Think at London Business School
Entrepreneur Alex Podopryhora EMBA2009 is used to overcoming challenges. Now his focus is getting medical supplies into Ukraine
By Nick Mickshik
On 23 February, Yuriy Ryzhenkov received word from reliable military sources that Russia was gearing up for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, starting at 4am that morning. “I thought it was complete nonsense,” he says. “I knew that Ukraine would resist any invasion, making it an impossible mission for Russian forces. My mistake was thinking that Russia knew this, too.”
Yuriy, who completed his MBA at London Business School in 2006 and who has served as CEO of Metinvest Holding since 2013, hung up and went back to sleep. Hours later, the bombing started.
Today, he is travelling between western and eastern Ukraine, helping to oversee the supply of aid and armour to the Ukrainian military and the civilians who are fighting for their lives and the future of their country. In western Ukraine, life goes on almost as normal, despite the constant threat of rocket attacks. “Shops and restaurants are still open, businesses are still operational,” Yuriy explains. “The atmosphere is tense, but people are carrying on as best they can.”
As Yuriy and his team travel through the centre of the country to reach eastern Ukraine, where most of the fighting is taking place, they must show their papers at checkpoints every few kilometres. Many are guarded by civilians armed with makeshift weapons and Molotov cocktails. In the areas closest to the fighting, the air raid sirens sound three or four times a day. Russian shelling can be heard from the bomb shelters where people must wait for hours at a time.
Even here, Yuriy sees people returning to work, keen to do whatever they can to keep the country going. “People can get used to anything. Of course, it’s terrifying. But, every day for nearly two months now, there’s been some kind of bombing or shooting. It seems extraordinary, but these people live so close to the border, where conflict has been brewing for almost a decade.”
Metinvest began stocking nearby shelters with supplies as soon as rumours of an invasion began, even though many staff thought it unlikely they would be needed. “We thought it made sense to be prepared,” Yuriy explains. That said, he points out that no one – even those who were certain war was looming – had any idea of the scale or intensity of the Russian attack. “The length of the siege, the number of civilian deaths in places like Mariupol, these things were unimaginable. We stocked shelters with enough food for two to three weeks. Now here we are, months later.”
Within hours of the invasion starting, Metinvest began to work to ensure that its people were safely spread out across the country. “Kyiv was so dangerous, we knew we couldn’t leave people stuck there,” Yuriy says. “We already knew our office-based teams, even our head office, were able to operate remotely because of the pandemic.” Operations were quickly moved online and staff were given support to flee where necessary.
Even as it became clear the war would not be over in a matter of weeks, Yuriy was determined that business must go on; not just to ensure a future for Metinvest, but to give people something to focus on during the most difficult time of their lives. “We knew we had to continue to operate,” he says. “The emotional side of war is so hard and constantly changing. There are moments of great optimism, but also of a feeling of disbelief. If you’re just sitting inside watching the coverage on TV, things can get very dark. It’s easy to feel demoralised. Having a practical task or something positive to do is important.”
‘Work’ has a very different meaning for Metinvest staff now as the business has shifted from being a vertically integrated mining and metals company to being an all-purpose response unit. How did they manage this transition, especially during a period of such intense disruption? “You have to remember, this war didn’t start in February,” Yuriy explains. “The first phase started in 2014, with the conflict in the Donbas. Our facilities were bombed then, too. We’d already been through the process of completely recalibrating our systems and rearranging our logistics once. Fortunately – or unfortunately – that meant we were well prepared for what’s happening today.”
One of Metinvest’s most important objectives is ensuring that the economy is able to survive ongoing conflict. “The best way we can support our country is to keep our enterprises functioning as much as is practical,” Yuriy says. “We can’t run our steel mills in Mariupol, but there are other places where we’re still able to operate and we will continue to do so.” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal have supported these moves to keep the economy going, which has reassured Yuriy that Metinvest is doing the right thing.
As well as keeping its own enterprises running, the company has worked with shareholders to set up humanitarian hubs in the most seriously affected parts of Ukraine. Teams of staff and volunteers are also sorting the endless stream of donations coming in from Europe and the rest of the world and packing them for delivery. “Between our people and the thousands of volunteers who’ve stepped up to help, we’ve been able to deliver tens of thousands of packages to the cities that need them the most. Everything is sorted in central hubs and then delivered, often by bike or on foot.”
The organisation is also supporting Ukrainian military efforts with both cash and special building projects. So far, it has provided the military with enough armoured plates for 10,000 bulletproof vests, with another 80,000 in preparation. It is also ready to supply the armed forces with as many as 50,000 Czech “hedgehogs” (anti-tank obstacles that can be used to hold off armoured attacks) and 3,000 tonnes of protective concrete blocks.
Metinvest has also purchased over $15 million worth of armoured cars and other military equipment. The hope is that, coupled with investments and arms supplies from allies such as the US and the UK, the contributions will strengthen Ukraine’s military capability and allow the army to continue defending civilians from increasingly large-scale and indiscriminate attacks. “The Russian military didn’t expect such high levels of resistance,” Yuriy says. “Now, they’re trying to intimidate civilians into standing down by attacking them. But this won’t work – if anything, it is galvanising people to continue to fight.”
Despite the relative smoothness with which Metinvest has been able to adjust operations, Yuriy does not want to downplay the difficulties he and his team are facing. He admits the hardest thing is accepting his own limits and “seeing my people, my staff – my extended family, if you will – facing the unimaginable horrors and inhumane suffering that no human being should ever have to face in the 21st century in the centre of Europe and not being able to help.”
Since the siege of Mariupol began in early March, he has lost contact with friends and colleagues. With no information, he doesn’t know where they are or if they are even alive: “We can restore the cities, rebuild the houses, but people, our people, our fellow Ukrainians, must stay alive! We need each other.”
‘Since the first days of war, I have been receiving messages from people I knew at LBS, asking me how they can help’
As the conflict continues, stories of Russian attacks on hospitals, civilians and other war crimes are emerging. Despite this, Yuriy still believes Ukraine will prevail. “Once the war is over, we are determined to rebuild the country. Already, we have confirmed with our shareholders that Metinvest will continue to support Ukraine on its path to victory. And, once we’ve won, we will redirect our attention to the restoration of the country and building its future.
“Resistance and resilience are the two words that come to mind as I think of the past two months. The enemy was foolish enough to believe it could take us in three days. We resisted and fought back with such resolve that it stirred the whole world to stand with us. But that was no surprise to me.
“We, at Metinvest, are made of steel, after all – one of the strongest and most resilient construction materials. Some 93% of Ukrainians believe we will prevail over Russia, according to the polls. With such unity and perseverance, the enemy doesn’t stand a chance.”
The war has also brought home some fundamental truths. “In many ways, war cuts straight to the truth,” Yuriy reveals. “Professionally, but also personally, we’ve seen who can be counted on, even in the darkest times. These people will be our partners, they will help us rebuild Ukraine.”
Hearing from former LBS classmates also means a lot to him. He says, “Since the first days of war, I’ve been receiving messages from people I knew at LBS, asking me how they can help, showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
“So, I want to send a message of gratitude, not only to the LBS community, but also to the people of the UK for standing with us, for opening your hearts and homes to Ukrainians. With partners like you, we won’t have to wait long for victory.”