Ministers Reflect | Ketevan Bochorishvili (MESD 2012-2017)
Ministers Reflect is a new interview series on “how to be effective in government”, following a model developed by the Institute for Government in London. The series seeks to capture – in former ministers’ own words – what it takes to be an effective government minister, what challenges they face, and what broader lessons their experiences may hold. The interview was conducted on 22 March 2021, by Hans Gutbrod, Irakli Asanishvili and Nino Gabelashvili, all at Ilia State University. Guga Chomakhidze, and Nikoloz Dzneladze contributed to preparation and editing.
Today’s Guest: Ketevan Bochorishvili was a Deputy Minister of Economy from 2012 to 2017. Prior to assuming this role, she led Invest in Georgia/National Investment Agency (2010-2012), now known as Enterprise Georgia, and also worked for the Millenium Challenge Corporation Georgia. Ms Bochorishvili holds a Master’s Degree in International Public Management from SDA Bocconi (Milan, Italy), previously studied at the Georgian Technical University, and is on LinkedIn.
Thinking back to when you first started, how did you find your way into government? And what was the experience like?
Ketevan Bochorishvili: My way into becoming a Deputy Minister was through working on investment promotion. I had done my master’s degree in Italy, at Bocconi University, and had started my first internship at a management consulting firm in Rome. As a recent graduate, I had gone through the challenge of finding an internship that would lead to a job and had settled in Rome, which was a great place to be, it was beautiful. Then the opportunity arose to work at the Millennium Challenge Corporation [an American development donor], and it was hard to leave my Italian life. That said, returning was also tempting. All this was in 2008 when all the reforms were happening in Georgia, and the country was growing enormously. I think that was when we had double-digit growth — just before the conflict started with Russia.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation was one of the best workplaces, a big fund that was developing infrastructure and supporting enterprises. I joined the team, for which the supervisory board was the Government of Georgia. Through my work at Millennium Challenge, I met government officials at the commencement of the construction of a road, at different signing ceremonies, or working meetings. At that point, we also had financed several projects through the enterprise part of our fund, such as hotels or food processing. We worked closely with government officials. Many processes were challenging because the country was young, and to manage around 400m USD was not an easy task by that time at all.
At one point, I received a direct message from the Minister of Economy, at that time Vera Kobalia. She asked me to share my CV, and then asked me to come to meet. I had met her previously maybe one or two times. I came to her office, and then she told me that I have been observing you, I have a job opening as the head of the investment agency at the Ministry of Economy, I want you to take this position.
For me, it was totally unexpected. I liked her approach. She was so fast, direct, and sure about her decision that I realized that I would not have two weeks to consider. Either I take this job, or this opportunity will be gone. I thought, let me try working in the public sector, I wanted to try myself in new things, new directions. I joined even though I also had another opportunity coming up in Italy, at an international organization. But Italy never came to my mind after the first day of work at my new job at Georgian National Investment Agency. From then, it was mainly long hours at the office, with time flying past. Once, while in the office, I suddenly realized it is New Year’s, because there were fireworks outside. The job was very intense but very interesting.
We had to dig down deep to understand the structure, strategy, and what we should be doing to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). The substance of this you don’t learn in the university, or anywhere I had been. It needed much more creativity and thinking out of the box. I joined the agency at the beginning of December 2010, and by mid-January 2011, together with my staff — I didn’t bring new staff at the beginning, it was all the same people — we had ourselves created a strategy, a detailed action plan with a timeline and key performance indicators (KPIs), and were set to make it work.
What was the transition from running the Investment Agency to becoming a Deputy Minister? How did that work?
KB: The story of how I became a Deputy Minister connects directly to the biggest challenge of Georgia. When we thought about attracting FDI, we realized we needed to illustrate what Georgia can already do and what products we have that can be exported. The market is too small for investors to come only to supply Georgia. In that context, I was tasked to organize a big ‘Made in Georgia’ exhibition.
