Interview – Elisabeth Koppa

Elisabeth Koppa is the owner of Valiant group of companies that amongst other things are business that exhibits and auctions art as well as doing interior design projects.

The interview  with Elisabeth Koppa trawls the value-add of art world and where Mongolia stands with regards to brand education. She posits that, while things are getting better, there is a need for Mongolia to develop better practices with regards to contract fulfilment and adherence to the Rule of Law.

Interview Transcript

Enkhzul Orgodol: Mrs. Elisabeth Koppa is a serial entrepreneur. She has started and run various businesses while she was in Europe. Since she moved to Mongolia in early 2000 with her husband, she began collecting Mongolian artworks, mostly paintings, which was later developed into her latest venture Valiant Art and Interiors Space.

Mrs. Koppa, welcome. You have multiple functions under your company, an art auctioneer, official distributor of a number of mainly European home and office furniture and interior decoration producers, interior design service provider and so on and so forth. Could you briefly explain how your business is organized, how many employees you have and which kind of departments do they belong to?

Elisabeth Koppa: My company is divided for two, actually three, main departments.

One is Valiant Commercial which has goods for constructions, for hotels, for restaurants, for bigger projects and that is like carpet tiles, raised floor, Marisol foil which is good for ceilings or walls decoration. Many other elements, which are necessary. We have everything what the client may have it, lights, industrial lights, that is in the Valiant Commercial.

Then we have the Valiant Interiors, which is dedicated for private users, also hotels, also other smaller businesses. We have now just recently started with new interior designs for shops like boutiques, jewelry shop, watch shop, shoe shops. We have now make contract with very famous company in Poland. As you know, I am born in Poland and some connections still there and the company, which is specialized for this kind of work, make fantastic work all over the world included France, England, America, so that is our new baby.

And then, the last one is for the private home. We do full projects, we take care of whole apartments and making the renderings, making the concepts, the ideas, the coloristic. We have everything what is necessary, carpets, furnitures, lights, decorations, and as the last decoration is art, also art.

Art is a separate business, let’s say in my business, and we just started to make auctions. We are making auctions once a month. Two times we do normal auction and every third time fine art auction, which are more expensive paintings, famous artists and hopefully, that will be developed. Also included, get things from people to sell, specifically antiques or also paintings or other things which are connected with art.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Right. Art auction sounds very new and unique to Mongolia and based on your background, I found out you’ve actually initiated lots of new projects in Mongolia with regard to introducing art and arts related businesses and services. How has your art related business been like, the auction as well as the introduction and export of artworks of Mongolian artists.

Elisabeth Koppa: I started with art as a first element of my business and that was 2005, and we had the first ever private gallery in Mongolia which was in Ulaanbataar Then in one year time we had five galleries around the cities including gers which was close to the circus and, which we provided concerts, for example, short concerts for tourist with Mongolian art like singing and performance art with art also. And then, I did also start at that time, I traveled around the world with Mongolian art exhibitions. I did 74 international exhibitions for last year, which is huge amount of money but also very, very energy consuming process.

Enkhzul Orgodol: I can imagine-

Elisabeth Koppa: Because of the cost of everything, most of the work I done myself but I also needed to hire people in places, which is costly. Unfortunately, that had been finished very bad for me because I got problem with my spine and I got neuropathy. My nerves has been squeezed between my vertebrae and I couldn’t make that anymore and I don’t do that anymore. But, not only this reason why I stopped to work with this art around the world, because Mongolian artists didn’t understand the whole effort, the money behind it and the needed honesty with co-orporation, unfortunately. Here, in this country, artists used to come, offer and sell. It’s not like other galleries around the world that they take a painting to gallery for period of months, two, three, and if the artist sold they’re sharing the-

Enkhzul Orgodol: Profits?

Elisabeth Koppa: Not profits but the cost of the painting. The sale price they are sharing depends, of course, where is the gallery located and what kind of money is the gallery spending for promotion of the artist, invitations, cocktail parties to invite guests. These things are not known, or didn’t few years ago and problem was that is very difficult to explain to the artist that that is necessary to continue. As I said that already before, I will also explain that I can make you to very famous artist, depends how much money I will put in that project, because a repeating exhibitions with your art and make sure that your art and your name will be known and repeated very often, make you famous.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Exactly.

Elisabeth Koppa: Why, for example, Anthony Hopkins is now artist, everybody know his name. He’s artist, he’s actor but now he start painting and his paintings are very expensive because the name is famous, and he’s not educated artist at all and he’s painting. He’s also questioning if I like them or not. I think that I will paint better, by the way.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Yeah.

