Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Harry Griffith’s return from Siberia

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Harry Griffith

Before Harry Griffith took a job as executive director of Sustain Blaine about two years ago, he worked for about 13 years for BP and other companies in the high-stakes world of international oil and gas development. He and his wife, Sun Valley City Councilwoman Michelle Griffith, have owned a home in the valley for 20 years.

In 1991, the Griffiths left Cleveland to work in London for BP, where Michelle worked as an oil commodities trader while Harry, a geologist by training, traveled regularly to Russia to establish markets in the newly capitalist society. He and colleagues chartered an airplane that once served as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's backup transportation, traveling the country promoting Western business expertise during a time of turmoil and transition in Russian society.

They met with scientists and business and political leaders in remote regions of the country, sometimes in unheated Soviet-era scientific institutes where the temperature inside was 20 below zero. In the middle of winter in Kazakhstan, the group learned that the local airport was officially out of fuel.

"We bartered for fuel with salmon, booze and jewelry to buy enough fuel from a truck around the corner to get back to England," he said.

Griffith worked in Moscow and western Siberia on joint ventures with Russian companies, acquiring gas leases on old oil fields and bringing Western technology and contractors to the country. He also worked on the business plan for development of a pipeline from the Caspian Sea at Baku in Azerbaijan to Western markets, and later in Moscow developing one of the first Western-style truck stops and convenience stores in the country.

"A gas station in those days was usually a tanker truck with a gas nozzle attached to it," he said.

Griffith then went to Caracas, Venezuela, with a team of 10 BP employees to develop 100 similar facilities, working as chief financial officer for the group. When the political turmoil that brought Hugo Chavez to power in the country spilled over to violence in the streets, he and his family decided to return to Russia.

"The writing was on the wall," he said.

Griffith then set up a Moscow office for RUSIA petroleum company, which owned a vast gas field near Lake Baikal, completing feasibility studies for a 30-year, $18 billion drilling and pipeline infrastructure complex that would bring more than $100 billion in natural gas to Eastern markets. The gas field contained enough to supply three-year's worth of gas for the United States. He soon found himself negotiating on behalf of his Russian associates with Koreans and Chinese partners in Peking.

"At the first meeting, there were 40 Chinese, 15 to 20 Russians and 30 Koreans. It was very U.N.-like. After 45 minutes we had all said hello," Griffith said.

After five years, RUSIA was taken under the wing of TNK-BP. Griffith worked for BP executive Bob Dudley and 300 other expatriates, doing internal audits until Gazprom, the government-controlled oil and gas conglomerate, took an interest in the company.

"Gazprom wanted to be involved and started making demands on TNK-BP," said Griffith, who was working in the middle of nowhere in Siberia when his email went dead. When he returned to Moscow he found that he and others were locked out of their offices. After six months in limbo, the Griffith family returned the Unites States, eventually deciding to live in Sun Valley.

"The politics in this community is just as complex as in Russia," he said. "Everyone has a different opinion. Everyone wants to be heard. You have to build coalitions and take things slowly."

Griffith works to improve the credibility of Sustain Blaine by gathering economic data in the valley and pursuing plans that will have a positive economic impact. He said Sustain Blaine has become the "go-to" organization for State Chamber of Commerce business contacts looking for places to locate.

"One of the great economic opportunities that exist in this valley is the possibility of increasing the number and scope of events," he said.

One of his sons, who was partly raised in Moscow, is learning Russian, and the family has plans to return to Russia in 2014 for the Winter Olympics.

"Russia was a fun and fascinating place to work," he said. "We saw the country change before our eyes. When we got there it was gray and dark, with few Western amenities or billboards or colors of any kind. Today [Moscow] is a modern city."

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