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Expat on the Market: Interview with Daniel Bilak of Kinstellar

Expat on the Market: Interview with Daniel Bilak of Kinstellar

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Daniel Bilak is the former Managing Partner at CMS Kyiv, Chairman of UkraineInvest, and new Senior Counsel at Kinstellar, on his diverse background and fascinating career.

CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role.

Daniel: I’ve been in Ukraine for 30 years. It’s been fun – a wild ride, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

I’ve been in the Ukrainian government several times in advisory roles, advisor to two Prime Ministers, and Ministers of Justice. In September 2016, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman asked me to help him attract foreign direct investment to the country. As mayor, he had essentially turned Vinnytsia, a mid-sized city in central Ukraine, into the poster child of what a Ukrainian city in Europe should look like, and he wanted to replicate this on a national level. I agreed and in October 2016 we founded UkraineInvest as the government’s investment promotion agency and I was appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers as its first Director and the Prime Minister’s Chief Investment Advisor. It turned out to be one of those rare occasions in my life where I think I’m satisfied that I basically achieved what I set out to do. I had three key objectives: I told the Prime Minister that before we started targeting new investors, we had to fix the problems experienced by existing investors and to turn them into apostles to evangelize Ukraine to new investors. Next, we needed to improve the investment environment by making systemic changes to doing business in the country. Thirdly, I wanted to securely institutionalize UkraineInvest within the government, so that it would continue to perform effectively regardless of whether I was in charge or regardless of who was Prime Minister – it had to remain a professional and reliable service for all investors. While there are always things you’d like to do better, I think that over the last three years we basically achieved these objectives. I’m extremely proud of the young professional and dedicated team we put together. I told them they weren’t being hired for a job – they were on a mission. And they acted that way. Investors were very pleased with their efforts and results.

I left UkraineInvest at the beginning of March this year. I’m currently working with investors, helping them identify good-value investments projects in Ukraine and the CEE region. I’m also quite excited to have been recently appointed Senior Counsel at Kinstellar to advise and support the firm-wide management team on the further growth and development of their legal practice in CEE, Ukraine, and beyond. I’m an Emerging Markets guy – I love the challenge of connecting people who may not otherwise come together to create something interesting and of value.     

As for how I came to Ukraine in the first place, that’s an interesting story. I was born in Canada and grew up speaking Ukrainian. My father came to Canada after the Second World War, while my mother was born in Canada to Ukrainian immigrants. When Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, I was an associate at the Toronto law firm, Faskens. As a new nation, Ukraine wanted its own currency, the hryvnia, as an attribute of sovereignty. Just as I was preparing to travel to Ukraine for the first time to scope out opportunities, I read in the paper that the currency was to be printed in Canada by the Canadian Bank Note Company out of a CAD 50 million line of credit Canada had extended to the Ukrainian parliament. It turned out that the CBNC was a client of ours!  So, I called them up and I said “Look, I’m going over to Ukraine today, and I read this article, and if there’s anything I can do for you while I’m over there, let me know.” About 20 minutes later the CEO of the company called me, and I was retained! So, quite serendipitously, I got involved in the printing of the hryvnia, in Canada!

As this was a high-profile project, I got to know many people in Ukraine, and quite quickly I became more deeply engaged with the country. I helped start a legal foundation that George Soros ended up supporting. The Ukrainian head of our foundation then became Minister of Justice and asked me to come in as his principal advisor to implement the many obligations undertaken by Ukraine pursuant to its Terms of Accession to the Council of Europe. I essentially became his Chief of Staff. That was in 1994 and we had another stint in our respective roles in 2005-2007.

The career I’ve had, nobody could plan. As we say in Canada, I just had to “throw the canoe in the water and shoot the rapids.” It’s been a wild ride living the building of a nation!

CEELM: Was it always your goal to work in Ukraine?

Daniel: Let me tell you, had someone told me when I graduated from law school in 1986 that my career would largely be focused on Ukraine, I would have had that person committed to a funny farm. It was still the Soviet Union! Nobody expected even an association with the country, let alone a career! It was sort of out there. I got here on the ground floor through my profession, through the opportunity to facilitate the printing of Ukraine’s currency.

CEELM: How would clients describe your style?    

Daniel: You’d have to ask my clients! I think they would say – I’m recalling some client reviews – I’m a tenacious defender of a client’s interests. And I always try to be very commercial in my advice. When I was Managing Partner of CMS Cameron McKenna’s Ukraine office, I always told the lawyers that this market is full of good practitioners. That’s not enough to win clients. They will hire a lawyer that understands their business. What clients want from us is sound, practical, commercial advice that helps them mitigate the risks of doing business in an emerging market. You need to contextualize the advice you give. It sounds like a penetrating glimpse into the obvious, but, especially in the early days, a lot of Ukrainian lawyers thought lawyering was just about telling the clients what they couldn’t do under the law, which, of course, is insufficient. 

CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Canada?    

Daniel: Not really. I have older children in Canada, and up until two months ago [when the COVID-19 pandemic hit] I was a frequent traveler back to Canada. Now it’s not clear when we’ll be allowed to travel internationally again. But my wife and younger children are here. Emerging markets is what I do – I don’t know what I’d do if I went back.

CEELM: Outside of Ukraine, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?     

Daniel: It’s not in the region, but I really love London. I hope the post-COVID version is just as much fun.

In the region I find, frankly, all the countries fascinating. I am very partial to Bulgaria, because I ran a big project there in 2001-2003, after my first tour in the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice. I was sent to Bulgaria as a senior governance advisor under the auspices of the UNDP to do an anti-corruption report - these recommendations became part of the Justice and Home Affairs Chapter negotiations prior to Bulgaria’s joining the EU and ultimately resulted in the adoption of a new Bulgarian Administrative Procedure Code. I spent the better part of two years there and came to really appreciate the country and its people. The same would probably be true if I spent two years in Romania or other countries. I’m fascinated by all of the CEE countries!     

CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Kyiv? 

Daniel: It’s not really a “favorite” place, but I always take visitors to Independence Square – the Maidan. I have this walking tour of Kyiv that I do for visitors, and it always starts with the Maidan – because it is key to understanding Ukraine today. I show them where the encampment was and the bullet holes in the lamp posts where the snipers shot protesters in 2014. Then we walk 500 meters up the hill back to the XI century, to the St. Sophia Cathedral, built when Ukraine took Christianity from Constantinople and made its civilizational choice to be part of Europe.  Those two places, so close together, are historical bookends - they depict the Ukrainian people’s thousand-year quest for freedom and self-determination as part of the European family of nations. 

This is also part of the narrative about Ukraine I tell investors. Ukraine essentially began building the institutions of a democratic state from scratch in 2014, after the Maidan, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas. No country anywhere has done more in the past six years to transform its economy and society than Ukraine has. In fact, by 2019, investors were telling us that these reforms, and Ukraine’s deep integration into the EU economic architecture, had made Ukraine a stable and predictable emerging market with a solid investment story.

I’m convinced that Ukraine’s two key advantages – “brains and grains” – will be the drivers behind unique opportunities for Ukrainians in the new post-COVID regional and global economic order.

This Article was originally published in Issue 7.5 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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