KYIV, UKRAINE – Andriy Vadatursky was recently named chief executive officer of Nibulon, succeeding his late father, Oleksiy Vadatursky, as the leader of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies. Oleksiy Vadatursky, the longtime owner and CEO of Nibulon, was killed on July 31 in his home during a bombing of Mykolaiv, a city in the country’s southern region, by Russian forces. His wife, Raisa Vadatursky, who was with him in their home, also was killed.
Oleksiy Vadatursky, who also was vice president of the Ukrainian Grain Association, was recognized as a Hero of Ukraine, the highest honor a citizen of the country can receive. Vadatursky was one of the richest businessmen in Ukraine, having founded Nibulon, one of the country’s largest agricultural companies, in 1991 and turning it into a major player in the global grain industry. Nibulon, which has an annual turnover of approximately $700 million, is among the 20 largest companies in Ukraine. In recent years prior to the Russian invasion, which began Feb. 24, Nibulon was exporting nearly 1 million tonnes of grain per quarter.
In an exclusive interview with World Grain, Andriy Vadatursky reflected on his father’s legacy, the toll the war has taken on the company and his determination to see Nibulon through this difficult time.
WG: First, please accept our condolences for the loss of your parents. How did you learn of their passing? Were you aware that he was a potential target of the Russian military?
Mr. Vadatursky: I was in France when I received the call that a Russian missile had destroyed my parents’ home and my mother had been killed. After three hours, we learned that my father was killed as well. When I heard the news, I kissed my children and immediately began to drive to Ukraine. It has, obviously, been an unspeakable personal tragedy for me and my family. The death of my parents has been an enormous loss for Ukraine as well. My father was a true Hero of Ukraine and a titan of the agricultural sector. He leaves an enormous legacy that I will strive to nurture and develop in the years ahead.
WG: It’s been reported that the bombing of their residence may have been intentional. Was your father considered a threat to the Russian governement?
Mr. Vadatursky: The Security Service of Ukraine is conducting an official investigation, and I have provided them with all the evidence. There are arguments on both sides as to whether the strike was a tragic coincidence or a deliberate attack. I’ve also hired independent international investigators to shed light on what really happened. My parents’ death, as well as the deaths of three Nibulon employees killed in a missile attack on our civil boats, shows Russia’s approach to destroying the agricultural sector — one of Ukraine’s greatest strengths.
WG: Did your father ever talk to you about the possibility of him being targeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and you having to take over leadership of the company? Did he ever consider moving to a safer part of the country or even out of the country?
Mr. Vadatursky: Of course, from a security standpoint, I continuously tried to convince my parents to move to a safer place. However, our family has always been committed to staying and investing in Mykolaiv, where Nibulon has always been headquartered. After my parents were killed, so many people in Mykolaiv told me how much it meant to them that my father stayed throughout the war, even when he had the means to go elsewhere. My parents would never have left Mykolaiv, and Nibulon remains committed to the city and the region. We want to contribute to making it once again a thriving hub of commerce and trade. In the past months, I decided to move Nibulon’s headquarters to Kyiv, further away from the frontline to ensure the team’s relative safety and the efficiency of operations.
WG: Your father has been described a “bigger than life” figure in Ukraine. What lessons did you learn from your father about running the company? What are the biggest challenges you face in succeeding him during this time of such uncertainty due to the war?
Mr. Vadatursky: My father’s dedication to Nibulon and to Ukraine are a source of inspiration to me and to the company. The greatest lessons I have learned from him are about resilience. His motto was “never give up,” and he successfully steered Nibulon through previous periods of external disruption. I will do everything in my power to build upon my father’s legacy. I am proud of the role Nibulon has played in developing Ukraine’s agricultural and shipping infrastructure, the jobs we have created for thousands of Ukrainians, our trading relationships with over 75 countries and our partnership with the UN World Food Programme. My management style is distinct from my father’s. I’m focused on modernizing the company, implementing a corporate governance structure, and have recently appointed an international advisory board. I’m confident that these decisions will help Nibulon emerge from this difficult period as a healthy, resilient, and innovative company.
WG: To what extent has Nibulon’s production, logistics and exporting capabilities been impacted by the invasion?
Mr. Vadatursky: The war has seriously disrupted our business operations. Large areas of agricultural production as well as grain elevator complexes and river terminals are now in occupied territories, and we have approximately $92 million in fixed assets that are intact but inaccessible in these areas. Additionally, we have not been able to use our shipping fleet at all because of the blockage of seaports and the passage of rivers through the occupied territories. We are, therefore, actively re-routing our exports via land routes, but at a much higher cost. This caused our exports to drop significantly. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 15, 2022, Nibulon exported 1.7 million tonnes of grain, a 164% decrease from the same period in 2021. These wartime disruptions have been felt across Ukraine’s agricultural industry — the UN estimates Ukraine’s agricultural sector in total has suffered damages and losses of $30.5 billion.
WG: How is the construction of the terminal in Izmail going? How important is its completion to the company’s success?
Mr. Vadatursky: Nibulon is actively seeking solutions to the disruptions caused by the war, and we have been among the only companies to invest into new construction projects during the war. We have completed the first phase of construction of the new terminal at Izmail. Once complete, the terminal will alleviate some of the disruption to our established export routes and reduce our reliance on the UN Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has suffered from inefficiencies and uncertainty. These types of investments will be critical for ensuring that Ukraine’s agricultural sector can withstand the disruptions from Russia’s war, paving the way for our country’s future economic recovery and reconstruction when the war comes to an end.
