Once in China - Twice in Georgia
Just two years ago Isiao Jiunumi made $40 a month. Now he is making millions and his name is Sandro Bregadze.
Chinese businessman Isiao Jiunumi is known by the name of Sandro Bregadze. His astonishing story is known far and wide – from the Georgian markets of Eliava, all the way to Beijing. It’s almost like the story of Aladdin, except Isaiao Jiunumi did not receive help from a Genie, and neither did he marry the Sultan’s daughter. Just a few years agoIsiao Jiunumi, who is now known as Sandro Bregadze, made only $40 a month. Now he owns a shipping company called Suolun, and a chain of Georgian Wine Houses.
In China, it is common for children from poor families to get a job at an early age. Bregadze himself began working while he was still in school. First he worked at his relative’s shop for a few Yuan. Because was drawn to new technology, Bregadze began working at an internet café. Eventually, he took another job working as a loader for a shipping company called Cargo Georgia. It was a hard job, but he made more money there – approximately $40 per month.
“I did not speak any other languages at the time aside from Chinese, and $40 was a good wage for me during that period. I was working with Georgians, ethnic Azeris and a few Kurds. I learned how to load and sort cargo in the warehouse. When I had free time, I began learning Georgian and Russian from my co-workers,” recalls Bregadze.
Bregadze has always exhibited exceptional talent, diligence and devotion towards his work and studies. He says that these are traits that he had inherited from his ancestors – the Shibini tribe. Shibinis were hunters and warriors, and were viewed by Chinese Emperor Chen Lo as his most reliable defenders and ally.252 years ago, Emperor Lo ordered the Shibinis to move towards Kazakhstanin order to strengthen the border. The tribe had to cover 10,000 kilometers. They were given two years to complete the journey. The Shibinis managed to reach their destination in just nine months, settling near Urumqi. The Shibinis no longer reside in their historical settlement, and have since mixed with other tribes. But there still remains 170,000 Shibinis that reside near the border with Kazakhstan. Through it all, they have managed to preserve their language and traditions.
Eventually, Bregadze moved from Urumqi to Yiwu, where Cargo Georgia had its main warehouse.
“For two years my wage was $150 a month. Then it was $200, and after working for the company for five years, I was paid $350. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about saving money. I just wanted to learn something. But then I met my future wife and everything changed,” he said.
There is a reason why I compared Bregadze to Aladdin. His marriage is very much like the story of One Thousand and One Nights. He tells the story of his marriage with so much passion and sincerity, that I am completely captivated.
To make this long and wonderful story short, Bregadze’s future in-laws refused to give away their daughter because Sandro did not have his own home. So his Georgian friends helped him by collecting money to buy a house. After that, they gave Bregadze the so-called ‘bride buy-out’ money.
“We have a tradition where we throw a lot of money in front of the bride’s house. The family of the bride can take all of the money or just some of it and return the rest. If they don’t take any money, it means they refuse to give away their daughter. So I asked my future wife to tell her mother to take only a small portion of that money, since I had to return it to my Georgian colleagues. But my future mother-in-law still took 20,000 Yuan, and that’s how we got married,” Bregadze recalls as he laughs heartily during the interview.“It was the first most beautiful day in my life,” he added.
When the managing partners of the company split up, Bregadze asked his boss for permission to set up his own shipping company. His boss gave him the green light, and that is how it all started.
“I come from a very poor family that lived in the town of Khorgas, in Xinjiang province. I have one younger sister and three older brothers. I am the fourth child in the family. My siblings were unemployed, so I decided to bring them to Yiwu and teach them how to work in the shipping industry. That’s when I decided to set up a new company and call it ‘Suolun’. Suolun means ‘reinforcement of mountains’ in the Shibins language.
Bregadze had many duties at his company. He was a translator, and he did market research. He also acted as a sales agent and consultant, and did many other things that were required of him. Bregadze’s siblings were given various jobs in the company.
“We rented a small apartment for an office in the commercial district of Yiwu. We lived, ate and worked in this office. We tried to cut expenses as much as we could, because we reinvested every single Yuan that we earned. We managed to buy a car in the first year, and during the second year, we bought our own office space in the center of Yiwu,” Bregadze notes.
Bregadze came to realize some fundamental truths in the beginning of his business career. You can make money in a big country even if you’re working on a low margin. This takes more time, but when you earn low interest rate, it is absolutely necessary to be totally honest in your business. Bregadze does not have a degree in business, and he is not sure if they teach all this at business school. However, Bregadze’s innate talent and secondary school diploma was enough for him to get rich.
Three years after its establishment, the Suolun Company shipped 800 containers to Georgia. The containers held various products of the highest quality. According to Bregadze, the total shipment amount exceeded $80 million. Suolun also operated as a local ‘LinkedIn’, and connected Georgian and Chinese small and medium businesses. Suolun charged from 0.5 - 1.5% for mediator services, and even that was nullified if the companies used the Suolun shipping services.
Bregadze’s business was going well. The Suolun company was making a lot of profit, and became very popular within Georgia’s Eliava and Lilo markets. Bregadze’s company became one of the largest suppliers of Chinese products on the Georgian market. In 2014, the company expanded and bought another office for half a million US dollars.
