Our First Office in Almaty in 1993, 597 Seifullin Street near Abay Avenue
Here are some of the things I learned about real estate in Almaty in 1996 when we had to move our office. 1) There seemed to be no organized or recognized estate agents with a list of vacancies. 2) The newspapers did not carry advertisements for small office space. (Probably in those difficult times there was no demand for small office space and, bearing in mind the Soviet-era stock of property was designed for large enterprises, there was practically no supply of property suitable for small offices.) 3) Significant compromises were necessary in the hoped for space – wrong part of town, inconvenient or off-putting entry way, no security or too much security, no car parking space, and so on. 4) There were no internet websites useful for a property search.
We had gotten our law office up and running in Almaty early in 1993 due in part to a generous landlord giving us free space in exchange for legal advice. I had been worried about that commitment but, in fact, we were seldom called to perform services. But all good things come to an end. The landlord eventually needed the space for its own expansion and we had to go. We too were expanding so the timing suited us as well.
In February 1996 there were very limited options for ‘traditional’ or Western-style office space. You know, the sort where you, as a visitor, walk down a corridor, find the right door, enter a reception room, and later are escorted to a pleasantly furnished conference room or perhaps the private room of a lawyer. Within the space there is an intrior corridor leading to various other rooms for the professionals, the supporting staff, and the technical rooms. It seems that, in Soviet times, there was little demand for such. There were huge spaces, unsuitable for a small number of lawyers and supporting staff. Space was available but all office doors opened into a public corridor. It’s as if small business enterprises were unheard of in the USSR.
One possibility I looked at was some space in the International Business Center otherwise known as the Italian Business Center. That is the building across the street from Hotel Kazakhstan, the one that looks a bit like a massive mausoleum with the high-arched front that faces out at the fountains and water pools. They had some space that might have been acceptable but the building was foreboding, the interior was dark, we and our clients would need to climb a lot of stairs, there was no convenient parking space for us or our visitors, and it was rather expensive.
Eventually I even looked at office space in what is now the Akimate, the building that used to be the Presidential Palace up there on Republic Square. The room configurations were not very good for our purposes, but what was really off-putting was the heavy security – daunting when you want free access for clients – plus the limited access to the space after normal work hours and weekends.
Finally, one of our lawyers, through a friend, found some space. We could seal off one end of a long corridor and utilize all the rooms. By knocking down one non-loadbearing interior wall, we gained a large conference room. There was a covered balcony running the length of the building on the street side which, facing as it did to the east, protected us from some of the summer heat. Nevertheless, we did install air conditioners in each of the rooms, a rather unheard of luxury at that time.
I shocked all the members of our staff when I suggested that our new front door and all the interior doors ought to be painted glossy black. Unheard of! Who would do it? And more. But when they saw the outstanding results, I even heard some of them say that they were going to do the same where they lived. (I am not particularly clever in the interior design field; I borrowed the idea from accountants Arthur Andersen. For many years they had used such doors as a kind of brand, and the outline of one was featured on the cover of all their promotional literature.)
The bathrooms presented a problem. There was a large one, with sufficient stalls to serve a small single-sex training academy for men, which is exactly the function it performed before we moved in. The proprietor had acquired the use of some floors in our building at small cost on the condition that he would operate a training school for mining engineers. But in the depressed aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were too few paying students to cover his costs. Consequently, he closed the school and let us use the space. Rent was taxable to the proprietor so a condition of our taking up the space was that we would pay a small rent and a separate larger ‘administration fee’.
We had more women than men but we did have men with the result that we had to find a solution to our toilet problem. There happened to be a separate, single-stall toilet up the hallway but we quickly learned that the pipes downstairs had been severed for some reason. Any waste from that toilet was simply discharged on the floor below. We quickly learned about that! The eventual solution was to put a sign on the door indicating on one side that the toilet was being used by women and on the other side that it was being used by men. That solution was effective for us but a bit of an embarrassment to explain to any visitors.
Another challenge was that we were not entitled to place a name sign on the outside of the building to advertise our presence. That was anathema to us lawyers who like to be conspicuous this way because we generally can’t or don’t advertise. Consequently, we were always careful to inform expected visitors on how exactly to find us. Better to meet a problem head on than to let everyone else experience a problem personally.
We had a good time in that new office. Although it was difficult to identify a true center of Almaty, we certainly felt that we had moved up market. More importantly, all our lawyers now enjoyed the luxury of having a private office. Yes, I know, it is arguable that productivity suffered from their privacy. Computers were still new to them; computer games were rampant in the former Soviet Union; the internet had appeared; and constant access to a telephone line was a temptation for personal calls. Nevertheless, we had been together by then for up to three years, and I think our lawyers and other members of staff had by then lost some of their enchantment with the digital universe.
Another benefit was that our new location was near several good but not too expensive restaurants where we took our lunch. (Brown bags were unheard of. It was only later, when our staff grew larger that it became sensible to hire a cook and have in-house catering.)
For me, the new location was a treat. I could walk to it from my apartment or take a bus, as I often did.
I eventually gained Renco S.p.A. as a client. They were the ones who introduced modern Western-style office space to Almaty, and eventually to Astana and Atyrau. Silvio Ipolliti, their leasing manager, actively sought us as tenants, but I could never match his availabilities with the termination provisions of our lease, and then he ran out of vacant space.
Park Palace, the first large office building by Renco S.p.A. in Kazakhstan
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