A serial entrepreneur and an investor, an adviser for multiple tech start-ups in Israel and France, Dominique Romano is the founder of GUIBOR holding company, which specializes in brokerage services as well as mergers and acquisitions. Real estate makes up a significant part of his investment portfolio together with equity investments in start-ups.
Dominique Romano has been investing in Georgia since 2018 – mainly in the hospitality and real estate sectors. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, he is motivated to grow his portfolio in the country and he overcame many difficulties to travel to Georgia to visit the locations of two new investments. One relating to the old cinema building in Tbilisi and the other in Kutaisi near the international airport.
In just 48 hours, Romano toured Georgia to see his existing investments, to explore new investment opportunities and he also sat down with Forbes Georgia for an exclusive interview.
Let’s start with a short profile of your business in Georgia and beyond.
To put it simply, I have a holding company in France that is a family business. I invest in private equity; in the hotel and hospitality space, as well as in real estate mainly in France, Israel, Spain, and Georgia.
I travel all around the world and I visit many countries, and to be honest, there are not many countries like Georgia. I chose Georgia a few years ago because I fell in love with your country, with your people, and lastly this is one of the very rare countries in the world where you have four million people living here and nine million coming as tourists. That’s double the population coming from tourism. When you are on the street, you don’t feel any danger – whereas you get this feeling in many western countries nowadays, including France. When you go to get a document or deal with the government, people are very efficient; most of the people in politics are young and they receive you well. So, it’s an open country where you don’t feel threatened, you can see a fast rise in businesses and there is a much more open-minded approach than in Europe. It’s in the middle of Europe and Asia – you are at the crossroads of many customs and cultures; this mix of civilizations makes Georgians fascinating, and for a French guy like me, the country is a very interesting place to invest.
It is safe to say that you agree with the World Bank that it is easy to do business in Georgia?
Georgia is an extremely easy place to do business. You know, it’s easier to do business in Georgia for me than in France. Here it’s very efficient and amazingly fast!
Is this the reason why you decided to invest in the country despite Covid-19?
There are a few reasons. I’m what we call in investment – adverse market. So, I don’t go where everybody goes. Now everybody is disinvesting or waiting because of fear caused by the pandemic, which one can understand, but I want to go against that approach. First, it’s my character and my way of doing things; second – the best time to do business is when nobody wants to do business. Third, even if I didn’t go to medical school, I come from a very science-orientated family, I’m not afraid of science, and I believe in science. So, I know that in the next six to twenty-four months, which is not a long time in life, we will have some kind of a scientific solution. In short, I’m not afraid of Coronavirus.
Where do you see the potential for growth?
Tourism is the fastest growing sector in Georgia, that’s why I invest in hotels and hospitality. Having said that, I think there is potential in technology and even in other start-ups. I hadn’t heard until now the amazing things Georgian tech start-ups are doing, and I’m very sure that there are more good people here who can do the same. I have not done it yet, but I am very open to investing in this area and I would say to all the readers that they should consider the potential of interesting start-up projects in the technology space. Also, Georgia has a strong tradition in agriculture, and I’m looking for new ideas here. Lastly, there are opportunities in energy – there is a lot of water in the Caucasus and electricity hydropower plants can be built to use this, then move onto harnessing wind and solar energy. I am willing to invest in those sectors; I think these are going to be exceptionally good in the next 5-7 years.
Now we are seeing that economic growth has slowed down, is it an impediment to your investment plans?
Well, obviously yes. But again, I’m market adverse. There is a saying in French, “You buy when you hear bombs, and you sell when you hear violins.” Basically, it means that when everybody’s happy, it’s better to sell. And when everybody’s unhappy, it’s better to buy. I know that it’s going to be tough in the next few years but I’m sure that your country will be one of those countries that can grow quickly after the crisis.
What makes you say that?
Simply because this country has huge potential; people in your country are workers, not talkers; they are people that act. When I analyse what I have done here business-wise with partners, banks, the government and other organisations – I have always gotten good answers, fast answers, and efficient answers. As a result, if I had to invest in any country out of the two hundred countries all over the world, I would still have chosen Georgia.
Is that also experience speaking because you have been investing in Georgia since 2018 – how has the business environment evolved since then?
Even over the past two years, there have been lots of changes. I’m not talking politics. I’m not involved in politics at all, and I don’t even know what is going on there.