Elisabeth Koppa: This is a question how much money you put to the artist to make the artist famous.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Exactly. I understand that there’s two same products with different names. For example, if the product A is not very famous brand, then it’s known to people. It’s different price, it’s different quality, different appreciation but if brand B’s, for example, more known it’s better price, it’s better appreciated et cetera. What makes brand B more valuable? Is the marketing and the brand development, the brand manager like yourself, is doing?

Elisabeth Koppa: Marketing money, the advertising, the promotion, all kind of things connecting with marketing.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Exactly.

Elisabeth Koppa: Therefore, you pay. Why you pay for Chanel that big money when other company maybe even make better?

Enkhzul Orgodol: Exactly.

Elisabeth Koppa: Unfortunately, these educations is necessary in this country. We have Narantuul. In Narantuul you can buy everything. You can buy carpets, you can buy lights, you can buy shoes but look at the shoes, how they are done. The elements to make good quality cost money. Ironically, the situation now is that in China, there are companies which are starting to make very good quality, but the quality is exactly the same money as in Europe. Chinese clients are going now to Europe to buy goods, because why they should buy something from Chinese company when they can buy for the same price from the original producer who has, maybe, experience of hundred or two hundred years?

Enkhzul Orgodol: Right.

Elisabeth Koppa: For example, Quadrifoglio Furnitures, which I am representing in Mongolia, selling very much to Chinese clients, because the furnitures are down in Italy made of very good quality and the price are almost the same.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Right, I see. Speaking of educating the customers as well as the artist, I heard you have written articles to educate the Mongolian artist and the Mongolian public in terms of appreciating the art and artworks better. Are you still writing and-

Elisabeth Koppa: I do. I had contract with Home magazine, and there I was writing about all kind of work I do and that was basically dedicated to educate Mongolian population about interior design, because interior design eight years ago, seven years ago was very unknown world and nobody really understand what that mean and how that works. Now’s much better. It’s more companies which are doing the concepts, the renderings because it’s very difficult to put things together it you don’t have really eye and education.

I was writing articles every month about different element of interior design, starting with what is the design, how the design is connected with culture. Then it’s like, what is the importance of light? What is all kind of covering like wallpaper or carpets or all these kind of things and they coloristic, how you put things together, all kind of design. Why to not make things too busy, because people feel just too stressed when they in an apartment and we’d like to relax after work. So, many things I put it in the articles, which was educating, I hope I heard that from my clients and then readers who bought this magazine, that that was very helpful. Some of them collected these magazines –

Enkhzul Orgodol: Oh, that’s great to hear. So, the Home magazine, it’s Mongolian?

Elisabeth Koppa: It’s Mongolian magazine which is mostly dedicated to the advertising of different companies, but in this magazine I was writing articles 12 months about different aspect and elements of interior design.

Enkhzul Orgodol: I see, so whoever is interested in finding more about your advice should access this Home magazine. Besides educating the Mongolian market, you have done tremendous amount of work in terms of promoting and making Mongolian artists and Mongolian artwork known to the world. You mentioned that you’ve organized almost eighty-

Elisabeth Koppa: Seventy-four, yeah.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Exhibitions throughout the world and Europe and the U.S. Earlier you were telling me that these kinds of efforts of yourself have not been appreciated as much as it should have. What do you think of the future? You said, for example, eight, seven years ago, people did not know much about the interior design but now they’re learning and more and more, they’re getting more better customers. Are you hoping that artists or even the merging the art collectors in Mongolia have the bigger potential of appreciating and maybe bringing some of the artworks…

Elisabeth Koppa: This is very difficult question to answer, because question is number one. Who will be financing that? That was a dinner organized not long time ago by, I think, Ministry of Foreign Affair, or at least that was signature by people from there looking for sponsors to make a Venetian exhibition.

I sent Mongolian artists there and they requested to 300,000 Euro they needed for that. I will ask myself, why it’s 300,000. It doesn’t cost 300,000 Euro, but the cost is huge. You need to transport the paintings, you need to transport the people; the hotels, the advertising, the catalogs. You need probably make new stretches because going with huge paintings abroad is cost very much, so it’s maybe easier to roll and them and then make stretches on the place, which I did many, many times.

I have, in America, storage that I have probably 500 stretches now because moving from one place to another. This is very costly work and, unfortunately, Mongolian artists, they do not appreciate art. They sold paintings behind my back-

Enkhzul Orgodol: So sorry to hear that.

Elisabeth Koppa: They didn’t accept the fact that we had agreement, exclusivity agreement that I am the one only who can sell and can work. They didn’t understand the whole concept of promoting artists. If you are artist in Hollywood or everywhere in the international market, you have your agent and the agent is actually dictating everything; how you will be named, your nickname or other name, how you will be dressed, to whom you will speak, to what you will need to say. This is whole promotion of you as an artist. It’s not like you can say whatever you want, but in Mongolia this concept was not accepted.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Right. We were saying earlier on about the matter of time. What you’re saying, the kind of problems or the challenges facing Mongolia. I’ve heard that they have been faced in other emerging markets as well, and I’m hoping that the situation will get better over time. However, let’s try to look at the potential.