WG: Your father was a leading advocate of creating new export routes to offset Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea ports. Are you going to continue his work in this regard? Will these routes be used even after the conflict is resolved?
Mr. Vadatursky: While we must regain access to the Black Sea ports to fully restore our exports to pre-war levels, investing in new routes is essential to preserving Ukraine’s agricultural sector and laying the groundwork for future economic recovery. The more export routes we have, the better. In the long run, diversified export capabilities will ensure us against risks and further increase efficiency.
WG: It’s difficult to imagine the disruption this invasion has created for your company. How is it holding up in terms of cash flow and its overall financial state?
Mr. Vadatursky: The five years preceding Feb. 24, 2022, were the most successful in Nibulon’s history. In 2021-22, Nibulon exported 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural commodities to 34 countries. We achieved record profits and significantly reduced our debt. The war has posed significant disruptions to our business, but I am confident we will emerge stronger, just as Nibulon coped with previous periods of economic turbulence in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite logistical challenges and lengthy delays, throughout last year, Nibulon delivered for its customers who continue to retain their trust in us. We exported 50,000 tonnes of grain between May and November 2022 to Poland, Hungary, and Romania via rail and 160,000 tonnes to Romania via barges. We also shipped 230,000 tonnes of wheat to countries through our partnership with the UN World Food Programme between August and November 2022. This is positive, but there is still a lot more that the industry stakeholders must do to support businesses like Nibulon. We need flexibility in financing options to ensure that Nibulon can continue to connect Ukraine’s farmers with international food markets, bolster the Ukrainian economy and help alleviate famine in the developing world. Ukraine’s agricultural sector has always been a driver of the country’s economic growth and hard currency earner crucial for the financial system’s stability. We will now be a driver of economic recovery and post-war reconstruction.
WG: Do you think the current Grain Corridor Deal will be in place long term if the war continues or will it be short-lived? Why?
Mr. Vadatursky: The Black Sea Grain Initiative has been a vital short-term solution to the extreme challenges Russia’s war has caused for export logistics. The deal has allowed Ukraine to ship over 10.5 million tonnes of grain and reduce food prices worldwide. It has also helped Ukrainian farms remain viable in extremely challenging conditions. However, the deal does not include the ports of Mykolaiv, which are among the largest in Ukraine and shipped 35% of our food exports prior to the war. Without access to these ports, exporters must use alternative routes that are much slower and, in some cases, 10 to 40 times more expensive. It needs to include Mykolaiv ports to ensure stable exports and global food security. The grain corridor also needs to be much more transparent so that it operates efficiently and fairly. There are also too many mandatory inspections and a shortage of personnel that has led to costly delays. As a major trader and agricultural producer, Nibulon supported the extension of this temporary agreement, but the terms must be significantly improved. Of course, the best long-term solution for Ukraine’s agricultural sector and the global food supply chain will be the free flow of trade, unencumbered by wartime disruptions or delays. Furthermore, everyone is talking about the grain corridor, but we should also be talking about a “financial corridor” for Ukrainian grain exporters and other hard currency earners. With no access to international financial markets and prohibitive borrowing rates inside Ukraine, grain exporters have virtually no access to financing. This means limited or no resources to prepare for the next agricultural season, invest in strategic solutions to war-related disruptions, or ensure companies’ liquidity. Such a financial corridor could employ different tools, from guarantees to concession credit lines, and would provide exporters with the resources needed for uninterrupted production and export of food to ensure global food security and the resilience of Ukraine’s agricultural sector.
WG: What percentage of your workforce has been impacted by the war (fighting, displaced etc.)?
Mr. Vadatursky: Every family in Ukraine has been impacted by the war either directly experiencing the horrors of occupation and air attacks on their homes, or indirectly suffering from a lack of electricity, water and heat caused by attacks on civilian infrastructure. Over 40% of our workforce, nearly 2,500 employees, have been unable to work because of the war. Maintaining employee safety as well as salaries has been a top priority for me.
WG: What measures have you taken to protect your employees from the war?
Mr. Vadatursky: One of the best things I can do to protect our employees is to continue paying their salaries, which Nibulon has prioritized despite the war challenges. They are working in incredibly challenging circumstances. Investments like Izmail have also provided new jobs in arguably safer parts of the country. I have also recently made the decision to move Nibulon’s headquarters from Mykolaiv to Kyiv to ensure a relatively safer environment for the team and have given employees the flexibility to work remotely or from abroad if they feel it’s right for them. However, we are under no illusions. The loss of three of our employees in November from a Russian attack on our civil vessels was devastating. I honor their memory as Nibulon employees and as innocent civilians doing the job they loved.
WG: The world watches in awe at the Ukrainian people’s resolve to maintain their independence. Have you sensed any weakening in that resolve as the war has moved forward, or is it growing stronger?
Mr. Vadatursky: The Ukrainian people’s resolve grows stronger every day, and I am proud that Nibulon has long been a symbol of Ukraine’s resilience. My mission is to ensure that Nibulon continues to be a strong and healthy company for years to come — for the benefit of Ukrainian society, our employees and the farmers we serve. Our continued success will strengthen Ukraine’s economy and global food security. The war will end eventually and when that day comes, Nibulon will be ready to lead the way in Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery.
WG: If your father was alive, what advice do you think he would give you regarding the challenges you and your company are facing?
Mr. Vadatursky: I believe my father would advise Nibulon to persevere no matter how great the challenges and disruptions we face. In his honor and with his example in mind, I will do everything in my power to steer Nibulon through this challenging period to ensure that our company remains a key part of Ukraine’s economy and the global food supply chain.