic relations between Austria and the Republic of Kazakhstan was made and the first investments in the country’s economy were received.
The European trip gave a lot to young diplomat Utemuratov. He returned to Kazakhstan as an independent-minded, unfettered man. And a businessman with his own funds too. He returned but soon left the country again. This time – to Geneva as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Switzerland.
Diplomatic service came in very useful for Bulat Utemuratov during two crises: one – in his motherland, and the second – in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. November 2004 started with a serious confrontation between the power and the new-born hot opposition forces. The National Commission for Democracy and Civil Society was set up under Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Commission was headed by Bulat Utemuratov who turned it into an open platform for the dialogue between the ruling power and opposition that determined a vector of development of democratic processes in the country.
The diplomat soon used his Commission experience in Kyrgyzstan hit by opposition riots, in the capacity of the Special Envoy of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Birth of the business empire
The true story of his business can be told only by Bulat Utemuratov himself. He knows how he earned his first capital in the environment of complete absence of entrepreneurship rules and laws. The pivotal moment in the businessman’s life was the story of establishing and selling the first bank in his life.
In mid-90s Bulat Utemuratov, jointly with the Dutch company Mees Person, set up a small financial enterprise – the CJSC Almatinsky Trade and Finance Bank. It was one of the first banks of free Kazakhstan. It grew into a strong multi-product inter-regional group and was sold to one of the European banking groups for 2.2 billion US dollars. It was the brightest transaction in the history of the young state’s banking system. It laid the foundation both for investments and development in the non-financial sector and for establishment of new financial institutions – ForteBank and Kassa Nova.
The successful sale of the ATF Bank and the subsequent crisis of the European banking system changed Bulat Utemuratov’s attitude to the ways of doing business: transparency and good corporate governance principles. The businessman became one of the key shareholders of the Verny Capital investment group.
Unfailing business of Verny
Verny Capital buys out in the secondary market those enterprises which other investors got clobbered with, and reorganises and modernises them.
This happened to the Vasilkovsky Mining and Processing Plant, where Verny, together with the Kazzinc Holding, turned the loss-making enterprise into the flagship of the gold-mining sector.
This was also the case with the 31 Channel, where Verny Capital is the majority shareholder, and which was, jointly with the CTC Media company, made one of the leading TV channels in the country.
The same happened with the Kartel telecom operator – supplier of 4G internet in Kazakhstan, and with Sky Mobile in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Whatever Verny (as the group is called in short in Kazakhstan) sets out to – whether it’s the Burger King fast food network opening restaurants all over the country or the Sary Arka airport in Karaganda – everywhere one can feel the style of businessman Bulat Utemuratov and his team. Verny Capital buys controlling interests in companies and actively participates in operational and strategic management. Risk, push, powerful investments of efforts and funds – and the country gets a brilliantly restored or newly created facility. As it happened in the end of 2017, when the Talan Towers complex including the first luxury hotel The Ritz-Carlton Astana, apartments, the boutique gallery and the business centre opened in the capital city.
Verny Capital has dozens of successful projects to its name within Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries.
Life outside business and simply life
The Kazakhstani media calls Bulat Utemuratov unsocial because he does not give interviews. But this cannot be true judging by the scope of his charitable activity and the number of friends. Philanthropic projects of Bulat Utemuratov and Verny Capital are as large-scale as entrepreneurial. Sponsor Bulat Zhamitovich is as active as the businessman. Therefore, he invests only to the development: to education, healthcare and health of children, domestic sports.
Funds of Bulat Utemuratov’s Foundation were used for opening and successful functioning of eight “Assyl Miras” centres for children with the autistic spectrum disorders.
Bulat Utemuratov’s Foundation is the organiser of the Burabike Fest sports and music charity festival held annually in the territory of the Schuchye-Borovoe resourt area. For seven years the charity festival has been run, 1 billion tenge were collected and vitally important equipment for oblast, district and rural medical institutions of the country was bought.
In 2017 the Foundation became multi-project and expanded the scope of its work: it renders financial and material assistance to Kazakhstanis affected by natural calamities. In 2019, within the “Balameken” project, the Foundation allocated 3.4 million US dollars for construction of housing for 100 multi-child and low-income families in Kyzylorda, and for 100 families affected by the man-made disaster in Arys town. In May 2020, Bulat Utemuratov allocated 6 million US dollars to build 150 houses for the flood victims in Maktaaral district of the Turkestan Oblast. The businessmen also allocated 5.5 million US dollars to control the coronavirus infection spread.
In 2020, the Foundation completed the large-scale reconstruction of the Central Botanical Garden in Almaty. The cost of this project was 15 million US dollars.
Bulat Utemuratov pays considerable attention to the development of education in Kazakhstan. It is on the philanthropist’s funds that the transformation of the Narxoz University into the leading educational centre in Central Asia is done and the British Haileybury Schools function in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.
Bulat Utemuratov supports projects run by Aruzhan Sain’s Mercy Volunteer Society (DOM) and the Association of Parents of Disabled Children (ARDI) for rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy, and is the chair of the Council of Trustees of the Foundation for Development and Support of Ballet and National Dance, supports the Public Foundation named after Kazakhstani musician Batyrkhan Shukenov. Regular exhibitions of the Kulanshi Centre of Modern Fine Arts take place under Utemuratov’s patronage in the Forte Bank Kulanshi Art Space. Bulat Utemuratov is an honorary trustee of the Nazarbayev Foundation.
A special place in Bulat Utemuratov’s life belongs to tennis. Bulat Zhamitovich has been heading the national Tennis Federation since 2007 and is the member of the Board of Directors and the Vice President of the International Tennis Federation (ITF). In 2017 Bulat Utemuratov’s efforts to develop tennis were awarded the prizes of the International Tennis Federation and the Asian Tennis Federation “for outstanding success in the development of tennis in Kazakhstan”.
Bulat Utemuratov invests much of his own funds to this development: builds courts, finances members of the national team and national and international competitions, organises young reserve schools and children clubs “Tennis before 10”. One of the milestone events in the world of tennis was the charity match of Novak Jokovic and Rafael Nadal in Nur-Sultan in October 2019.
The total amount of funds allocated by the philanthropist for the development of tennis in Kazakhstan is 85 million US dollars.
Bulat Utemuratov has been married to his wife Azhar for over forty years with two sons and a daughter. The circle of friends of the Utemuratovs is wide and impressive. It includes influential people of Kazakhstan: Timur Kulibayev, Sauat Mynbayev, Berik Imashev, Yerbolat Dossayev, Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, Nurlan Smagulov, Serzhan Zhumashov, Arman Baitassov, Rustem Bekturov. The philanthropist’s friends are Francesco Ricci-Bitti (President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations) and Shamil Tarpischev (President of the Russian Tennis Federation), tennis players Rafael Nadal and Martina Hingis, Ivan Glazenberg (Glencore International), Mikhail Fridman (Alfa-Group), Alisher Usmanov (USM Holdings), Herve Humler (Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company), Lakshmi Mittal (Mittal Steel Company N.V.), Klaus Martin Schwab (President of the World Economic Forum in Davos).