INTERVIEW. Gary Burrows: There are many opportunities for foreign capital in Belarus

Northeast Europe's first commercial real estate forum took place in Minsk on 26-27 March. During the forum EuropaProperty awards were bestowed for accomplishments in real estate business. Dana Holdings, a major real estate developer of Belarus, was one of the active organizers and participants of the forum. BelTA asked Gary Burrows, head of the real estate and shopping malls division at Dana Holdings, to share his impressions of the event.

- Mr Burrows, did the forum meet your expectations?

- No doubt. The event went international. The forum gathered 150 companies: investors, developers, retailers, and other real estate market players from Northeast Europe as well as the UK, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Companies from Belarus certainly took an active part in the forum. The forum's operation was covered by the FTI magazine, which is a division of the UK newspaper Financial Times. The National Agency of Investment and Privatization of Belarus was one of the partners of the forum. As part of multiple reports and discussions held during the forum Belarus' investment opportunities and the country's appeal for making investments were in the spotlight. The event met immense interest on the Internet. UK representatives said they would love to come to the forum next year, too. The head of the Baltic council of shopping malls came to the forum. On behalf of the council's members he expressed desire to participate in the operation of the emerging Belarusian council of shopping malls. The forum was focused on attracting as many foreign investors to the Belarusian market as possible and we managed to do just that.

The most distinguished real estate market players were awarded during the forum. Dana Holdings snatched three awards at once.

We were recognized the best developer of the year, the best overall company of the year. We also received the award for the best concept and the design of the shopping and recreation complex Dana Mall. That's how the international panel of judges voted. The panel included prominent representatives of the industry from various countries. EBRD was recognized the best investor in Northeast Europe. I would also like to mention Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, and LC Waikiki, which is a new player on our market. Each of them as well as other companies were named winners in their nominations.

The awards we have received represent a great honor for Dana Holdings because we have won the votes of seasoned representatives of the real estate industry. During the forum I met with the colleagues that I used to work with in Prague and Warsaw. Many asked me how the Belarusian market was changing. What appeal does it hold? Judging by their activity it was obvious that Belarus evokes strong interest among retailers, developers, and other investors. I started working on developing markets 12 years ago in Prague. Later on I came to work in Poland, Croatia, so I have things to tell and to compare with.

We'd love to hear some.

The situation in the sphere of real estate in many Eastern Europe countries 10-12 years ago was roughly the way it is in Belarus at present. Now those countries are strong and structured markets. For now we encounter a number of difficulties in our work on the Belarusian market but we can manage.

The situation on the real estate market in Belarus in December 2014 January 2015 was complicated. But I've seen similar difficulties on markets of other countries, too. For instance, the situation was the same in Poland ten years ago. Back then the Polish economy rapidly shifted to other areas and the move helped it recover from the difficult situation. Belarus now has to combine all the forces and work diligently on overcoming the problems. However, despite the devaluation of the national currency we see that the real estate market is getting revived. We received 150 calls from potential home buyers every day in December-January. The number reached 200 in February and 300 in March. The same situation is evolving on the retail market. In October-November 2014 our partners spent money buying merchandise for Christmas sales and showed no interest in leased areas in retail outlets. Now the situation has changed. The other day we signed a contract with the large Russian company Yuterra on leasing 2,595m2 of premises in the Dana Mall complex, which is under construction. Interest in commercial real estate on the part of partners from Poland, the UK, Ukraine, and other countries has increased. Therefore, when asked about what future I can foretell for the Belarusian market, relying on results of our sales, I can say that we are in for great opportunities. And we are glad to grab them.

You have mentioned the difficulties you encounter in our country. Anything specific?

A lot was said about it during the forum. We discussed various ways to accelerate the development pace of the Belarusian market. The proposal to create as many special opportunities for investments as possible was high on the list of suggestions. I would like to draw attention to some construction regulations. Let's talk about the problem of getting a building accepted for exploitation. The investor may spend a lot of money, for instance, 150 million on the project. We build this building, the money is invested, but until we get the engineering certificate for it and the building is registered by the Technical Inventory Bureau, the asset has no legal status and we cannot sign a full-value contract with tenants specifying all the rights and liabilities. The hindrance increases the turnover time of invested capital and risks. In my opinion it scares away investors. Due to the same reason it is impossible to get international funds involved in investment. We are ready to discuss the problem at any level and look for a solution together with government agencies.

There are other aspects that need to be addressed. In my opinion it is necessary to put more efforts into promotion, for instance, by advertising Belarus on foreign markets. The world needs to know about Belarus. If we compare Minsk with capital cities where more than two million people live, those cities have special marketing programs to promote the cities and countries. You can see slogans Visit Paris, New York, London!' everywhere. Belarus doesn't do it for now. I believe that wise promotion of Belarus will bring not only investments for the economy but tourists, too. People will know about Belarus and will come here.

At present Dana Holdings pursues many lines of business in Belarus and they are not limited to retail, development, and residential construction. It is what the market demands. In Belarus there are many development opportunities for foreign capital. It is important to use them skillfully. In the end it will benefit the country.