Former BAE boss Sir Dick Evans’s other home is in Kazakhstan
It doesn’t take long for Sir Dick Evans to win his first round of applause from the businessmen at the Intercontinental hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital.
By Richard Orange in Kazakhstan
Published: 6:00AM BST 14 Jun 2010
Karim Massimov, Kazakhstan’s prime minister, has left it to the plain-spoken former BAE Systems chairman to sum up the Kazakhstan Investment Summit. “As a guy who’s spent most of his career in the aerospace and defence industry, I know a lot about corruption,” says Sir Dick. “I’m probably better qualified than a lot of people to talk about it. I think it will increasingly become a barrier into investment, not just into Kazakhstan, but in other developing countries.”
Given the bribery allegations that dogged his final days at BAE, it’s a bold topic. But here, Sir Dick can get away with pretty much anything. At home he may be a faded titan of British industry, but in Kazakhstan, he’s the leading foreign courtier to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“They just wore me down,” he says, explaining how his career took this strange final twist. “Initially, I agreed to make some time available, and then they said ‘Would you take over the chairmanship?'”
So, in 2006, Sir Dick became chairman of Samruk, a company that today, after a merger with the country’s sovereign wealth fund Kazyna, controls about 40pc of the gross domestic product of this vast, resource-rich Central Asian country. Sir Dick remains a director.
It was initially supposed to be a week a month, but he’s ended up spending closer to half his time in Astana, the political capital. He lives in a suite at the Radisson Hotel, but has gone sufficiently native to refer to Kazakhstan as ‘we’: China, for instance, is “the biggest and most avaricious market for virtually everything we produce”.
And spending half his life 3,000 miles away from London may have some appeal while the Serious Fraud Office investigations into BAE rumbled on. “It’s just a salacious story. It makes good copy and good reading,” Sir Dick says of the allegations that BAE had a slush fund for bribing foreign officials. “Looked at in hindsight, it’s perfectly clear that the allegations could not be substantiated and weren’t substantiated, and eventually in the US the issues were laid to accountancy issues and export licensing.”
BAE this year agreed to pay ?30m in the UK and $400m (?275m)in the US to lay the charges to rest, admitting only to minor accounting offences rather than to more serious charges.
Nonetheless, Sir Dick’s successor wrote in BAE’s annual report this April that BAE “very much regrets and accepts full responsibility for these past shortcomings”.
Sir Dick’s consulting contract with BAE was terminated in February because, he says “I’d done what I was asked to do”. Some saw BAE moving to break with the past.
Sir Dick’s Kazakhstan connection began at a No 10 lunch in 2001 at which Tony Blair was introducing President Nazarbayev to British industrialists. Afterwards Sir Dick found himself agreeing to set up a national airline for Kazakhstan and today Air Astana is a thriving business of which BAE holds 49pc.
The airline kept him coming back, eventually leading to the job offer in 2005 after a discussion about what Kazakhstan should do with its Soviet-era state industry.
Consultants from McKinsey designed a model based on Temasek in Singapore and, after nine months of cajoling, Sir Dick arrived to chair it.
“It’s a lot easier for guys like myself to question the very senior people here about why they are doing something in a particular way,” he says. “The whole culture here, for local people, is not to do that.”
He still has a long way to go: “When you go down underneath the top level of government, there’s what you might call a permafrost of the Soviet bureaucracy which is alive and very well.”
To help him, Sir Dick has open access to the prime minister and president, but, to his frustration, he claims he finds it hard to use his influence to help UK companies.
“I think it’s profoundly depressing, when you look at the number of foreign investors winning contracts here at the moment, how few British companies there are. There’s not a single British company among them – it’s because we’ve got nothing to sell them. The UK opted out of manufacturing. There are no British companies left to help.”
Even so, the man who Britain’s former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, once complained had “a key to the garden door of No 10”, is now treading very different corridors.