The company faced its first crisis in 2015, when the value of the US dollar increased. This led to the bankruptcy of the majority of companies that were supplying Georgia and its neighbors with Chinese products.
“Turnover decreased by 40% and then it halved,” laments Bregadze. “However, I was happy that we did not lose more, since many companies around us just closed their businesses,” he added.
Sandro Bregadze realized that he needed to come up with a new venture in order to pull his company out of the crisis, but he wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Later, his childhood friend Guan ShueLian, also known by his mystic name ‘Boris’, advised him to try selling wine.
“I started my research. I read a lot about Georgia and its wine-making traditions. It turned out that in spite of the fact that I had worked with Georgians for so many years, I basically knew nothing about Georgia. There was wine in Georgia 10, 000 years ago. In fact, the word ‘vino’ originated in Georgia. So, I decided to travel to Georgia and personally acquaint myself with Georgia’s culture and traditions, and also taste Georgian wine. I have some very good friends in Georgia, and they helped me choose the best wines. I decided to send two containers of Georgian wine to China. In the meantime, I tore down the conference room on the first floor of my office and renovated it. I wanted it to look like a Georgian wine cellar, so I incorporated traditional Georgian elements into the design,” he explained.
The arrival of the wine containers coincided with the celebration of the New Year. Bregadze picked the best marketing plan and carried out a massive free wine-tasting campaign. He knew that Chinese cuisine was drastically different from Georgian cuisine, and therefore he ordered mainly semi-dry and semi-sweet wine.
“Despite the fact that China is one of the largest wine producers in the world, it is still hard to find good wine here. French wine is very expensive, so the average consumer tends to buy beer or stronger alcoholic beverages instead. But the reasonable price, and good quality of the Georgian wine caused quite a stir in Yiwu. In the blink of an eye, I sold two containers of wine, and it happened in just a week,” Bregadze recalls fondly.
This is when he realized that he had found something very profitable. He immediately ordered twice the amount of wine and sold that shipment quickly. There were lines of people standing in front of his hastily-built cellar.
The second order was followed by a third, which was worth $1.5 million USD. Then came a new business idea: Bregadze decided to build a Georgian Wine House in Yiwu. The wine house would incorporate the functions of the Georgian historical museum and information center. He found a suitable place for the wine house –a beautiful abandoned house near an old Catholic church. In a about months’ time, the Georgian Wine House was already hosting its first guests.
Seven months after the opening of the first winehouse, there were already eight Georgian wine houses in various cities of China. Bregadze says that he finally found a business that he can operate not for just the profit, but for his pleasure. He notes that his main inspiration is the Georgian attitude towards their wine. At the end of June, Bregadze plans to open yet another five-star Georgian Wine House in his hometown of Urumqi at a cost of $700,000. The total area of the new wine house is 600 m², and it will house up to 40,000 bottles of wine. After that, Bregadze plans to build a huge wholesale warehouse, which will ensure that his wines are delivered in a timely manner throughout China.
“There’s been a huge increase in the demand for Georgian wine since we opened our wine houses. There are lots of retail and wholesale markets that want our wine. I never exceed a 15% markup. I allow wholesalers a 40% markup and retail stores a 90% markup. I want ordinary people, those who cannot afford to pay $200-300 for a bottle of French wine, to appreciate and love Georgian wine,” he says.
The Georgian Wine House constantly promotes Georgian history and culture. Bregadze says that it’s hard to draw the interest of Chinese customers no matter what the product is, unless they know the history and origin of a product. The Georgian Wine Houses offer their customers free wine tastings, lectures on Georgia, various meetings and films on a daily basis. Bregadze regularly hosts Georgian diplomats and businessmen. He places an emphasis on the healing properties and organic consistency of Georgian wines. These are the two most important criteria for Chinese consumers.
At the moment, Sandro Bregadze, aself-proclaimed Gurian from Makvaneti, who was baptized as a Christian in Tbilisi, and is deeply in love with Georgia, has two children - Avtandil and Barbare, and is a representative of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce in China. Bregadze’s business partner – Tbilinvest – is one of the largest business groups in Georgia. The Georgian Wine Houses in China are a joint project of the Suolun Company and the Tbilinvest Group. Bregadze and the Tbilinvest’s member company ‘Madloba’, are preparing 17 containers of wine for export. By the end of the year, they are planning to export a total of two million bottles of wine. Bregadze is particularly proud and grateful, as he recalls his meeting with the former Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili.
“My Georgian partners and I had the opportunity to acquaint Mr. Gharibashvili with our business projects. Mr.Gharibashvili and other members of the Georgian government played a major role in the success of our business,” says Bregadze. “I promised our minister that by 2017 we would open from 50 to 100 wine houses in China,” adds Bregadze, who often uses the word ‘our’ when referring to Georgia.
“Everything that I have, I owe it to Georgians. I would not have my company and the business that I love so much if it weren’t for the Georgian people. I want every single person in China to know about the small country of Georgia, a country with a very rich culture and most importantly, very kind and talented people.”
I would like give special thanks to the Embassy of Georgia to China and the Trade and Economic Mission of the People’s Republic of China to Georgia for their assistance in preparing this article.