We are talking business here…
When I began investing in Georgia, I was talking to some friends in America, in Israel and in France – they all asked– “Georgia? Where is it on a map? Why did you choose this country?” The same questions you asked me. But over the past two years, I think that Georgia has engaged in a very good marketing campaign all over the world, because now we see news about your country in European newspapers; many journalists have come and visited; tourists have started to speak about Georgian hospitality. You have very nice ski resorts, you have a beautiful place on the Black Sea and I think that this communication made your country more known globally and this attracts new investors. I can feel that I’m not the only one here nowadays.
You are making it sound like some kind of business paradise on earth. Extremely glad to hear it but it can’t be that easy…. Are there some challenges at least?
To be very honest, there are many challenges. There are always challenges in business because there is always a surprise that you can’t foresee – like Covid-19. There is one thing that was very tough for me especially at the beginning. This is the old reputation of corruption in the country. 70% of what I’m doing in this country is all by myself, though about one third is through a fund called Kinor Investments that I created with my friend and partner Georges Cohen and we invest in real estate. When we marketed that we wanted to invest in Georgia – people looked at us with a lot of discomfort. They know me, they know I’m crazy but not insane, and so if I’m investing there must be a reason. Still I had to give an explanation – it’s not like I’m investing in Spain or Italy or in America – where they just sign the paper regardless of my strategy. Here there is my strategy plus my belief in the country itself, and presenting the reasons behind the belief in the country itself at the beginning was tough because the reputation of the country was not that good. This was the image of the country twenty years ago but now Georgia’s image is completely clean. That’s why I said that over the past two years there’s been an evolution because the government have communicated a lot and through tourism the image of a growing industrial, agricultural, and clever country is being built.
What are your plans now? Do you already have specific projects in mind?
I have many projects in Georgia already underway, but I have three for the near future that are remarkably interesting. First, I bought a Historical Cinema Pavilion in Tbilisi on Agmashenebeli street, a huge place – it was the first cinema studio in your country. I am very happy to have a historical building that I will respect, and I will use the history of the building. I cannot tell you too many details, as we are still in the planning stage. What I know is that I will keep the historical building, probably open a fancy restaurant, there will be a space for conventions, a hotel, a co-working space and some residential blocks. It will be kind of a small town in the middle of the town, which of course is a very interesting project, and I think it will be famous worldwide if we do something original. I want something disruptive. So, I’m looking for ideas.
The second one is in Batumi, in an old part of this Black sea city, where we have bought a beautiful historical building which we are going to reconstruct and give new life to this architectural gem.
The third project is vastly different. The second airport of Georgia is Kutaisi – the airport is growing, the region is growing (I’m talking post-Coronavirus), and in the airport area there is nothing but the airport. We decided to buy a huge plot of land in front of the airport where we will build a big mall, some logistic spaces, and hotels – so we will make life grow around the airport, currently in the middle of nowhere. It’s desirable because from this location you can go skiing, you can go to Batumi and to many other places. The project will give people who don’t have such a big budget access to your country. Around the airport, life must growand we will make it happen!
So, you have long-term plans to do business in Georgia…
Yes! I think that if you come to this country, you have to believe in mid to long term investment. At least 50% of what I’m doing is real estate where you have to have a long term vision. And that’s an answer to dealing with Coronavirus, as well as being my approach to life in general and in business. Let’s take the Kutaisi project, for example, I have to do tenders for architects and builders, I have to build it and then open it – even if I am the fastest in the world and even if Georgian workers are the best in the world – this will be completed in thirty months. In thirty months, everybody knows Covid-19 will be gone. So, I just look at the road, I don’t spend too much time looking at what is going on around me.
Since you mentioned Georgian workers, is it easy to find skilled employees here?
Until now, for any question or problem that I have had, I have found it easy. And honestly, I have encountered only good workers. I have never had any problems with that. I am mainly talking about real estate, marketing, sales, and development. I’m not talking about private equity and in start-ups. At least for what I’m doing, I have had no problems.
Do you have any advice to those who want to open a business in Georgia?
Believe in the country, believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid of what’s going on around you. There’s always a problem. There’s always war or something else going on. And there’s always things you encounter that you had never even thought about. I tell Georgian people what I tell my children: There are always stairs along your way, and people when they see stairs they might not want to go up because they’re afraid they might break their legs – perhaps it’s more cold upstairs, perhaps it’s more warm upstairs – you just don’t know. Go up the stairs, make mistakes, and then it will work.