A conversation on leadership with Daniel Kunin, Managing Director of Kusto Group

Daniel Kunin

Daniel Kunin discusses how his unique work experience has shaped his career, the challenges he faces in his role as a Managing Director of an international multi-sector organization and the bright future ahead for Kusto Group.

Kusto Group is a diverse multi-sector company based in Singapore with business initiatives around the globe. Operating in five sectors in ten countries across four continents, the organization, founded in 2002 by Yerkin Tatishev, employs over 8,000 individuals and has posted strong revenue growth, with over $1 billion in turnover in 2018. A key member of this rapidly expanding business is Kusto’s managing director, American Daniel Kunin.

Daniel Kunin’s Achievements Before Joining Kusto Group

Daniel Kunin’s unique background and perspective offer an interesting window into the leadership behind a successful expanding global operation.

For six years, Kunin served as a senior advisor to the Government of Georgia during the country’s transformation from a so-called failed state to a regional economic leader. During the structural overhaul of the country’s government, Kunin was part of a team of advisors who worked to strengthen the functionality of government institutions and finances.

Through a series of successful initiatives, the Georgian government dramatically reduced inefficiencies and created a new sense of ownership and respect for state agencies by rebuilding the institutions of government and making them more transparent and responsive to the needs of the people. These efforts enabled Georgia to become a leading example for the Caucuses region and beyond. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report 2007, Georgia’s accelerated reforms contributed to a spectacular jump of 75 places in one year.

Kunin reflects on his role during this time stating, “This period was intense and difficult, and I was very pleased to see Georgians owning and running their own country, which was the ultimate objective of our efforts. I was honored and privileged to take part and contribute together with an extraordinary group of people during this important period of reform.”

The Thrill of the Challenge

While for many it might seem like quite a leap for an American to be so integrally involved in the nation-building of another country, but for Kunin, whose mother served three terms as the Governor of Vermont and was at one time the United States Ambassador to Switzerland, the thrill of a challenge knows no geographic boundaries. Kunin thrives in challenging situations, whether in government or in his role at Kusto Group, which require a particular set of problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills.

“I enjoy the strategic planning and evaluation portion the most, wherein one needs to look beyond the everyday needs, rewards and challenges and instead, anticipate roadblocks, map the stakeholders, evaluate positions and craft a multi-step approach,” Kunin explains. “I enjoy pressure and time constraints and the stress of responsibility and decision making.”

The substantial growth Kusto Group has experienced in less than two decades has not been without growing pains, but Kunin relishes the high-pressure environment of his position.

“In general, the higher the stakes and the more pressure the better, as one can use these moments and the energy they create to find solutions that are not zero-sum, nor are they subject to game theory winner’s curse pitfalls. By focusing on fact gathering, scenario development, evaluation and measurement, we found that our chances of success were dramatically improved,” he added.

Kusto Group: Fostering a Culture of Innovation

As a managing director at Kusto Group, Kunin has helped lead the company during a particularly demanding time as they grow from a regional leader to a global champion across multiple industries. Started by a group of young Kazakh entrepreneurs, Kusto Group has expanded its portfolio to include assets and operations in oil and natural gas, modern agribusiness, construction and the manufacture of construction materials, and real estate.

On the outside, Kusto Group may seem to be a massive business operation but, according to Kunin, Kusto operates in a way that is unique for a company of its size. “The company is a flat organization that is extremely entrepreneurial,” said Kunin. “There are not a lot of typical hierarchical formalities that one usually sees in organizations of this size. Initiative is rewarded, taking responsibility is encouraged. Mistakes are not career ending and are seen as a necessary way to learn and grow and get better. This, in turn, fosters a culture of innovation.”

This innovation can be seen throughout the different verticals of the company’s operations. Kusto Group has developed and manufactures quality construction materials that help build sustainable infrastructure in emerging economies across Asia. The company’s agricultural operations rely on high-tech data analysisin their decision-making process, which increases yields and accelerates growth. The company has partnered with leading US firms to improve the quality of its beef breeding stock, elevating their product and the standard demanded of the regional industry.

Kusto Group’s Chairman Yerkin Tatishev signs a joint venture with US-based Valmont Industries to manufacture modern irrigation systems in Kazakhstan.
Kusto Group’s Chairman Yerkin Tatishev signs a joint venture with US-based Valmont Industries to manufacture modern irrigation systems in Kazakhstan.

Building a Better Future for All

In addition to this innovative spirit, the company also operates with a profound sense of purpose. Their work goes beyond the traditional considerations of delivering profitable returns.

According to Kunin, “Thinking about how a project affects local stakeholders such as a town or community is very important. At Kusto, there is a deep sense of ethical responsibility to all stakeholders that goes beyond the usual slogans. In our partnerships, the operating principle is to treat a partner as if they were a team-member of Kusto. This ethic pays huge dividends in the medium to long term.”

Kunin further elaborated speaking specifically about Kusto’s efforts to develop a modernized agricultural sector in Kazakhstan.

“The upcoming emphasis on building a sustainable protein export business and modern agricultural sector in Kazakhstan is a fascinating, supremely complex and interesting project,” Kunin explained. “By definition, it requires long-term thinking, strategic planning, intensive stakeholder mapping and understanding, and the creation of a network of inter-linked partnerships that are both joint ventures but also intensive public-private partnerships.”

An example of Kusto Group’s attempts to revolutionize agriculture in Kazakhstan is the recently signed joint venture with US-based Valmont Industries to manufacture advanced modern irrigation systems in Kazakhstan. This deal, backed by a $50 million investment, has the potential to transform the country’s agricultural sector. Currently, only 7% of Kazakhstan’s arable land is irrigated, and this land accounts for about 40% of the country’s total crop harvest. There is little doubt that modern irrigation systems will have a transformative effect on the country’s production capabilities.

This venture has numerous positive implications for Kusto Group, Kazakhstan and its people. Kunin continued saying, “It is a project where the winners can include local farmers in rural and under-developed regions – it can include city dwellers looking for affordable, local sources of food and meat, and it can benefit exporters and foreign clients whose demand is often met by subpar distant products that may or may not always be healthy. There are many others who stand to benefit in the complex web that is agribusiness. It is also sustainable as opposed to resource exploitation – which is a legitimate way to create wealth, but not terribly sustainable and not often equitable.”

Looking Ahead: The Future is Bright for Kusto Group

Kunin characterizes his efforts in both the public and private sectors as a continual work in progress. When asked what advice he would give to those who are interested in pursuing a career in international relations and business, Daniel Kunin’s answer is simple and straight to the point, “Trust yourself. Take risks. Seek out areas outside your zone of comfort. And try to learn a few foreign languages. And don’t be afraid to fail. Also, treasure your friendships.”

Kusto Group under the managing leadership of Kunin will be one to watch as they create an example of how innovation, entrepreneurship, smart risking taking and long-term investment can create an entirely new and profitable sector in a national economy.