By Kyriacos Nicolaou

In this exclusive interview, Timur Turlov, a visionary leader and CEO, delves into his triumphant journey in the world of finance. It all began in 2008 amidst the global financial crisis, when the bank he worked for shuttered its investment subsidiaries. As head of operations for the US markets, Turlov was tasked with navigating this tumultuous period, leading to the birth of his own investment boutique.

With a meagre initial capital of less than $100,000, contributed by Turlov, his former boss and an employee turned junior partner, they founded what would become Freedom Finance. Their mission was clear: to provide access to the US markets for investors in Moscow. As the financial markets recovered in 2009, Freedom Finance’s unwavering focus on this vision enabled them to amass invaluable expertise in the field.

What set Freedom Finance apart was their keen focus on providing access to the US markets, unlike their competitors who predominantly concentrated on the Russian domestic market. This strategic differentiation paid off as the US market outperformed other global markets, attracting investors to foreign assets.

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Timur Turlov, CEO of Freedom Finance, in New York

In 2011, Timur Turlov relocated to Kazakhstan and eventually became a citizen, recognising the potential for growth in this market. Facing issues of currency devaluation and low income from the local stock market, the interest in US and European financial instruments skyrocketed. Freedom Finance seized this opportunity and became a significant player in Kazakhstan’s financial landscape.

Their expansion didn’t stop there. Cyprus emerged as a key hub for servicing national brokers, ultimately positioning Freedom Finance as a significant player in Cyprus itself.

“Approximately six or seven years ago, Cyprus became our key hub to service all our national brokers,” Turlov said.

“In addition, during the last three years, we have become a significant player for Cyprus itself,” he added, noting that they also cater to almost 200,000 customers from the European Union, establishing their position as a major online broker across the bloc.

This remarkable journey of growth and success, driven by technology and a dedicated team, led to Freedom Finance becoming a major player in the market.

Freedom Finance Limassol, Cyprus

Freedom Finance, Limassol, Cyprus

“We are one of the biggest neo-brokers with a fully internet-based approach across the European Union, servicing tens of thousands of people from different countries, including Poland, Spain, Germany, France and Greece,” the Freedom Finance CEO said.

“In fact, we have a very big exposure to Greece, to be honest, one of the biggest in the European Union. And that has all become possible because of our competitive position in the local market, and in the EU in general. This became possible only because of our technology, as well as our team in Cyprus, who are now developing an operating portfolio proprietary trading solution.”

Notably, the company has also captured almost 70 per cent of Kazakhstan’s total market share in terms of such services.

As Kazakhstan continues to grow, thanks to its digitalisation and thriving middle class, opportunities for companies like Freedom Finance abound. The introduction of direct flights between Cyprus and Kazakhstan, expected in the near future, is poised to strengthen connectivity and further boost economic ties between the two nations.

Turlov also reflected on his journey of doing business with the EU and the evolving landscape of international financial relations.

Turlov’s journey began during a time when everything seemed more straightforward in terms of regulation, international trading, and generally cross-border business transactions.

Opening accounts with US banks, a key element of his business, was a breeze in comparison to now. He vividly recalls walking into a US bank, expressing his intention to open an account as a representative from Kazakhstan, and being met with an immediate “yes”. It was a different world, marked by simplicity and a willingness to foster global financial connections.

Over the years, Turlov and his team built strong relationships with US partners, becoming trusted allies who played a pivotal role in generating hundreds of millions in revenue for these partners. This 15-year journey spanned various periods of economic and geopolitical shifts, yet their commitment to the US partners remained unwavering.

However, Turlov acknowledges that the current landscape has drastically changed. Establishing new relationships with US companies has become an arduous task, and even existing connections have grown weaker. Some companies are closing accounts and reducing the depth of relationships due to increased risks associated with certain regions. The era when moving money and opening corresponding accounts was straightforward is long gone. The regulatory environment has become significantly more complex and stringent.

Turlov emphasised the importance of adapting to these evolving compliance standards, staying ahead of regulations, and building trust with partners. In an environment where regulators and businesses grapple with the complexities of financial transactions, trust has become an invaluable currency.

What is more, for companies like Turlov’s, maintaining a reputation for ethical business practices, paying taxes diligently, and employing a qualified workforce capable of navigating regulatory intricacies have become paramount. Such elements build confidence and trust, especially when regulators may not fully grasp the intricacies of rapidly changing industries like finance.

“To be one step ahead, you have to keep the trust of your partner, to make your partner generate money to continue the relationship. It’s not enough to create problems for your partner, they have to make enough money by partnering with you. So, sometimes big banks prefer to just close the account in order to reduce any potential risk from a customer that is not truly significant to them,” Turlov said.

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Timur Turlov, CEO of Freedom Finance, at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)

“So, as one of the market leaders, we have always avoided causing any problems to our customers, to our partners. I believe that has helped us to maintain these relationships.”