I approached GIZ [the German Technical Cooperation Agency, also known by its older abbreviation, GTZ]. I asked them to support me with consultants to create the concept because I wanted to do a sustainable event, with impact, exact targets, KPIs, and results, not just a one-off. The GIZ consultants came back after a month and told me “Keti, there is no way you can do this ‘Made in Georgia’ exhibition.” I was very disappointed. I felt there is no way I could go to my leadership and tell them that I cannot organize this exhibition. But they were right.
I remember my colleagues telling me “Keti, let’s go to the supermarket.” We went to the supermarket to check the products, but unfortunately, there was a very limited selection of Georgian products on the shelves. What were we going to exhibit if there are no products? Most people did not realize that the reason we did not have export is that there are no products to sell. We understood that we needed to support the production in Georgia, too.
Together with my colleagues, we did a lot of benchmarking analyses on how different countries became successful. We analyzed the Estonian model, as well Singapore, Ireland, and many others. We identified countries that are similar in size to Georgia, roughly, and that didn’t have resources like oil and gas. We analyzed what tools they had used, how they increased exports, what they had done in order to attract the FDI, and much more. Based on these studies, we created the concept of Enterprise Georgia, which included several directions: FDI attraction, export development and promotion, and overall support for the Georgian businesses on all levels. With all this, the task had grown beyond attracting FDI and my increased portfolio led me to being nominated as a Deputy Minister of Economy.
Once you became Deputy Minister, what were some of the practical steps? How did you approach your work, perhaps going back to what happened with the “Made in Georgia” event?
KB: The key was to identify a good focus, and the ‘Made in Georgia’ event illustrates this, too. After we decided that a general ‘Made in Georgia’ will not work, the GIZ consultant advised us to concentrate on beverages because we already had products available in this sector in Georgia. We divided this sector into two parts: alcohol and non-alcohol, so wine, beer, hard liquor on the one hand, and then juices, mineral water, and still water on the other. That concept was approved. To make it more functional, we decided to bring buyers and for the alcohol industry to concentrate on entering the Chinese market. By that time, we had zero exports to China. During the year we worked on this strategy, and the most important was to participate in the International Hong Kong Spirits and Wines Competition, and that was the first time when Georgia won the Grand Prix in red wines.
That main prize was exactly what we needed: one year of free marketing in Hong Kong, in different wine and beverages journals. Buyers and experts became very interested in Georgian wines. We managed to bring up to 80 buyers to Georgia where we organized the first beverage exhibition under the concept ‘Made in Georgia’. After the exhibition, a first $1 million contract was signed, and that was the first shipment that we did, from Georgia to China. Within several years, China became one of the top five export destinations for Georgian wine.
More broadly, once you were Deputy Minister, what would you say were your big priorities, also beyond wine?
KB: To bring investments, or to export, the country needs to have a positive image. We needed to create a story so that people will start looking at Georgia. We had to be creative for that. Selling the wine, for example, was not just for the revenue, but it also promoted the country, including for tourism.
While we were working on the export of wines, we needed a good story. We started doing research and my colleagues came across the lady at the National Museum of Georgia who said that they had old grape seeds which suggest that people in Georgia were making wine 8000 years ago. But we couldn’t rely on that story unless we could prove it scientifically. I communicated with the leadership and funds were allocated to the museum to support this initiative.
For some people, our culture is primarily about heritage. For me, it is also one of the best ways of marketing the country. It helps everywhere, even with investors. With the story of inventing wine you also got attention on all the reforms, and then I would talk about fashion, it’s a creative country, with a National Opera, great ballet, a very vibrant, active theatre.
It’s this combination that attracts people, the story of an ancient country with cultural traditions, which is diverse and unique. In a decade or two you can develop the economy, we see that some places have done that well, but you cannot create such a culture in a few decades, so that is very valuable and something we need to capitalize on and build a story around. We can bring some of that value to the world.
You mentioned that on New Year’s you found yourself in the office. What was the day-to-day of your work as a deputy minister? What is that reality? And what are maybe things that people don’t entirely understand, when they look at it from the outside?
