How CEOs and businesses in Ukraine have survived a devastating year of war with Russia

February 23, 2023, 12:00 PM UTC
Serhiy Zhuykov, CEO of BlackShield Capital Group
Serhiy Zhuykov, CEO of BlackShield Capital Group, joined a Ukraine volunteer battalion after war broke out a year ago.
Courtesy of Serhiy Zhuykov

The war in Ukraine will turn one year old on Friday. Internationally, it has evolved into a global struggle between Russia and the West. On the ground, it has created unfathomable loss, grief, terror, and dislocation for millions of people. 

Ukrainian business leaders have been buffeted by both the geopolitical winds and the local violence and disruption—even as many of those leaders have spent 12 months fighting in the war. All the while, they have fought to keep their companies afloat—an effort essential for Ukraine’s future, they say.

The war has been devastating to the country’s economy, with GDP plummeting about 30% last year, according to the World Bank. The organization estimates it will cost about $350 billion to rebuild the shattered infrastructure. By some estimates, real wages in private businesses sank about 27% during the first nine months of war, while about 11% of businesses in Ukraine are believed to have shut down altogether.

And yet, most companies have survived—whether by adopting wartime business strategies, reorienting around the war effort, or even relocating to nearby countries to tap new clients and stay alive.

In the days leading up to the conflict’s first anniversary, Fortune caught up with four execs we first met during the early months of the war. While they insist their experiences of the past 12 months are not that unusual among Ukrainians, each tells a story that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. 

From lobster fishing to a battlefield wound

A little more than a year ago, Serhii Pozniak, chairman of FinStream, a financial services firm in Kyiv, was lobster fishing on a yacht in the Caribbean, barefoot and in shorts—and a huge smile on his face.

Astonishingly, the smile is still there. But nothing else in Pozniak’s life resembles his care-free life in early 2022. When Russia invaded last February 24, he raced to rejoin the National Guard battalion with which he’d served between 2014 and 2016, and spent the first nine months fighting on the frontline. In November, during a fierce artillery battle against Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries in the Kreminna forest in eastern Ukraine, Pozniak stepped on a landmine, and the resulting explosion blew off his right foot. Fellow soldiers spent seven hours evacuating him through swampland; later, at a Kyiv hospital, he underwent an amputation below the knee, and has since been recovering.

“My life changed in a couple of days,” Pozniak, 48, tells me from the hospital over Zoom—still smiling. “I know myself as a businessman, the owner of financial companies. And on TV they say I am one of the three best snipers in Ukraine,” he says. Although he was a military reservist before the war, he says his transformation from business executive to war veteran seems hard to grasp

In early February, Pozniak persuaded doctors to allow him to leave the hospital for a few hours, on crutches, to meet the chairman of Ukraine’s National Bank, in order to launch a fund for small and medium-sized businesses that will help those companies participate in the expected huge post-war reconstruction effort. The fund could be a key partner for FinStream: The company attracts investors to and provides financing for such businesses.

FinStream, which generated $6 million in revenue last year, has suffered only a 10% drop in revenue through the war, according to Pozniak—something he regards as both an accomplishment and a valuable contribution to the country. “We made a lot of business,” he says. “And when the war ends, we will work on projects again.” 

Serhii Pozniak, chairman of FinStream
Serhii Pozniak, chairman of Ukrainian financial services firm FinStream, in a hospital in Kyiv after stepping on a landmine.
Courtesy of Serhii Pozniak

Until then, Pozniak will undergo extensive rehabilitation. He is due to fly to New York next month to be fitted with a prosthetic foot, courtesy of Kind Deeds, an organization that treats Ukraine’s war wounded.

A phone call from ‘hell on Earth’

The day Russia invaded last February, Serhiy Zhuykov, CEO of BlackShield Capital Group, a $500 million asset-management firm in Kyiv, headed to war—with no military experience. He joined a volunteer battalion, and after brief combat training, was dispatched to the warfront. 

Zhuykov, 40, could barely have imagined what his life might be, one year on. Over a crackly cell-phone line from the warzone of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Zhuykov says he feels he is “in hell on Earth,” waging a grinding battle for survival that he says resembles World War I. “This eastern frontline is very, very dangerous,” he says.

