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A good entrepreneur does not make money, but makes the world better: story of a serial entrepreneur from Armenia

He is 57, with four children, a house, and the family lives in plenty. Even though there is no need for haste any more, every morning Armen wakes up at 7 sharp. Coffee, swimming pool, morning exercise and off to work. Armen is confident that this precise schedule and his extraordinary work ethic were fundamental in building his successful business. And not just one business.

Photo from the personal archive of Armen Balayan

Often people choose a niche and reach for success within it. Armen Balayan has a different perspective on that. His business ideas cropped up as a result of circumstances, and every time he set about fulfilling them with unbelievable zeal. After getting his degree, he opened manufacturing shops in Yerevan. Then destiny brought him to Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, where he was employed as chief engineer at an engine-building plant. And then perestroika walloped. The salary payments stopped, but being a resourceful engineer, Armen was not taken aback and launched a sewing department that produced work wear for the plant employees.

“In the 1990s the situation within the country increasingly worsened. The plant didn’t have money to pay me, so they started to pay with … engines! What could I do with them? I had to pay salaries to my employees. So I set about bringing them to Moscow for sale,” recalls Armen.

Business inception or an insane decision that proved everyone wrong

Ultimately this “strange” salary paid in engines equivalent was a windfall. On one of those trips to Moscow he met his future wife Elena. Armen tried very hard to impress her. They went to the best restaurants, and on one of those dates she suggested: “Why don’t you open a restaurant in Ufa.” The idea expressed by the woman he loved, stuck in his head. And the opportunity ensued. After he came back from Moscow, he suddenly received an interesting offer.

“I just got back to Ufa and got a call from my acquaintances: a state-owned enterprise put an obsolete cafe near the airport up for sale. Would you be interested? I was surprised and said: I hadn’t noticed it despite my numerous rides from the airport. We ultimately found this God forsaken place: derelict, littered with tires, filth and garbage. So I looked at it all and…decided to buy it. No one believed in success. They thought I was insane,” recalls the entrepreneur.

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He demolished the old building and erected a brand new one based on his own design. He gave it a simple name - Otdyh [translates as relax]. He decided it would serve his dearest food - the cuisine of the Caucasus. That was in 1999.

Within a short period of time, the cafe became a full-fledged restaurant with a reception hall for 120 people, a children's party hall named Happyland and a playroom with a capacity of 60 a conference room and a summer terrace with a capacity of 350 people.

Photo from the personal archive of Armen Balayan

Restaurant transforming into a business empire

New business was booming. Another 23 years on, Armen’s brainchild became a city within a city.

Next to the restaurant, he built 45 room hotel and, unexpectedly, a car wash and a tire shop. This was Armen’s shrewd business plan.

“People come here, spend hours, relax and it occurred to me - they all were driving here! And so wouldn’t it be nice if they departed in clean cars! Wouldn’t it be nice if they knew that they could also wash their cars in the meantime. And a tire shop idea cropped up by the same measure. We are close to the road, flat tires often happen, so they can rest and fill their tires with air,” shares Armen.

The recreation complex kept proliferating by incorporating newly built facilities. If there was a restaurant, then there was a need for a bakery and a meat factory. Didn’t we have a hotel? Let’s build a laundromat. Business gained the trust of partners and residents of Bashkortostan.

The complex became the preferred host for major public events, including World Skills Russia, the SCO and BRICS summits, Junior Club World Cup in hockey, Folkloriada and a KHL all-star game.

Armen realized he has to keep on going. He took to opening more restaurants and cafes. They were all different, because being an experimenter he had this innate curiosity. The cuisine of the Caucasus was followed by the Italian one, then there was a steakhouse, a Georgian restaurant and a motel for truck drivers. The quality of the business was so top-notch that the president of the Republic of Bashkortostan visited the grand opening of a new restaurant in the town of Tuymazy.

Currently Armen’s company, called OtdyhGroup [ОтдыхГрупп], encompasses restaurants, hotels, roadside cafes, car washes, tire and auto repair shops. The list is impressive:

  • Otdyh [Отдых] motel complex with a capacity of 30 rooms is tucked along the Ufa-Orenburg highway, opened in 2012;
  • Master Kuzova [Мастер Кузова] auto repair shop, opened in 2012;
  • Otdyh [Отдых] Hotel has 45 rooms, opened in 2014;
  • Car wash and tire shop with a capacity to service 35-45 cars per day, opened in 2015;
  • Kebab Hayat [Кебаб Хаят] bistro, opened in 2016;
  • Bakery, opened in 2016;
  • Roadside cafes along the road from Ufa to Ufa Airport, opened in 2016;
  • Akvarel [Акварель] restaurant with seating capacity of 150, opened in 2018;
  • Yal [Ял] restaurant, opened in 2019;
  • Vikingi [Викинги] restaurant with seating capacity of 80, opened in 2019;
  • Two bistro-cafes, Pelmesha [Пельмеша] chain, opened in 2019-2020.

The entrepreneur is not going to stop just yet. He has a slew of new ideas that will propel him into the future and help him progress.

One of them is building a manufacturing facility to produce personal hygiene products for hotels, i.e. toothbrushes, toothpastes and mini shampoos. He’s finished the design and is looking for a land lot to build on.

Photo from the personal archive of Armen Balayan

Bridge worth a million dollars

Despite the fact that Armen’s company has been supporting orphanages for many years, he is reluctant to speak about his charity work as much. They say good acts should be done in silence. He let us in on only one of his philanthropic projects. He spent 10 years waiting for approval by the authorities to do a good deed.

“There are two public transportation stops near our complex located along the federal highway. People were often run over by cars there, since it is a highway, cars are going fast. I wrote a letter to authorities offering to build a pedestrian bridge. I didn’t get a reply for 10 years. Exactly 10 years! I wrote a letter in 2000, and got my reply when the authorities had been changed. They found my letter, called me in and asked: did you still want to build that bridge? I said: didn’t you see that it’s needed. You should have built it already!”

Finally Armen was given permission to build the bridge. Surely he couldn’t miss the opportunity to create his own design. All-glass pedestrian crossing cost him a million dollars. However, he received the Order of Peter the Great, an award given by authorities for his big personal contribution in national development and consolidation. This is, probably, one of his many awards that he truly appreciates and confesses that it feels nice that they took notice of his work for the city.

Even when you own a business empire, you should love your job

Currently Armen's companies employ about 600 people. Many stayed from the company's inception. He jokes that he raised much more than four children,

“I have practically brought up my cook, he is one of the top chefs in Russia right now, my manager has been with me since the beginning and has come a long way from being a waiter. And in general, many people who started as waiters are holding executive positions now all over Russia. I have my own strategy when it comes to hiring. Most of all I value decency in people. Those who do not fulfill their duties, come late, don’t love their work, never stay long [with the company]. I often say: if you don’t like your job, Yandex taxi is always looking for taxi drivers. That’s all. You should come to work with love. If you come just to earn money, it won’t do any good.”

Photo from the personal archive of Armen Balayan

Armen is sure that love is the secret behind his success. He is sincerely involved in every project, be it a restaurant, a car wash or building a bridge. He never copies but creates everything from the ground. He never doubts that his new project is bound for success just like the previous ones. And just 25 years ago the same woman is at his side helping him maintain his confidence.

“[My] wife keeps pushing me! Every time she has new ideas: here’s what you need to do, this thing! [She] says: Armen, you can do it! She believes in me, trusts I can achieve anything. And it gives me strength.” summed up Armen.

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