KB: Everybody believes it is beautiful and nice. I would go promote fashion and everybody would think that I just like to dress well. Yes, I like to dress well, but promoting fashion is primarily a lot of work. If I was promoting ‘Film in Georgia’, many might think that I want to meet Brad Pitt. It would have been wonderful to meet him as I always wanted to bring him to Georgia to promote our country. But it’s really a lot of hard work for each project.
During the day I would have around 10 to 15 meetings. These meetings were sometimes until 10 PM or even later. Then I forced myself to answer all the emails I had received during the day because if I wait two or three days, my mailbox would have been overloaded. I also needed to read reports on which team members needed feedback. Doing that work, you end up sitting at the office until maybe 2- 3 AM, and the next morning you are back at 9 AM sharp, because there is no other way.
My most peaceful place was the airplane because that was the only time when my phone was not ringing. I would have all emails downloaded and would respond calmly. I remember, I was flying from Singapore to Turkey. I set an alarm because I had to work and was afraid to fall asleep. A guy sitting next to me was very surprised. He said he had never seen anyone set an alarm to wake up on a long distance flight, it’s already hard enough to fell asleep.
‘Film in Georgia’, talking with producers and location managers was one of the toughest jobs. Some people think it is glamour, you go to Hollywood, you get to see LA. I remember I went to Hollywood to attract filmmakers. We had a lot of meetings during the week. I only had Friday late evening free and was looking forward to exploring the city, but I was so tired that I collapsed and woke up on Saturday morning just before I had to leave for the airport. That was my reality.
But to tell the truth, we were so excited and not only me, the whole team, we were so involved that we often just slept four hours, and it was enough to get our energy back. That lasted almost seven years, not just for the first five months.
That is a very long stretch in government, especially in Georgia. What would you consider the biggest achievement of your time in office?
KB: There were many projects where we made great progress, but perhaps rather than a single project, the main achievement was our overall approach. The team at the Enterprise Agency and the Ministry of Economy was motivated to create something sustainable. We understood that we were spending our citizens’ money, and to us, it was very important to spend it carefully and responsibly.
Being detail-oriented helped us to run all these projects. We would go through all the processes, when do we tell who about our plans, and how, what are the next steps to make sure that everything is ready when we roll out a project. We were also setting up selection processes so there is minimal intervention from the government side.
Controlling costs was crucial for me. Going through all the details helped to make our projects sustainable. I would always check the administrative cost against the money that we were spending on projects. Our overhead cost was very low because we would find alternative ways to implement. Most of the money went directly to projects and programs, to create impact. With promotion, marketing and supporting instruments, you can spend quite a bit of money, and especially at the beginning you get a lot of negative comments, and a lot of skepticism.
Our approach with personnel was also to focus on targets and efficiency. To add one new person in the agency, we had to justify it, and justify what the current 20 employees are doing already. You can easily believe that you need all these people, but more staff can quickly create additional bureaucracy and inefficiency. We wanted to make sure that we spend state money efficiently.
But if I go back to successes: I do think creating and implementing the programs such as ‘Produce in Georgia’, ‘Host in Georgia’, ‘Film in Georgia’, supporting the small enterprises with micro grants, diversifying export, development of tourism and attracting the FDI (which reached a particular high during 2011-2018), promoting Georgian fashion designers and also overall positive awareness of the country, those were the areas I have been contributing to, across these years.
The Ministry of Economy is the main policy counterpart for the private sector, as you just described. How did you interact with the private sector and with companies?
KB: I had the policy to meet everyone, literally everyone, because you cannot isolate yourself sitting in the office. If you do not solve issues, the business sector is in trouble. If you want to gain trust and if you want to help, you must listen to each company. I would say that Enterprise Georgia and my role at the Ministry of Economy was personalized services for businesspeople. The big companies, they could call the Prime Minister or Ministers directly, but then there are many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that do not have such access, and we wanted to be there for them.
It was not just solving problems. For our strategy, it was important to talk extensively to the private sector. I asked my colleagues to visit each factory in Georgia, and I would remind them that we don’t know what the private sector needs are unless they share their challenges, what things should be done, their potential, and partnership opportunities.
