This item is dedicated to all those expatriate pioneers who, like me, set up an office in Kazakhstan in the early 1990s. Welcome to yet another “stroll down memory lane.”
Furnishing a modern law office in Almaty in 1993 was a daunting task. Most of the furniture I saw in government and business offices I visited consisted of what might be called cheap Army-surplus, i.e., very disposable varnished desks and chairs made out of light wood and thin plywood. Maybe there had been some shops in Almaty that previously handled a better quality of office furniture but we couldn’t find them. No member of my staff had any prior experience of furnishing an office but they were resourceful. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead me to any prize finds.
Our landlord was willing to provide us with some of the standard local chairs and desks, and we gladly accepted the offer, but I was constantly on the alert for some way to improve our situation.
It was a great relief when I learned from our Frankfurt office that we could purchase the used furniture of a brokerage company that was about to transfer its business to London. I made a quick trip to view the stuff and immediately agreed to the purchase. The office furnishings obviously had been very expensive when new; were sturdy and functional; and the whole kit was available at a vastly knocked down price. There was far more stuff than we needed but it was a case of “all or nothing.” “All” sounded pretty good.
The hoard included something like 10 full-size steel desks (drawer units on both sides), with accompanying padded swivel, reclining arm chairs. Then there were quite a few tables, all of a metallic composition, plus a few smaller items that were suitable for use as dedicated computer tables. There were numerous upright clothing cupboards (one of which still survives in my apartment in Almaty) plus some storage cupboards. The only lacking item was a grand table for the conference room, but I could see that we could finesse that problem by joining two of the metal table together, which we did.
Payment was made through the Frankfurt office with the result that I have no record to refresh my recollection of how much we paid for this windfall, this total solution to our need for modern furniture.
What I do remember is that it cost more to transport the furniture from Frankfurt to Almaty than to purchase it.
Transport was naturally a potential problem. Did anyone in the Frankfurt area know how to send a truck-load of goods to Almaty? Well, yes, there was such a company, and people in our Frankfurt office discovered them through contacts with the German government. Turns out that the Bayer-Bayer moving company had already made the trip, taking office furniture and perhaps apartment ffurnishings to Almaty on behalf of the new German Embassy in Almaty.
Having agreed to buy the office furniture, I made a speedy trip to Frankfurt’s IKEA to buy some apartment furniture that could occupy spare space in the Bayer-Bayer truck. In a matter of half an hour or so I ordered 2 single beds and mattresses, 2 side tables with 2 lamps, 2 small sofas, a folding table with 4 chairs, a low reading/magazine table and a large cupboard for the kitchen.
A few days later I was back in Almaty where we tried to run a law practice while preparing for the arrival of the new furniture. This entailed denuding the office of all possible furniture.
On December 16, 1993, in the midst of a snow storm in Russia and northern Kazakhstan the truck with our goods arrived. Thankfully, the storm lifted by the time the truck appeared. The Russian-speaking Polish driver had all the instructions he needed to find us, and he had already organized a local crew to assist with the unloading and delivery. He had a gun-toting partner. Neither of them looked very good. They had been on the road for more than two weeks and slept in the truck.
I figured they had been well paid but was going to offer a tip on the order of $200 for a job well done plus a treat of a good meal. Unfortunately, I was upstairs in the office directing the final placement of the desks when the driver and his partner unceremoniously took off for home. I imagined then that they were most anxious to get back to Poland for the Christmas and New Year period.
The local helpers were a motley group of men. More rheumy workers I had never seen before, nor since other than the time a couple of years later when we relocated our office. They had been picked up on Furmanov Street which served as an informal labor exchange for day laborers. For block after block of the street, men gathered in small groups, probably trying to limit their numbers in a group to avoid intimidating anyone who stopped to propose a day’s work for them. Our group showed the outward signs of being alcoholics or druggies. It was very cold but they shed clothes and perspired a lot. They certainly worked hard and earned whatever the driver paid them.
Our office was two flights up at the far end of the building from where the workers had to enter while stooping through a very low doorway. There was no elevator so they hauled everything up two flights of stairs. Inside, our space was inadequate and many of the desks had to be stacked three high until we obtained access to a couple of more rooms.
We eventually moved to another building. We had added more lawyers and supporting staff, and were bursting at the seams once again. Our driver recruited the laborers from Furmanova Street, which was still the place to go to find a worker for the day. We had accumulated even more furniture, including lots of chairs and a fancier table for our conference room. Down the things went for two flights, along the tunnel and through the low-cut doorway to the van in the street. There was a short drive to Furmanov Street to the building behind the “Eiffel Tower”, where everything went up two floors and down the hallway. Big day of moving!
We had so much furniture that some of it went into storage in a garage on the edge of town.
When we later merged our office with another law firm, much of the furniture was disposed on, including a few desks given as part fee payment to our external accountant. Still, some items were taken on by the newly combined office and continued in service until early 2013 when the Almaty office of SNR Dentons was merged into the office of the Salans law firm, which was newly named Dentons.
Other pioneers probably had experiences somewhat similar to mine though I doubt many imported a whole truckload of furniture. Some firms went into the Italian Business Center, that building across the street from Hotel Kazakhstan. To me it was a somewhat foreboding structure but it had the convenience of the very nice Italian Restaurant inside the building and it had close proximity to both Hotel Kazakhstan and the Dostyk Hotel. I recall that Glencore had an office there. (A short-lived local independent TV station, TeleMax, had its studio there as well.)
Someone recognized the plight of foreigners seeking suitable office space, and came up with the solution of converting a few new apartment buildings into a kind of enclave for foreign businesses. The cluster was out there on Abai Avenue near Rozybakiav Street, rather far away from what might be regarded as the center of Almaty. Of course, businesses and government offices were so scattered around Almaty that any visit to another place almost always required a car trip.
Many of the oil companies started with offices – or at least premises – at the prestigious Sanatorium Alatau, formerly the prized spa and retreat for the Communist Party elite. An exception was Oryx Energy Co. which had its office on the balcony of the Dostyk Hotel. Those who could afford it took up dedicated office space at the tower that is part of the Rakat Palace Hotel (not to be confused with the new tower by the hotel where the bread factory used to be). A bit later, the various Renco buildings offered the comforts of Western-style office space (in two buildings down by Dom Kino and one on Zenkova Street where Mobil Oil had its offices as well as the executive apartment until the merger with Exxon). The first international bank in Almaty, ABN AMRO Bank Kazakhstan, converted some space on the upper floors of an older building on Kazhymukan Street where they added their own elevator on the front.
The building now called the Samal Towers might have been the leader in offering modern office space to the 1990s influx of foreign companies. Unfortunately, construction came to a halt when finance ran out, leaving a semi-completed hulk which collected rain water in the basement for years. The Turkish construction contractor of that building, Fintraco, had its office in a traditional apartment complex, being several low-rise apartment blocks around an open-space square.
Find more stories about Kazakhstan from the 1990s and later in my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan. It’s available in softcover or e-book format from AuthorHouse (the publisher), or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
My blog posts go out on Facebook and LinkedIn. If you’d like to see them again or check for posts you might have missed, go to my website: viewkazakhstan.com