Nation Builder in Chief Eduardo Eurnekian

Nation Builder in Chief

How Argentine industrialist Eduardo Eurnekian helped put Armenia back in business and on the map

The name Eduardo Eurnekian has dominated the world of business and commerce for over half a century. His successive triumphs in Latin America and across the globe speak volumes about the power of one extraordinary individual to amass wealth, grow economies, transform lives and rebuild nations.

A proud Argentine born to Armenian immigrants, Eurnekian is at once the consummate global citizen, ultimate captain of industry, quintessential philanthropist, and incurable romantic when it comes to finding grand projects to apply his legendary Midas touch. His uncanny instinct to match realities and necessities to opportunities and ambitions has built a multi-billion-dollar empire that spans the textile industry, technology and transportation, media, agriculture, financial services, wine, renewable energy, education and more. 

But it’s his indelible and expansive impact on the rebirth of the Republic of Armenia that is perhaps his crowning achievement, the culmination of his material success and the redemption of his ancestors.

On any given day in Armenia, the Eurnekian stamp is everpresent. From the moment one lands at Zvartnots Airport, opens a mail package, withdraws cash from a local Converse Bank ATM, or savors a glass of fine Karas wine while reflecting on just how far the country has come in the last 30 years—largely because a hard-nosed, self-made billionaire from Argentina has a soft spot for his Armenian homeland. 

Argentina’s Titan of Industry

Born to Armenian refugees in Buenos Aires during the throes of Argentina’s worst economic crisis, Eurnekian’s family managed to stay ahead of the curve from 1950 to 1978 by operating a small textile manufacturing company, not unlike many other Armenians at the time. By 2013, Eurnekian had built a semiconductor factory on the remains of the family textile plant that now produced materials for cellphones, public transportation, and microchips.

You don’t work to make money. An artist doesn’t paint to make money. And a good businessman is like an artist.

While many retailers in Argentina were forced to close shop due to the fall of demand and increasing state-instituted taxes, the Eurnekian family business grew to become a key supplier to international sporting apparel firm Puma between 1950 and 1978. Though it seemed that business was in his blood, Eurnekian was unsure of what to pursue after he finished his studies. 

“When I finished school, I thought I wanted to travel. In the meantime, my father told me I could work in the textile factory,” recounts Eurnekian. Working side by side with his father, he learned the art of business while also mopping floors. “But the whole experience taught me the art of entrepreneurship and completely changed my life,” Eurnekian said in a 2013 interview. 

The Intrepid Investor

The Eurnekian family business nearly collapsed in 1981, but the Eurnekians continued to forge ahead and learn from the rise and fall of Argentina’s wavering economy. Eurnekian’s first plunge into the business world was unusual for someone deeply rooted in the textile industry. 

In 1988, he purchased Cablevisión S.A, which at the time was a failing local cable television station, but by the early nineties, his eye for potential paid off. In an interview with Archivo DiFilm, Eurnekian admitted, “We took a big leap, both qualitative and quantitative.”

Under Eurnekian’s supervision, the telecom company took smaller Argentin-ean cities like Belgrano, Palermo, and Recoleta under the wing of their cable services and soon grew to become Argentina’s second largest cable operator. In 1994, he sold almost half of Cablevisión for $350m to TeleCommunications INC, and three years later sold the remaining shares for $320m to investment giant CEI Citicorp Holdings—making this the largest merger and acquisition transaction in Argentina in the 1990s.

Eurnekian also invested in America TV, several Argentine radio stations and El Cronista, the leading financial daily of Argentina, which would eventually become the first newspaper in Argentina to go digital.

Skies Unlimited

When Argentina fell into another intense economic recession in the early 2000s, airports saw a drastic decrease in traffic. While many would avoid investing in a failing industry, Eurnekian was no stranger to a challenge and saw this as an opportunity to grow.

In 2000, he won a 30-year concession agreement to lead a consortium of 33 Argentine airports. Today, Aeropuertos Argentina, the airports subsidiary of Eurnekian’s Corporación América, is one of the world’s largest private operators, supported by banking giants like Bank of America, Oppenheimer, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.

