Podcast

Daniel Torres Dwyer 03 June 2019

Central Asia with Vugar Manafli

In a world where technology and globalization are bringing us closer together, the unknown is becoming something rare. Central Asia is one exception. A vast territory formed by former Soviet Republics which is developing and opening up but is still a mystery to many.  To shed some light and learn more about this region, we invited Vugar Manafli, the General Manager Central Asia for Colgate Palmolive, who’s lived and worked in the region since he moved to Uzbekistan in 2010. He’s currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Topics covered:

  • Mr. Manafli’s trajectory and experience in the region
  • What makes this region special
  • Differences between the different countries in the region
  • Leadership skills learnt in Central Asia
  • How to lead successfully in the region

Daniel:

Hi, I’m Daniel Torres Dwyer and welcome to LS International’s career success podcast. In a world where technology and globalization are bringing the world together and closer, the unknown is becoming something rare. Central Asia is one of these exceptions. A vast territory formed by former Soviet republics which is developing and opening up but is still a mystery to many. To shed some light and learn more about this region, I have the pleasure to have Vugar Manafli with me. He’s currently the General Manager for Colgate Palmolive in the region, where he arrived there in 2010 and he is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Hi Vugar, thanks for joining us today. How are you?

Vugar:

Hi Daniel. Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m fine. Hope you’re also doing well.

Daniel:

Yes, and I’m very happy to have you here after all the years that we’ve been in touch and known each other, that it’s a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Vugar:

Thank you so much.

Daniel:

Just so like the listeners can get a bit into perspective and have an idea of who you are. I mean I’ve introduced you already before, but how long have you actually worked in Central Asia?

Vugar:

So it’s been already 9-years since I moved to Central Asia. Within these 9- years,  I changed several companies and many positions. In 2010, I came to Central Asia as a customer development manager for Colgate Kyrgyzstan. Then after two years I got promoted to country manager role here. In 2013, I moved to Kazakhstan as a Sales Director for Colgate Kazakhstan. Then in 2016, I got promoted to General Director role here and in 2018 I have been appointed to cluster head position for newly created Central-Asia cluster consisting of five countries of the region which are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. It’s also by the way, colloquially referred to as the “stans”.

Daniel:

“The stans”, yeah.

Vugar:

As the temperate of the regions all have names ending with the person suffix stan, meaning “Land of”.

Daniel:

Ah, there you go. I think at least from a Western perspective it’s a part of the world which is pretty unknown but obviously covers a lot of lands. But you as an outsider but then knows the region very well, wanted to ask you Vugar, what sets this region apart from the rest of the world? Like what’s make, what makes it unique and special?

Vugar:

Before moving to Central Asia, I spent many years in the Caucasian region and by now, I have been a part of several global and regional projects with many countries and regions worldwide. In the course of time, my belief that only some regions are unique and all the rest are the same or at least very similar has vanished. All the regions intact are unique in their own way. Regarding Central Asia what sets this region apart from others is first of all people; hey are very hospitable here. To me, they are friendly and the food is extremely wide and delicious. You can clearly observe all four seasons of the year in this region. And regarding geography also; the geography of the central Asia region varies including high passes and mountain, parkl resorts and especially three ways grassy steps. The only thing I miss here is actually the sea. All the countries of the region are landlocked countries. None has access to the ocean

Daniel:

And these markets like from a financial economic development standpoint, how different are they to the rest of the countries around them?

Vugar:

Despite all the best commonalities,  each company of the region has its own specific things. All five countries are as different as they are alike.  Business between them starts with income level and level of urbanization and includes “channel”: I mean modern trade versus traditional trade developmental level, consumption level and usage this culture of different categories and subcategories. Also of course shopper behavior and shopper profile are different from country to country. It’s not a secret that the Kazakh market is the most developed.  Out of the price, modern trade reaches up to 50% for some categories even higher, but a low density of population makes doing business in Kazakhstan extremely costly and difficult in terms of logistics. Imagine a population of Netherlands in the area or equal to 60% of the European Union.  At the same time, Uzbekistan is the fastest growing market now. And for some companies, even it overtakes Kazakhstan in terms of business size.  By the way, by population it is twice as big as Kazakhstan and after the latest political and economic reforms in the country, it’s a big opportunity for all the companies.

Tadzhik economy is growing very fast, very promising. Although modern trade is growing across the region but traditional trading is dominating for now and it will take not less than it will take for modern trade to overtake, traditional trade.

Daniel:

Okay.

Vugar:

Open market channel and wholesalers are still big enough and quite influential.

Daniel:

And Vugar, In this time that you’ve been in the region, as you said since 2010, what are the top leadership skills that you’ve learned in the region? And there’s a second question, which is what competencies and skills are needed to succeed in Central Asia?

Vugar:

I like this question. As for me, agility comes first. Well, coming to skills and competencies you need here to succeed, agility comes first and I will tell you why.  You know, you have to have an agile mindset to eradicate soviet legacy which still dominates in this region. Most of higher positions are held by people with Soviet education and Soviet mindsets.

Daniel:

Okay.

Vugar:

Also processes and procedures are not set up fully, thus, you need to be agile- flexible to make things done in this highly fluctuating environment.

The second skill or competence I would like to mention is probably communication skills, influence.  A lot of things are being done due to a good interpersonal relationship in the region, falls within your team as well as with outside stakeholders. It is east, you know and the east interpersonal relationships make a huge difference.

Daniel:

Yes.

Vugar:

And the the third skill probably is a  skill to unlearn and learn. I mean contraband markets of the regions are dynamically evolving.  Set of skills needed to succeed today are very different from those needed yesterday and tomorrow, they will be completely different.  Thus in order to stay successful and competitive in the region, one must be extremely good in unlearning and learning to unlearn so-called old skills and habits and learn new ones. As an example, I can say customer engagement for example, modern trade management, category management and so on.

Daniel:

Okay. Is there anything else that you would give general advice to people that will move or want to move to Central Asia in terms of leadership skills?

Vugar:

To making things done is one skill or competence I usually use when assessing people here, when assessing managers here.  It’s very important to lead the project to the end and  make them start because as I mentioned earlier, processes and procedures that are not set up well enough and you know, you have to use your informal networks, you have to ensure that things are done, you know, like completing, finishing the things.

Daniel:

Okay. Fantastic Vugar. Well this was really, really interesting.  As I said before, I think that Central Asia is a big unknown region but obviously also a very good opportunity. So thanks for your teachings today.

Vugar:

Thank you very much, my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me once again.

Daniel:

It was a pleasure and also thanks to our listeners for following us by monthly and look forward to seeing you in the next edition of the podcast.