Besides the visual arts like the paintings or the sculptures, do you think Mongolia has the potential of exporting other types of its art? I actually heard, for example, Mongolian ger, the traditional housing, is much more popular in Europe than in Mongolia because there are lots of countries like Germany, France and Switzerland importing Mongolian ger for its ease of setting up and also the sustainability aspect. Do you see other potentials of –

Elisabeth Koppa: Yeah. I can tell you that, most probably, 2008 I have exhibition in Chicago in Four Seasons Hotel and I took with me Mongolian little ger and Yo-Yo Ma, the very famous violinist, he was the one who was the name of that event. That was Silk Road event, like promoting the countries of the Silk Road, and we had pictures with the little ger and everybody was very happy to see that.

That was 10 years ago almost, 9 years ago and I can imagine, the world is looking for more organic and more relaxed life. People are going for yoga, meditation. Mongolian ger is very healthy and I know families who are very rich who be living in huge villas, but they have in the garden Mongolian ger or some other type of ger to relax during the summertime or evening time or children are playing in it.

Also, ger is very easy to put immediately very quickly if you have earthquake or some disaster happens, it’s very easy to make it. I think that is potential of Mongolian ger. Of course, the question is of the quality and the prices as the business decide. The Mongolian cashmere, everybody talking about but I think that-

Enkhzul Orgodol: I think you are wearing some of them aren’t you?

Elisabeth Koppa: I wear. I have a friend who was trying to get, now, samples for cashmere down in Mongolia and she already make appointments with the clients and with special designers and make lot of effort and put lot of money, but the company didn’t deliver it. They didn’t deliver it in time. Even they promised that

Enkhzul Orgodol: Contracted the Mongolian company?

Elisabeth Koppa: Yes, yes. –

Enkhzul Orgodol: Because they saw the potential. However, in terms of the delivery, oh-

Elisabeth Koppa: Exactly. These people had been very disturbed by the fact because they spent a lot of money to promote the Mongolian cashmere and get the –

Enkhzul Orgodol: Where was the company from?

Elisabeth Koppa: I am not authorized to discuss that.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Which country was it from? Is it okay to say-

Elisabeth Koppa: America, that was American. Yeah. American friends who are living in Mongolian and try to get it and the day when they were supposed to get the samples, they was denied and they was promised that they was promised that they will be sent when they are there and they didn’t come. So, all the meetings, all the effort the people did, all the money they spent already for nothing. This is totally lack of sincerity, lack of business manners, lack of profession.

Enkhzul Orgodol: I will just share with my viewers. Before we started, Mrs. Koppa was very concerned about her speaking about the business environment in Mongolia because she has experienced some negative experiences and transactions in terms of doing business in Mongolia.

The purpose of this project is to really expose the good, the bad and the ugly truth about Mongolian business environment. Of course, there are a lot of people who see Mongolia having lots of potential in terms of its landmass, proximity to other bigger markets like China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea but at the same time, there are a lot of people who are complaining about how hard it is to work with Mongolians because Mongolians have been nomad for centuries. They’re only learning to be professional or to work in more civilized or more organized way since 1990’s. Before that, it’s a different story. That’s why we’re trying to expose the truth or the kind of the expectations for foreign investors, or even Mongolians living abroad.

That’s why I wanted to ask you, you have worked in Mongolia for more than a decade now. There have been good times, I hope, especially during the mining boom and there have been bad times as well. What is your recipe for getting the most out of your Mongolian employees as an employer?

Elisabeth Koppa: You told me that you would like to be positive and looking in the future in time? Yes, I understand and I said because you are young, you are Mongolian, you are full of energy. I have been in Mongolia 10, 12 years. These are my last 12 years in my life now, I am over 70 now, and the situation is that I don’t have much time to look forward. I would like to have the business giving me the satisfaction and giving me-

Enkhzul Orgodol: Stability-

Elisabeth Koppa: The stability now, and the biggest problem is that they are missing from the government part positive attitude towards foreigners and positive attitudes towards foreign investor. If the normal people who are not educated, who are nomads, who didn’t have much experience to see beautiful things around the world don’t know and don’t hear from the government that this is positive element in our economy, that we doubt foreign investors, we can’t do very much because Mongolia have too little people and the production, what you have of animals and little bit of the cashmere, are not things which can get the economy to such a high level like it was 5 years ago.