Words of Wisdom

Eurnekian’s fascination for innovation has kept him motivated to continue pursuing passion projects. In an interview with Harvest Song in 2013, Eurnekian said, “I am in love every day. But if I have new projects and ideas, I meet new people, I talk to different people. At this age, I am in love with the things I do, which is the push I need to succeed.”

In 2015, in a conversation with La Nacion, he was asked if his objective in life was to become wealthy. Eurnekian responded, “You don’t work to make money. An artist doesn’t paint to make money. And a good businessman is like an artist.

When asked for his insights on failure, he added, “Is losing money a problem? Being generous and giving money, is that a loss? When you are generous, when you open doors for other people, when you support another foundation, is that losing?”

Nation Builder in Chief

AGBU President Berge Setrakian and Eduardo Eurnekian at the official gala dinner of the 86th General Assembly in Argentina, where Setrakian named Eurnekian AGBU’s Man of the Year in 2010. Photo by Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Armenia’s National Hero

Eurnekian’s business acumen has also not been lost on Armenia, where hundreds of millions of dollars of investment have brought positive change to virtually every stratum of the country’s socioeconomic fabric.

Armenia International Airports

His first incursion into the Armenian market came in late 2001, when his Corporación América signed a 30-year concession agreement with the government to take control of operations in the country’s main Zvartnots International Airport.

Ten years later, the airport boasted a brand-new passenger terminal with state-of-the-art check-in facilities, an adjacent parking deck, and freshly-paved runways that brought the 50-year-old airport into conformity with international standards for the estimated 3.2m passengers that cross its gates every year.

The approval by the government in late Dec. 2018 of the corporation’s Armenian subsidiary, Armenia International Airports’ 2018-2022 master plan for further work on Zvartnots will inject an additional $32m into the $169m already invested to expand the airport’s parking space and improve its infrastructure.

“These investments promise to bring the airport’s safety standards to ICAO specifications, adjust its in-take capacity to the expected increase in passenger flow and upgrade Zvartnots to an IATA C-class (good) Level of Service-type airport,” said Armenia’s Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan in his cabinet briefing before voting on the resolution.

The remaining $6.2m of the total $38.2m provided by this stage of the master plan will go toward renovating the Shirak International Airport building in Gyumri and creating conditions for the accommodation of larger Airbus and Boeing planes—a first for the airport. Armenia International Airports began operating Shirak in 2007 after it was incorporated into the concession agreement signed in 2001.

Tierras de Armenia

With the ink barely dry on the Zvartnots deal, Eurnekian turned his attention to Armenia’s agribusiness with the foundation in 2002 of Tierras de Armenia, the Armenian cousin to Corporación América’s agroindustry giant.

The purchase in 2004 of 2,300 hectares of land in the sunny Arevadasht community at the foot of Mount Ararat and the planting there of 450 hectares of vineyards laid the groundwork for the now global Karas Wines brand of Armenian wines—and with it the renaissance of Armenia’s dormant wine potential.

With a global export outreach extending to virtually all four corners of the world, Tierras de Armenia’s focus remains Armenia, with half of its 800,000 bottle- strong production consumed domestically in 2019.

But more than just about making good wine, “we are also looking to enhance people’s lives,” says Juliana Del Aguila, the company’s president. She explains that the workforce in the fields are all locals and the bottles and labels that go on them are purchased in Armenia to help stimulate the country’s economy—an imperative of the Eurnekian brand.

Converse Bank and HayPost

The all-round portfolio of Converse Bank, where affiliates of the Eurnekian Group own a majority 95% of total shares, gave the group effective control over the bank since 2006.

As Armenia’s third largest bank, with 37 branches across 19 communities, including one in Artsakh, Converse Bank has permeated the country’s economy, exploring investment opportunities in agribusiness, mining, high tech, renewable energy, environmental security and export. Over the years, the bank also became an important patron of the arts and education.