Every colleague had a portfolio of sectors. Our main question to the businesses was “how can we help you to increase your revenues by at least 30% in next two years?” If two or more companies would share a similar problem, that means that there may be a policy issue. We would study the issue and prepare the case to change this regulation to make sure that we will solve the issue not individually, but for everyone.
Before we created Enterprise Georgia and the ‘Produce in Georgia’ project, we probably interviewed 400 businesses. In each sector, we would meet at least ten players because we did not want any strategy to be to be driven by any single company, it has to be driven by the sector.
Local companies can also help to bring international investment, especially if these local companies have done the initial work. Once local companies are established, you can attract companies from abroad to partner with them. One example is the apparel sector, at the initial stage we encouraged international brands to outsource some of their work to Georgian companies. That was a quick win as the local production factories were able to do that work, and if you check the data now you will see a huge increase in export over the recent years. This was only possible because there were local companies as partners, in the first place.
There are multiple angles of working with the private sector. It is important to have the different tools ready to support the sectors in the right way, and you can only develop the right instruments if you constantly talk to the private sector.
A lot of the work in the Ministry of Economy is cross-cutting. How did you interact with other government agencies?
KB: You must work with all your counterparts to make sure that they understand what you are doing. That is one of the main success factors. Everywhere, you make sure that everyone alongside you understands the process and feels part of it. Otherwise, it’s easy to stop a project, or not to finance or not implement the project. That means you spend a lot of time communicating with other ministries, members of the parliament, other stakeholders, to make sure that they are aware and feel ownership of the project.
Starting from the idea, I would start communicating the project and details to everyone and would take into consideration all feedback before I would present finally. The initial communication with all the stakeholders, receiving their feedback and addressing their concerns, helped me to implement those projects at the later stage. That was time consuming, of course, but it was very important. One indicator that this was the right approach is that all the projects that the agency or me presented were approved — and immediately implemented.
With regards to the economy, Georgia collaborates with many countries and many institutions. How did you interact with the international partners? And how are they support? Or can also they be a distraction?
KB: If you are strategic at working with them, they are a huge support. The reality is that our resources were limited, both human and financial, but as a team, we had amazing ideas. For that reason, we would work with all the international organizations. With GIZ, it sometimes felt like they were literally sitting in our office. We also worked very closely with EBRD, ADB, USAID, the World Bank, and several other agencies. It often felt like we were one team. From one embassy, the head of their economic team once came to me and joked “Keti, I’m forgetting – are you my boss, or is it the ambassador?” [laughs]
I knew that these international partners can take their time, and sometimes you need results quickly. We could do the quick wins with our own budget, but at the same time I started building the relationship and putting the seeds of some ideas with donors, which came back to us a bit later. With ‘Produce in Georgia’, for example, we presented the idea and it turned out that EBRD has an amazing facility for SME sector development, which could provide technical assistance. The idea was to integrate, and to have a multiplier effect, to join the efforts.
Bringing donors on board can also have an internal function. If EBRD or ADB supports a project, or a GIZ consultant gives a positive review, that gives you more strength to convince everyone that this project is good.
We were often trying to leverage our own funding. If I had some money from the government, I was trying to use this money and bring international donors into this project. Donors have all these resources, and they need a partner for them. If you do not let them know what your priorities are, they will come up with their own priorities, which might not be aligned with what you want to do. It is not only money, they bring international experience, know-how, and corporate governance. Working together you can really have projects on a much larger scale and bring bigger value. I looked at them as my main partners and was working very closely with donors or international organizations.
In 2019, parts of the blockbuster Fast and Furious franchise were filmed in Tbilisi and Rustavi, an extraordinary spectacle with helicopters flying over Freedom Square. What were some of the origins of bringing Hollywood productions to Georgia?
KB: One factor for success was having the right partner from the beginning. The US Embassy in Tbilisi helped to make put this project on track. They brought the Vice President of Disney [Mary Ann Hughes], which was a huge contribution to the success of this project. ‘Film in Georgia’ got off the ground because she told us how the industry works, and then helped to organize our roadshow. It saved us probably three to five years because the first time we arrived in Hollywood, she introduced us to everyone, people from Disney, all the companies that are under Disney, and companies like Universal, HBO, and so on.