It became evident from our conversation that in a world of complex financial regulations, a well-educated, well-qualified team can bridge the knowledge gap between regulators and businesses. Turlov underlined the fact that regulators are more comfortable engaging with entities that demonstrate a deep understanding of the law and employ respected professionals.

The Freedom Finance CEO also explored the synergies between chess, digitalisation and societal advancement, painting a compelling picture of a brighter future.

Turlov’s passion for chess is evident as he discusses the game as a global club, uniting high-profile individuals worldwide who share a common interest in this timeless pursuit.

He serves as the president of the Kazakhstan Chess Federation and highlights the efforts to promote chess in schools, not just within Kazakhstan but also in Cyprus. Turlov sees the potential for hosting European championships and leveraging chess to attract global events, demonstrating his commitment to nurturing the game’s growth.

“We also see the great potential that can arise from the popularisation of this game, including in schools, as well as in other ways, such as through the sponsorships of corporate tournaments, among others,” he said.

However, Turlov’s enthusiasm extends beyond the chessboard. He recognises chess as a potent tool for concentration-building in a world rife with distractions. In an era where a great deal of teenagers struggle to concentrate on reading books, chess offers a solution. It trains individuals to think multiple steps ahead and fosters the vital skill of maintaining focus.

Turlov’s insights also delve into the corporate world, emphasising that chess tournaments require minimal financial investment. Unlike sports like tennis, chess events can be organised at relatively low expense, making them accessible to businesses of all sizes.

He shares his experiences from Kazakhstan, where digitalisation played a pivotal role in simplifying processes and reducing corruption. By leveraging technology and governmental databases, Turlov’s team streamlined mortgage applications, eliminating the need for physical paperwork.

Cyprus, in Turlov’s view, holds great promise due to its human capital, efficient government, and burgeoning digitisation efforts. He predicts that Cyprus could emerge as a key IT hub in Europe, given its relatively small size, streamlined government and the potential for advanced integration with government services.

Turlov’s optimism extends to educational improvements through digitalisation. Teleconferencing in remote villages, access to online educational materials and AI-driven tools are transforming the learning landscape, bridging the gap between regions with varying levels of educational infrastructure.

“In this digital age, AI will not replace people but will empower those who understand how to harness its capabilities,” Turlov explained.

“It is not the case that artificial intelligence will simply replace every job with computers. However, people who don’t know how to work with AI will be outperformed by the people who understand how to deal with it.”

While technology may exacerbate inequality in some areas, it also levels the playing field, offering individuals from less prosperous nations greater access to knowledge and economic opportunities.

“I think because of the presence of human capital on the island, as well as the fact that Cyprus is a relatively small country with a fairly compact government, there is a lot of potential,” Turlov said.

“We have had some meetings with the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy, where we discussed the topic of digitalisation. This is the right approach as it creates numerous opportunities which we’re now seeing elsewhere,” he added.

“We are certain that Cyprus could secure its position as a key regional centre as it can quickly integrate digital services that will enable it to become the IT leader of Europe.”

Turlov also shared some of the insights into his journey as a resident of Kazakhstan and his observations on the nation’s development and challenges.

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Timur Turlov, CEO of Freedom Finance, in New York

He became a citizen of Kazakhstan in 2022, signalling his strong commitment to the country. He notes that Kazakhstan is on an upward trajectory as a developing nation, emphasising its considerable population and rich cultural heritage. Kazakhstan’s population is growing rapidly, and it’s one of the world’s largest landlocked countries.

He reflected on the nation’s history, highlighting that during the Soviet era, Kazakhs were a minority in their own country, constituting less than 40 per cent of the population. Today, the demographics have shifted significantly, with Kazakhs making up more than 60 per cent of the population. This transformation reflects the nation’s youth and emerging leadership.

Kazakhstan envisions its future as an independent state with strong ties to global powers like the United States, China and European countries. It also maintains an economic partnership with Russia, thanks to its extensive border and historical trade relations. However, Kazakhstan is actively working to reduce its dependence on Russia, particularly in terms of

food imports. Currently, approximately 40 per cent (on average) of food products are imported from Russia, highlighting a need for greater food independence.

Turlov acknowledges that despite Kazakhstan’s vast size, it lacks direct access to the sea, making international trade challenging. Additionally, its neighbours, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, pose their own trade difficulties. However, Kazakhstan seeks to overcome these challenges through diplomatic efforts and trade agreements.

The interview highlighted that Timur Turlov’s journey from a university graduate to a prominent figure in the international financial world is nothing short of impressive. His dedication, vision and commitment to excellence and leveraging technology to implement a raft of improvements, in both the private and public sectors, continue to shape the financial landscape in Cyprus and abroad.