Nation Builder in Chief

The Eurnekian Secondary School, Holy Etchmiadzin. Photo by Tigran Mehrabyan
Nation Builder in Chief

Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by Uskarp | Dreamstime

In 2018 alone, Converse spent an approximate 47m Armenian drams ($95,000 USD) on improving study conditions for schoolchildren in Yerevan and the regions. “Promoting education is a key component of Converse Bank’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy,” said its CEO Artur Hakobyan in 2019 after the bank helped send two more children from border villages in Tavush to TUMO Center for Creative Technologies’ Summer Camp as part of its ongoing cooperation with the center.

But perhaps Eurnekian’s most important contribution to education in Armenia is the Eurnekian School in Etchmiadzin. Established by Catholicos Karekin II in 2009 on the newly-renovated grounds of an existing Soviet-era school, Eurnekian later financed a second, brand-new and fully-furnished building outside the school premises to offer even better study conditions to the 500-plus children currently enrolled in the school.

Upon graduation, all students receive their personal Converse Bank ISIC cards that contain the sum total of their annual scholarships accumulated over 12 years of schooling. In 2017, the bank also pledged to help students boost their business initiatives and offer internship and even job opportunities to the best of them.

In the same year Eurnekian bought Converse Bank, HayPost Trust Manage-ment B.V., a subsidiary of the Eurnekian Group since 2007 with a 14.06% share in the bank’s equity, acquired accredited management rights over HayPost, Armenia’s sole national postal service.

In 12 years, the group renovated and reopened hundreds of post offices across the country and trained just as many staff in the provision of high-quality postal, business and financial services. In recognition of its achievements, Hayastan All-Armenian Fund re-peatedly partnered with HayPost to use its postbanking application “as a secure bridge [for receiving donations] from the Armenian people,” said its executive director Haykak Arshamyan during the signing ceremony.

HayPost is now back in the hands of the government until it can come up with a new strategy for managing its formal mail provider.

Nation Builder in Chief

Eduardo Eurnekian takes Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on a tour of Karas Wines in June 2019. 

Fruitful Armenia 

Reaching for ever new heights, the Eurnekian Group also established in 2011 Fruitful Armenia Charitable Foundation, whose annual conferences have become a focal point for the intellectual and creative potential of local and international agricultural experts dedicated to advancing the field in Armenia and contributing to the prosperity of its rural communities.

In Artsakh, Fruitful Armenia partnered with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) to help implement its New Educational Strat-egy (NUR), a joint venture with the government of Artsakh that was part of a movement to integrate new technologies to the enclave’s outdated education system. “Through [NUR], I intend to bridge the gap and give the children of Karabakh the opportunity to receive the best education the world has to offer,” said Eurnekian at the time.

The strategy drew inspiration from the One Laptop Per Child initiative developed by MIT in Boston and by 2018 put just under 13,000 XO and Intel Classmate laptops in the hands of just as many first to fourth graders across Artsakh.

More recently, Fruitful Armenia helped AGBU bring its flagship Women Entrepreneurs (W.E.) program to women in Artsakh looking to boost their entrepreneurial skills and start or scale up a microbusiness. “We are joining AGBU in supporting women entrepreneurs in Artsakh by helping them expand their knowledge of finance and entrepreneurship so they may be more effectively involved in the development of the country’s economy,” said Fruitful Armenia Board Member Jorge Del Aguila-Eurnekian at the press conference announcing the launch of the project.

Converse Bank has also tagged in to provide comprehensive banking services on preferential terms and offer program participants business and sales consultations.

Nation Builder in Chief

Eurnekian received the Order of Motherland in October of 2017.

A Man of Distinction

On the 26th anniversary of Armenia’s independence in 2017, the government of Armenia named Eurnekian a national hero for his exceptional service to the development and prosperity of Armenia. This highest honor is among the myriad awards he has received throughout his illustrious career. He also serves as Chairman of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preventing genocide through education and public awareness  campaigns, for which Eurnekian received public recognition by the United States Congress in 2014. 

Banner photo by Meilk N. Baghdasaryan / Photolure

Originally published in the May 2020 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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