Building a portfolio of businesses through constant reinvention
Zhanna Kryuchkova could be best described as a self-disruptor. She has founded an eclectic range of businesses over the past two decades, spanning car dealerships, consulting, construction, and most recently, the Russian-language arts and culture magazine Huxley media.
“Every 7-10 years, I ask myself if I’m motivated enough,” said Kryuchkova. “If I want to recharge my batteries, the best way I’ve found to do so is to start something new.”
Her first venture was ALMAZ Group, a holding company focused on car sales and servicing for international automotive brands in Ukraine, which she co-founded in 1998 having previously worked for Toyota. A decade later, she set up the consultancy Jansen Capital Management, which offers strategic consulting and talent management for clients across the CIS region. Then, in 2014, she became co-owner of Stikon construction company, and in 2019 she founded Huxley: an almanac dedicated to philosophy, business, arts and sciences.
While many people might be phased by starting again from scratch, Kryuchkova thrives on the challenge and the opportunity to bring a new perspective, as well as knowledge of what works in other sectors. “When you start in a new industry, you are always a beginner,” she said. “That’s quite challenging but it also leads to growth.”
Regardless of the industry in which she operates, Kryuchkova is always driven by the same principles. “Whatever you do, look after your reputation; don’t compromise on your values and principles even if it will lead to short term gain, because it will never work in the long term,” she said. “Looking back, I could probably have created more in this life, if I’d have enjoyed some opportunities that came my way, but I am glad that I didn’t because I am at peace with my inner self.”
A lucky break
Kryuchkova has a history of trusting her gut. After obtaining a degree in Spanish language and literature at Odesa State University, she took a job working for Japanese automaker Toyota, who had opened a subsidiary in Ukraine. One evening her bosses invited her to accompany them to the local casino. They gave her some chips and she played blackjack for the first time in her life. “I started getting more and more chips, I didn’t understand the value of them, I didn’t even know the value of one, I just kept playing for fun.” At the end of the night when she cashed in her winnings, she discovered she had won enough to buy her first car.
“If I had known how much I’d won already and started to overthink, that would have limited me, but I was blissfully ignorant and enjoying the process,” she recalled.
Her further professional life became connected to cars when together with the entrepreneur Olexey Shokh she co-founded ALMAZ group, and she credits her success to managing her energy and allowing herself to seize opportunities that come her way.
“If you are at a high level of energy, coincidences and miracles happen; you find the right ideas, you find the right people, you integrate all the resources. You can travel on a plane and meet the right person, and whatever seed you plant it flourishes.”
Even as war ravages her beloved home country, Kryuchkova embodies the fighting spirit displayed by many of her fellow Ukrainians.
The conflict is posing the biggest challenge to Ukrainian companies since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, with many firms struggling to export due to blocked ports. Nonetheless, Kryuchkova is heartened by the response of her peers in business, with many doing all they can to support the Ukrainian war effort even as they try to save their businesses from bankruptcy and keep paying staff. When Russian tanks first rolled across the border, Kryuchkova transferred a reserve of money held by her foundation that supports philosophers and artists straight to the Ukrainian army.
“The nation is very much united and doesn’t see itself as a victim. People would like to see Ukraine as a peacemaker on the global arena,” she said.
As a shareholder and board member at construction firm Stikon and a shareholder at ALMAZ group – both of which have lost around 70% of their revenues since the outbreak of the war – the current largest challenge is maintaining enough cash to keep operations running. “Most companies have cash buffers for 3-6 months. The war has now been going on for five months. We don’t know how long it will be. The main challenge right now is to make the business survive.”
Stikon is fortunate that it is still receiving income from previously sold apartments, where the owners pay in instalments over two to three years. It is also continuing around 20-30% of projects.
Kryuchkova, who is also the President of the IMD Alumni Club of Ukraine, is currently based in Barcelona: a city she moved to in autumn 2021 to get a taste of living abroad, but remains in regular contact with her various management teams in Odesa, Dnipro and Kyiv.
She is already considering how best she can contribute to rebuilding Ukraine once the war hopefully ends, with her next self-disruption possibly being a move into a government or public role.
“If some proposal comes and I think society will benefit out of it, I will take it, even if I can be quite comfortable with my current businesses,” she said. “Of course, my main contribution is being a good businesswoman, by providing my staff with self-actualization and income.”