Nov 5, 2013

Moe Myint: Myanmar’s go-to tycoon

When Moe Myint strides into his office, he triumphantly brandishes a piece of paper from the Myanmar energy ministry that declares he has won business in four more oilfields. The freshly printed list, composed otherwise of 10 international companies, reveals a second striking truth: when it comes to local oil and gas expertise, Moe Myint is pretty much the only game in town.

“The problem is there are so many people contacting me – energy advisers – I don’t know what they want to see me about,” he says, settling down at a desk flanked by screens showing his Gmail account and CNN. “So we are just trying to weed out all these people.”

Beneath the surface irritation clearly lurks a delight at being a man much in demand. As Myanmar opens up commercially after half a century stifled by dictatorship, “Mickey” – as Moe Myint became known during a spell working in the US – is the citizen whom many top energy multinationals want to partner as the November 15 deadline for a big offshore oil exploration and production bidding round looms.

During a turbulent and varied career over four decades, Moe Myint has flown a dictator’s aircraft, toughed out international sanctions on his country and successfully fought a US travel ban. He is now keen to set his own commercial Indian summer in the wider narrative of an overdue national renaissance.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to do things correctly,” he reflects as he recalls his years working under the corruption and arbitrariness of the country’s previous military regimes. “But it pays in the long run.”

The offshore bidding round, in which 61 companies are jostling for rights, will be a landmark auction for both the country and Moe Myint’s quarter-century in an industry where he arrived relatively late. Educated in Yangon – he was a few years behind Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate, at Methodist English High School – Bangkok and West Virginia, he graduated in physics, trained as a pilot and worked for more than 13 years for Burma Airways, the national carrier. He eventually flew aircraft for Ne Win, the notorious former ruler of more than 25 years who cut the country off internationally and issued bizarre fiats such as ordering banknotes to be printed in denominations of nine, his lucky number.
The CV

● Born: Yangon, 1952
● Education: Majors in physics at the University of Yangon and Marshall University, West Virginia
● Career: 1973-87 Pilot, Burma Airways
● 1987-89 Vice-president of Interaero and Emro Engineering
● 1989 Founds Myint & Associates, an oil services company with services that range from logistics to catering
● 1996 Founds MPRL E&P, his other main company. It ran an oilfield as a joint venture with Baker Hughes
● 1999 Takes full control when Baker Hughes pulls out. MPRL, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, has since expanded in Myanmar and southeast Asia and hopes eventually to list in Singapore or London
● Hobbies: Sailing
● Family: Married to Dr Ohmar Moe Myint, with two sons

Moe Myint says he barely spoke to Ne Win. But he became increasingly disturbed by “the way things were” in Myanmar and – when his parents died within six months of each other in 1987 – he decided to resign from the civil service and leave the country.

“All of us who were serving the government . . . everyone was complaining,” says Moe Myint, who is dressed in a traditional blue longyi cloth and collarless white shirt. “Everyone was unhappy.”

Those traumatic events also opened up Moe Myint’s path into the energy industry. His father, a geologist trained at Glasgow University, had been a consultant to Royal Dutch Shell, and Moe Myint did not want the relationship to die with him.

“[Shell] said, ‘you are a pilot, not a geologist’,” Mr Myint recalls. “I said, ‘give me six months and then we will talk more’. And that’s how I got into the business of oil and gas.”

After a couple of years in California as an executive for two aircraft equipment exporters, Moe Myint returned home and founded Myint & Associates, an oil services company. Its operations range from logistics to catering, and it numbers among its clients the Myanmar operations of Total of France, Petronas of Malaysia and Korea National Oil Corporation.

In 1996, he founded MPRL E&P, his other main company, which ran an oilfield as a joint venture with Baker Hughes, taking full control in 1999 when the US company pulled out.

During the years when Moe Myint was building up his companies, conditions in Myanmar continued to deteriorate, with the military refusing to hand over power after a 1990 election that followed the massacre of as many as 3,000 people during a 1988 uprising. International sanctions followed and some foreign companies left the country – then called Burma – under pressure from the west, although Moe Myint says he felt he was doing good by staying and providing local people with much-needed work. He insists he managed to skirt the corruption of those years by taking precautions such as ensuring all his dealings with the government were in writing – and making it clear that he was not going to pay bribes.

“I do everything transparently,” he says. “I have nothing to hide.”

The US imposed a visa ban on Moe Myint in 2008 over his alleged links to the regime, but that was rescinded last year. The US embassy in Yangon had petitioned for the change, describing Mr Myint as a “close contact” and one of Myanmar’s “most successful businessmen, and perhaps the most legitimate”, according to a cable published by WikiLeaks.

Fellow business people speak of Mr Myint’s probity and his companies’ technical competence. Asked if Moe Myint had prospered through business acumen or the lack of competition during Myanmar’s insular years, one oil executive says it is a “combination of the two. He decided to do something that somebody else could have done but didn’t – and he made a good go of it”.

Now Moe Myint is the man of the moment, using a red laser pen to highlight the 30 offshore oilfields on a map on his wall. International companies are obliged to take local partners if they want to bid for one of the 11 shallow water blocks; Moe Myint says he has been talking to “quite a few” businesses and has agreed to partner several, being careful to avoid conflicts of interest. “I think when they do due diligence, they realise there are a lot of companies who they can’t do business with,” he says.

So intense has been the courting of MPRL that another Myanmar-based businessman, while offering praise for Moe Myint, says the adulation has “gone to his head” a bit. Among a sheaf of literature Moe Myint hands out at the end of the interview are a compendium of his international media appearances and a near-250 page hardback book meticulously cataloguing the contents of his personal library, which range from travelogues on old Burma to Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (“very good condition, but there is the merest of scuffing to the dust jacket”).

Yet Moe Myint also retains a realism about the sudden international clamour around him and his country since the military began a formal handover of power in 2011, noting archly how “everybody is trying to milk the cow in the name of helping the cow”. He is well aware of the role history has played in making him and his companies indispensable in a country that may be an exciting new market but that is also ranked a lowly 182 out of 189 nations in a World Bank survey on ease of doing business published last week.

“We have a lot of knowledge of the local geology,” he says, in a remark about the oil auction that resonates more widely. “So we are confident.”

Source: Financial Times