VivaCell’s Yerikian Discusses Karabakh Telecom, Expanding Market in Armenia

Ralph Yerikian can probably be called the best corporate citizen in Armenia. As General Manager of VivaCell, Armenia’s second telecom operation in Armenia, he has managed to make the company a household name and also through corporate contributions become one of the most visible entities in Armenia and Karabakh today.

Asbarez contributor Raffi Doudaklian forwarded this interview with Yerkian.

Raffi Doudaklian: You are the general manager of two companies: Karabakh Telecom and VivaCell-MTS., one operating in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the other in Armenia. What is the relationship between these two companies and how do you manage this double responsibility?

Ralph Yerikian: Both operations are totally and legally independent from each other. Karabakh Telecom is licensed to offer telecommunication services only over the territories of Artsakh, while VivaCell-MTS is licensed to offer mobile telecommunication services only over the territories of Armenia. Subscribers of both operations could only roam when found under the radio coverage of the other network. On the other hand, Mr. Pierre Fattouch is the investor and the sole shareholder of Karabakh Telecom, while at the start up of the telecommunication business in Armenia under the brand name VivaCell at that time, the Fattouch family group were the 100 percent shareholders of the company, but later in September 2007, 80 percent of the shares were sold to MTS group and Fattouch group retained 20 percent of the shares.

Managing both operations is pretty hard; however, it is a matter of time-management, and being able to be present in all the places and to have the reliable people to take of the operation during the absence of the general manager. Yet, the considerable time is spent on the Armenia operation which in dimensions and magnitudes by far larger than the Artsakh operation.

R.D.: We watch (on TV) and read about Viva Cell MTS sponsor cultural and sports activities and events, renovate school, roads, libraries, kindergartens, fund tree planting and festivals. We know that this is part of your Corporate Social Responsibility policy. How do you define that, what does it mean in general and what it means for you specially, as the GM of one of the most vibrant and successful companies in Armenia.

R.Y.: VivaCell-MTS is a corporate citizen feeling the responsibility of its role in our society. However, feeling, living and inter-acting with society is all about believing in Armenia the homeland, believing in being a proud Armenian and part of this great nation with its legacies and rich history which is embedded with diverse socio-cultural colors all being summed up at the foothold of the cross-stones.

It is not enough to be an active economic-legal entity working in the Armenian economy and generating revenues to please shareholders. On the contrary, working in an economy and being successful only means that such a company has been accepted by society, has been accepted by the public, by the people, by the citizens. As such, a responsible and healthy thinking corporate citizen (a company) should always reflect back on society and always be thankful to society for being the direct reason behind the success of the operation, and should reward society by returning back some of the amounts that came out of the pockets of the people to settle invoices and ended up in the corporate citizen’s cash collection points or bank accounts.

Returning back the amounts is done by supporting and allocating funds to programs that solve numerous issues today’s Armenian society is experiencing, and that should be done without conditions and without expectations. Giving is the art of believing in the well being of our people and the development of our nation. Actually, this should be the role of each and every capable company working in Armenia and generating a considerable amount of revenues.

R.D.: Before moving to Yerevan, you were in Stepanakert with your wife and children. How did you end up in Nagorno-Karabakh, what did you do and what were the challenges you faced both as a professional and as a family man?

R.Y.: It was sometimes in August 2001 when the management of the company I used to work for requested me to travel to Karabakh to support a colleague in setting-up a telecommunication operations. It was the start of Karabakh Telecom. At the beginning it was a 40 days journey after which I have returned back to Lebanon end of September 2001. Later end of October 2001 I was requested to return back to Karabakh for a 6 months period to handle the launch of the operation in collaboration with other colleagues. I conditioned my departure with having the family accompanying me. The request was accepted and it was a common family decision when I discussed the matter with my wife Armig. 2 weeks later we were already in Stepanakert, yet we were to discover how hard it was when our daughter Sarine (17 months) felt sick and we couldn’t feel confident about the healthcare system, and we were worried about her well being, and we learned that we should have had different types of medicines with us. In short, I was working more than 18 hours a day at the start, seeing less of the family, Sarine growing up and the wife more than patient to support me achieve what we came for, knowing that 6 months would be over soon.
The 6 months were over and they rolled to become 12 months and thereafter 18 months, and today it has been more than 7 years.

One of the most professional challenges was to immediately and quickly integrate and understand the people around you. To succeed, you need to understand the mentalities, the ways of thinking, the traditions, the legends, and most important the culture and the specific history of the land and the peculiarities of the people, and on top of that to revere and respect every single aspect of it. I managed that because I felt Armenian throughout the way.

R.D.: Azerbaijan is opposed to all companies doing business in Nagorno-Karabakh. What was Baku’s reaction when your company entered Nagorno-Karabakh? Did you face political and other problems?

R.Y.: It was very difficult. I could summarize without going into details that we have been fought on all levels, such as: lobbying network vendors not to sell and deliver network equipment to Artsakh (they failed with some and succeeded with others; lobbying to discontinue our membership at the GSM Association where after a long fight their diplomacy managed to suspend and discontinue our membership; contacting roaming partner operators to terminate their agreemen’s with us and they succeeded with some and failed with others; jamming our satellite frequencies to isolate us from having our link with the international world; and many other examples. It was quite hard, but we had the will and the strength to continue and we did endure as such.

R.D.: You live and work in Armenia now. You came as the leader of the second mobile operator entering Armenia. What was your biggest challenge and difficulty, both as a manager and as a father moving to a new city?

R.Y.: The most difficult was to maintain a balance between the professional life and the family life, and here I have to acknowledge that I have failed to maintain this equilibrium, as most of my tie was and still is dedicate to my work and to the company that has become the “talk of town” and a “success story” in Armenia. I have also to acknowledge that being focused on my professional life was thanks to a wise and patient person’s support who is the reason behind being able to manage 2 operations and at the same time return home late in the evening and see the smiley faces of Sarine and Nareg: it’s my wife Armig who has always and continuously supported me though sometimes deep down she was feeling lonely as I was always away at work and when I’m physically with the family my mind would be drifted away thinking about work.

R.D.: You are a Diaspora Armenian. You have lived and worked abroad and in Armenia. You have seen the best and the worst of both places. What is Armenia for you? Where are you in between these two?

R.Y.: I consider myself lucky to have lived and still living the present times of our homeland that is now experiencing a renaissance in all aspects, and that I have whether directly or indirectly contributed or still contributing to the development of our homeland economically via the telecommunication business roll-out and its inert-action with sub-sectors in the economy, and socio-economically via the corporate social responsibility programs; thus believing and striving to a better future to Armenia.

R.D.: What would your advice be to Diaspora Armenia’s?

R.Y.: The homeland needs the efforts, the creativity and the skills of each and every one of us. Irrespective of the educational and the cultural differences, whether a Lebanese Armenian or an American Armenian or a French Armenian or any other Armenian, we are all Armenia’s, and we have to learn how to mould this rich diversity to the best interest of our nation and our homeland, as we all need each other and we need to be together, and it is not by only criticizing that we could build and re-construct and develop a nation. The bottom line is, if we believe that we are the sons and daughters of our ancestors, the continuation of the cross-stone nation, then we have to forget about the differences and variations, and look into them from an optimistic perspective to group all these diverse richness to better serve our nation.


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