Thomas Sillesen has been doing business in Ukraine since 2013. His story is one of perseverance, principles, justice, and loyalty.
Thomas Sillesen and his business BIIR recently won a landmark court case related to the ownership of a building in Odesa. Why “landmark”? Because this is Ukraine and courts here often rule in favour of influence rather than consider the merits of a case. In the BIIR real estate dispute, the facts were pretty simple: BIIR had, legally and above board, purchased a building to house their growing operations. Another group decided they wanted ownership of the property. The resulting legal wrangle took almost 12 months to decide, but finally the courts ruled in favour of the rightful owners – BIIR. A victory for justice and the rule of law, a victory, we could say, for Ukraine. But, Sillesen didn’t start out in Odesa, in fact. His story begins in 2013, in Luhansk.
Let the Games Begin
Sillesen first established the Ukrainian branch of his Danish-based engineering company BIIR in Luhansk in 2013. Working with international business on project development, mechanical and software design, product innovation, and so on, he recalls the decision between himself and two businesses partners to establish an office in Luhansk took all of ten seconds.
While on a search for computer programmers, Sillesen got in touch with a lady called Dinara via a business associate in Russia where he has been doing business since 1992. Dinara helped find the right staff for the project. “She is still our director,” he says, with a smile. The first hire after Dinara was a programmer: “Max also still works for us by the way,” he says. Next on the team was an engineer called Igor. Sillesen recalls the job offer, and again with a smile he says, “I shook hands with him, and he’s with us still too.” You get the idea…
“Being in Luhansk was an eye opener for me,” he says honestly about choosing the eastern city now under occupation. “As I had no knowledge of Ukraine, it made no difference where I would go. I really loved the city, everyone was nice to me and would speak out of curiosity to me.” While being a foreigner in Kyiv is not so strange, this 6” 4’ gentle giant from Denmark was something of a curiosity and rarity out in Luhansk.
After deciding that the team would be housed in the best office space in the city, BIIR decided to make sure the environment met the same standards as their Danish offices. “This includes tables that are adjustable in height, we had a strong desire to make a perfect office, so that everyone can see we treat everyone in our company equally, whether they’re in Denmark or in Ukraine,” Sillesen explains.
Of this perfect working environment, Sillesen says, “Sadly on 29 May 2014, we had to leave after Russian soldiers blocked Sovietskaya Street, broke into our offices, searched everything and threw two Molotov cocktails at the reception as they were leaving. Lucky enough it happened early in the morning before anyone had arrived at work.” Sillesen goes on to say it was at this time he managed to persuade Dinara and the rest of the team to relocate to Odesa: “They were reluctant to leave,” he says. “They loved living in Luhansk.”
From their new base, Dinara took trips around Ukraine to look at potential sites from which to start afresh. In typical Sillesen style he says, “We told the staff they could decide for themselves where they would call home – everyone had a vote, and in the end, the majority said they preferred Odesa. So this is how the Odesa story started,” Sillesen says calmly, in an amazing example of understatement.
Absolutely unperturbed by any of the challenges he has faced in Ukraine, BIIR now intends to expand their operations in Ukraine by growing his team to employ as many as 500 staff by 2020. And they will be successful. Not only does BIIR use their own employees, they do not engage any single-person consulting firms as subcontractors, ensuring the customer gets a high level of quality work that BIIR can handle. In addition, with engineers always on standby, the company can ensure a high level of flexibility when the customer needs extra resources dedicated to them.
From the first decision, to the leaps of faith that have been part of the journey, through to investing in his employees and moving the entire group to a new city due to the outbreak of war, Sillesen has now also had to stand up against the dysfunctional Ukrainian legal system. But he has taken it all in stride and come out victorious.