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Georgia: Entrepreneur Parlays Friendship Games Into Good Business

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Wash.; 27 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bob Walsh, whose privately owned company is restoring and renovating the heavily damaged Tbilisi Hotel in Georgia, is an entrepreneur known in Washington state as something of a sports impresario. That's a man who makes things happen in the world of sport.

He's now making things happen in the former Soviet world, where he has been active since 1985, when he and Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, the global television news network based in Atlanta, became virtual commuters to Moscow in working together to bring the final running of the U.S.-Soviet Friendship Games to Seattle in 1990.

It also was Walsh who helped bring the new Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association to Canada. And, today, it is Walsh who is the principal consultant working to bring the Summer Olympics to Seattle in 2012.

For an entrepreneur, these endeavors are not only risky, but require an element of vision that goes well beyond merely making money. Working toward a goal set in the year 2012, for example, requires something of a visionary's outlook.

A risk-willing visionary, in fact, is not an inaccurate way to describe the head of Bob Walsh Enterprises, Incorporated, the company that Walsh formed in 1976 to organize his various business interests and reformed two years after the 1990 Friendship Games to do business in the Soviet world. In this, Walsh also brought in the financial backing of some notable Seattle-area private investors, including Bruce McCaw, whose McCaw Cellular Communications led to the widespread use of portable telephony, before being merged into the worldwide operations of giant A-T-and-T.

Today, Walsh takes advantage of the many contacts he has made in the East since 1985. Not least among these contacts is Eduard Shevardnadze, the last Soviet foreign minister who left Moscow to return home as president of the independent state of Georgia.

Walsh told RFE/RL that his first visit to Georgia was in 1986. It was, as he says, love at first sight. After independence, he continued to be a regular visitor, even during the bloody years of civil war.

If anything, his love has grown over the years. He sees Georgia's great strength in its outward-looking people, who may be educated abroad but always return to share their talents at home.

"Long term," Walsh says of the violent early years of independent Georgia, "it probably is going to strengthen the country."

Walsh outlined his company's major current projects in the East. Taken together, he says, these projects add up to about $100 million in investments:

The first venture is called Walsh Pharma, which markets vitamins and homeopathic remedies -- including treatments for flu, allergies and insomnia -- not only in George but also in Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and soon, he says, into the Baltic states as well. These Walsh buys from U.S. suppliers, including Botanical Laboratories Incorporated in Bellingham.

Building upon Walsh Pharma, Walsh formed Bob Walsh Enterprises International, or BWEI, which is owned equally by Bob Walsh Enterprises and a foreign investment company and is based in the British Virgin Islands.

BWEI has several major construction projects under way or planned in Georgia, each of which is a joint venture with what Walsh describes as "very highly respected" local partners, which he calls "our Georgian eyes and ears." Already under way is a $25 million transformation of the Tbilisi Hotel into a first-class facility offering 200 rooms designed to Western standards. Walsh says he's now lining up the rest of the necessary financing, which will include a loan from the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and funds from Westin Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which plans to operate the refurbished Tbilisi Hotel as the capital's finest accommodations.

Another Tbilisi project, scheduled to start in spring, is the $8 million renovation of an abandoned restaurant on Mtatsminda Plateau overlooking the city into a restaurant and casino.

Other projects include Tbilisi Real Estate Company, a joint venture developing plans for four well-located properties near the Mtkvari River, which traverses the capital, and restoring and redeveloping a huge, Soviet era food-processing plant into a major ice cream confectionery.

It may be Walsh's visionary aspect that enables him to see beyond the ruins and bloody civil and political turmoil caused by Georgia's post-Soviet civil warfare -- including another recent failed attempt at assassinating Shevardnadze. What Walsh sees is a country "moving faster, economically and politically, than the other former Soviet republics. Even during the Soviet era," he adds, "Georgia always looked to the West."

Walsh's approach to doing business in the east centers on respecting the way things are done in the countries where he operates. That's where having local partners is, he says, essential. "There is no way you can do business there," he explains, "the way you would do business here. They've only started doing business in the last few years. You have to incorporate their way of doing business into your way of doing business," he advises.

Walsh's assessment is that Georgia is advancing on the road to democracy and a market economy more rapidly than the news of such events as the attempted assassination of Shevardnadze might suggest. One problem, he says, is that the Georgian government lacks funds to promote the country's progress, a situation he says he is working to improve in this country.