When Fortune first interviewed him last May, Zhuykov predicted that the business community would be profoundly changed by war, dividing those who had opted to fight in the war from those who stayed out of battle. That is even more so now, with Zhuykov a seasoned soldier, fighting Europe’s most brutal war in 80 years—and bearing the emotional scars of the past year. “We have lost many friends from our volunteer battalion,” he says, adding that 115 soldiers had died over the course of one three-day span. “These months have been very difficult.” 

For all that, Zhuykov—like Pozniak—has been determined to keep his business going, seeing it as an essential part of the war effort. While he has been off fighting, other key BlackShield executives have worked to expand business in Europe and Dubai. “It was a very difficult year in financial markets, because of the war and inflation,” he says. “But now the market is growing, and this year we deem we’ll have the same situation as the start of the war.” 

And he believes his business skills have been of huge benefit in battle. “One of the best skills is adaptability,” he says. “It has helped me to be very effective in the war.”

Not only tragedy, but opportunity

Weeks before the war began a year ago, Anatoliy Amelin, 45, stocked up on ammo and bought a carbine, ready to fight if Russia invaded.

But the strategy and investment director of TitanEra, a major titanium producer in the eastern Ukraine city of Dnipro, was rejected for war service, due to the impact of a stroke he suffered years ago, whose effects included double vision. 

So Amelin threw himself into his other job, as a board member of Ukraine’s National Railways. That has been crucial: With no airport open since last Feb. 24, Ukraine has transported most of its weapons, and millions of refugees, by rail. The company has also reconstructed 29 out of the 69 bridges destroyed in the war so far. 

“One year ago, nobody believed Ukraine would stand more than a few days,” Amelin says, speaking from Dnipro, which close to the frontline. “We knew if we did not help each other, we would never beat Russia,” he says, adding that executives have banded together over the past year. When the military put out an urgent call for funds in early February, a group of CEOs in Kyiv raised $50,000 in five hours, he says. 

One of the 29 war-damaged bridges the national railway company has rebuilt; 69 bridges have been damaged or destroyed in the war.
One of 29 war-damaged bridges that Ukraine’s national railway company has rebuilt, out of 69 bridges that have been damaged or destroyed thus far.
Courtesy of Anatoliy Amelin

Battered by war, Ukraine’s GDP has plummeted about 30% over the past year, forcing executives like Amelin to drastically rethink their business strategy. One of TitanEra’s mines was seized by Russian forces, and ransacked.

Nonetheless, the company has kept all 650 staff—20 of whom are currently fighting in the warVelta, a group of titanium companies of which TitanEra is one part, supplies about 2% of global titanium feedstock, and its American division plans to go public on the Nasdaq in 2025. Velta has begun negotiating with officials in some U.S. states to build a plant in the U.S. later this year.

And even while the war rages on, Ukraine’s economists and business experts have begun planning how to create a post-war economy that is better managed and less corrupt than before. “It is very important to rebuild Ukraine 2.0,” Amelin says. “War is not just tragedy. It is also an opportunity to create a new country, with a new quality of life.”

‘No fire sale of assets’

For some companies, the conflict has meant dramatic downsizing, as staff have fled the country and others have spent the year fighting. 

That has been the case for UMG Investments, a Kyiv investment firms that manages three portfolios. One year on, the company’s EBITDA is between 20%-25% of prewar performance of $150 million a year, and its portfolios are considerably smaller. UMG has cut its staff of about 5,000 to just 1,100 people, about 130 of whom are off fighting Russian forces. 

“There was no fire sale of assets,” says CEO Andrey Gorokhov, 46. “We did our best to cut everything we thought was unnecessary,” he said. He spoke to Fortune from Warsaw, to where he evacuated with his wife and two children after Russia invaded last February. Gorokhov’s wife is dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, so he was permitted to leave the country, unlike most men under 60.

With his restructured business, Gorokhov says he has begun looking for new investors in Europe, having concluded that Ukraine will not likely return to normal any time soon. 

“We believe there is a high chance the war will not end this year,” he says. “We needed to create a system in which the business can go on.” Despite the war, UMG ended 2022 with a profit, and paid a dividend to investors—all crucial to Ukraine, Gorokhov says. “If you do poorly, the business will collapse, and the government won’t get money to meet social and military obligations.” 

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