Once I presented what ‘Film in Georgia’ was, what instruments we are providing, everybody understood that we knew what they need. Again, that was because this amazing lady, the Vice President from Disney, had reviewed our project and given detailed constructive feedback. That gave us the confidence, and people were respectful, it was “Look, you guys, you know what you’re talking about.” Without this cooperation, ‘Film in Georgia’ might well have taken another six years to bring Hollywood into our country. Instead, after it was properly launched, it took us less than two years to bring Fast and Furious filming to our country. The right partnership was essential for having that impact.
That partially covers something we were about to ask. What might be your advice to incoming ministers and deputy ministers?
KB: You don’t have time! Governments change, people change. You must drive projects ahead quickly. You should try to utilize this time at a maximum level and deliver results. There is another part to this: there was a lot of change with the ministers, and I would go to them and lay down all existing projects, new projects coming in, and all the potential projects. I didn’t know any of the new ministers well before they came in. It was the project and ideas that helped to keep me in the ministry.
What would be one of your insights from working with so many different ministers? What helped you to stay on? Is the idea to just focus on your portfolio and drive that forward, or is there anything else that comes to mind?
KB: Staying in your position on the one hand depends on the skills, experience, or results that you have achieved, and the ongoing projects. On the other hand, staying in your position also depends on luck. I was lucky that I was hired based on my skills at the initial stage. And secondly, I was very lucky when the government changed, and the new minister [Giorgi Kvirikashvili] kept me in my position because of the projects and ideas that we had. While it is very important to be proactive and to create successful programs, you can only have an impact if you have supportive leadership that also objectively evaluates your skills.
I always considered myself a technocrat, not a politician. There were many other excellent vice ministers, heads of departments even, that could have stayed in the government as they were doing a great job. That could have been a key success story of that changeover in 2012/2013 to keep those bright people in the government, and that was a missed opportunity.
You said that one of the things that kept you running with little sleep was energy and enthusiasm. After that marathon of seven years, how do things look in retrospect, when looking back?
KB: Looking back, of course, I am grateful for my experience. I see the success stories and I am super happy when I discover their impact. Last year I did horse trips, village to village, in Georgia, and I would end up being in small guesthouses, run by locals. I found that most started their guesthouses because of the Micro-Enterprise project, which we created back in 2015. They did not know who I was, I was with a group of friends. The people running the guesthouse would say, “there was this ‘Produce in Georgia Micro Grants Program’, they were giving these grants and education, and so we started.”
My friends were proud, I was proud, I literally wanted to cry. As with everything, there are minuses and pluses, but with this, you see a huge impact for that family in that region. When we proposed the project, we were criticized — what could you do with 5000 GEL? — but it turns out that you can do a lot of things in the regions, and it’s not just about money. It’s about giving them the skills, how to start and run the business, that’s the most valuable part, but if you don’t add the grant money, it’s hard to mobilize and get them engaged.
While you are inside, it is important to keep a balance. A lot of things are very time-consuming, on a micro level. But you also must zoom out and try to do a major reform. You want to have created something that drives huge changes in the country, a few years down the line. With the daily routine, we are pulled so much into details that one can forget what’s the vision, what’s the big picture of the country? What is a major thing you can do? I always tell that to people coming into government, “look, you’re not going be there too long. Do something that will be associated with your name. People will remember you for that.”
We miss that type of reform. We miss those kinds of big projects in Georgia now. Of course, the details matter for success, but we need to bring upside-down our country, in a good way — the education sector comes to my mind. We are trying to change small issues, but they do not address the big picture. Fixing small holes does not give you the solution even in the short term. You must have the courage to do reforms that drive change in Georgia. Unfortunately, we lack this, at this point. I just wish everyone would think and use their time efficiently for big, big, big ideas.
Investing into developing transformative ideas — that’s a great note to end on. Thank you very much.
KB: Thank you, thank you very much.