Please, don’t forget that Mongolia five years ago was on the top of the international economy, 17 and half percent of GDP. Where we are today? Almost zero. The situation is, if you’re looking at the foreigners who are coming to Mongolia, they are not the pest. They are bringing the knowledge, they are bringing the need for new schools, new restaurants, new hairdressers, new whatever and that is what make the economy booming. Everybody have possibility to make some money because there are requests. Why we decline now so much during the four years? There’s no request. Nobody renting the apartments, no need for furnitures, nobody really travel with the taxis. If you have 300 people coming from abroad, you have 300 taxis busy and, at least few days, yes? And they’re going to restaurants, they going to the theatre, they going to shop and buying things. That is the model of the economy, so my recipe? Let the foreigners come, make the investor-

Enkhzul Orgodol: Do their jobs?

Elisabeth Koppa: No. The investor needs to feel that there’s stability in the country, that they are welcome. I understand there is always some black element in every kind of population, and I am sure there are investor which are not correct and which want to cheat, but I would like to look at this. Also, Mongolians we are cheating like 8 billion togrogs, get it from government to make rubbish recycling.

Where the money gone? How much did rubbish recycling really cost? If that will be very interesting to make, checking. How the money get to these people? Who get the money and why? What is the reason? That is what are looking here, we foreigners, looking at the corruption that, ‘My brother is in the government so I will get the projects.’ All these corruptions are going over and over.

But, look at the people who live in gers. This is disaster. So much money is spent for different things which are not really controlled, and then look at the people, how they need to go every day to pick up water, or not light or cold at nights. Now, government make the gesture that during the night the electricity’s either for free or very little cost, so that can be make the pollution less.

But, there’s so many things the government should do for the people here in the country. I am not Mongolian, but I help many people. I send the children to operations in Korea, I put my money, I collected money to make that. In my gallery, for example, the auctions. Ten percent of our proceeds are going to the orphans house which we are donating every time we selling anything in the gallery, and I am foreigner. What’s happened in here in Mongolia with the people who has money, and the car, the watch, the apartment they want to have. Of course, I understand everybody wants to have, but this is not really correct and fairness in Mongolian population.

Now, the situation in Mongolia is little bit better because of the competition in restaurants and other places, but there’s still lot of things people needs to learn to make the service. It’s difficult, I know. Mongolia have lot of history with nomad life, which is simple, not need too much and maybe even not expecting much, but-

Enkhzul Orgodol: Independent.

Elisabeth Koppa: Exactly, but if you want to get back to the glory, which was five years ago, you need to get investment. You need to get the people, and the people needs understand in Mongolia that foreigners are not the pest. Foreigners are those which bringing the, as I said, knowledge that the possibility of making the business. So, first is the stability for the investment. Second, is the law.

The law in Mongolia is corrupted terribly. I lost two cases because my lawyers has been set by the judge to come with documents one day later, and because of that I lost two cases. I have now third case in the court where the guy who sue me told me that he has colleagues in Parliament, he has colleagues in government and he knows many judges, so how to fight that? I would like just to address that, that this needs to be corrected. I even spoke with minister Tsagaan some time ago about it and he said to me, ‘You know Elisabeth? This is new democracy, we learn new things. That take time.’ But, how many people on the way will lose the patience and lose the money, lose the will to do something better?

Enkhzul Orgodol: We want to set the right expectations for whoever is looking at Mongolia as a potential. I think it’s very helpful that you support entrepreneurs and investors who are looking at Mongolia to have balanced view about the business environment in Mongolia.

Of course, there are lots of potentials that, as you said, different kinds of, for example, your sector different kinds of arts and culture, products for export, et cetera. But, there are lots of internal politics that are corrupt and that are holding the involvement of the country back. I guess for investors and entrepreneurs who are really looking at Mongolia and trying to leverage it can also try to see some positive side from that. For example there can be an investment coming into education sector in educating the really high skill professionals, as you mentioned, et cetera.

Elisabeth Koppa: Yes.

Enkhzul Orgodol: So, I think it would be good that you have this balance to the viewers, so I’m very thankful for your honest feedback and on this interview.

Elisabeth Koppa: I always say positive things about country, and the people out of Ulaanbaatar, because in Ulaanbaatar, for me, that is like colliding with sharks and, unfortunately, I have evidence for that, that these things are not happening correctly with the big money from the government, people giving to the families and make all the projects for huge money, which could go to much better projects to helping the normal people.

But things can happen. More and more good things happen. If you look at Shangrila, we have fantastic back area, which I just adore. Every day, you’re buying fresh bread, so new things coming up. If you look at my shop, there’s also things which you don’t see in other shops. I am trying to bring things which are new, which are modern, which are fashion with the international community. I think that there’s not only negative things, there are also positive things. I would like just the positive would be little more than the negative.

Enkhzul Orgodol: Yeah. So, Mrs Koppa, thank you very much for your insight, and very honest discussion. I’m sure our viewers will get lots of useful and helpful information from it.

Thank you.

Elisabeth Koppa: Thank you so much, thank you.