Antifragile: Serhiy Tron Fights To Bring Bitcoin To Ukraine
Serhiy Tron, a former boxer, a persistent entrepreneur and the publisher of Bitcoin Magazine Ukraine, fights for stability in an unstable world.
A version of this article was originally printed in the first issue of Bitcoin Magazine in Ukrainian, which can be purchased here.
When Serhiy Tron was born in 1984, his home city was known as Dniprodzerzhynsk, named for the founder of the Bolshevik secret police in the ’30s. In 2016, it returned to its historic moniker of Kamianske following a country-wide rejection of Communist suppression, but no matter what the city has been called, it has been the kind of industrial center that powers a country and forges resilient and hardworking people.
Tron’s mother was an accountant, while his father spent 25 years in military service before working with victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. When asked to describe his father, Tron goes quiet and loses his train of thought — he asks to hear the question again before describing him as a rigid, willful military man who projected the qualities of command and control.
At age ten, drawing from the lessons of his hardworking city and firm father, Tron began boxing, embarking on what would become a lifetime of dodging blows, battling personal and financial crises and, ultimately, fighting for an open-source software project that he believes will bring much-needed stability to a world beset by recession and inflation.
At the age of 16, Tron channeled the tenacity and determination he was cultivating as a young boxer and started an entrepreneurial journey by launching a heavy fuel oil supply company. He juggled training sessions and business demands while taking university classes in the evenings, but just before turning 19, his dream of boxing professionally came to an end. An accident sent him to the hospital for eight months, where he was forced to learn to walk again. He said goodbye to boxing and decided to pour all of his energy into his business.
When Tron was 22 years old, his father passed away, leaving him as his family’s primary breadwinner. By 2010, his company was operating 120 gas stations and five oil depots near Luhansk and Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. He invested in technology capable of cleaning oil tanks and sold the extracted sediment. As his financial operations grew, he found himself drawn to banking and, in 2011, he invested in Citi Commerce Bank and quickly expanded its footprint from 40 to 185 branches. By that point, the capitalization of all of his businesses stood at almost $1 billion.
Then, his next defining fight began.
In February 2014, the Maidan Revolution, also known as The Revolution Of Dignity, began with deadly clashes between protesters in Kyiv and state forces. With 80% of his business operations located in occupied territories, Tron faced the risk of losing almost everything. But a boxer knows how to take a hit and stay on his feet, and Tron decided to abandon his home and operations in East Ukraine and move his family to Kyiv, bringing along every employee willing to relocate.
“The most profitable personal investment you can make is in relationships with people,” Tron explains of his emphasis on connections, rather than entities. “But you must pick the right recipients for this investment. To be completely honest, I think I earned all my money thanks to my intuition, varied experience, accumulated knowledge and my relationships with people.”
From there, though, events in Ukraine unfolded quickly. With international investment fleeing the country, inflation hit 25%, its highest mark in 14 years. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, lost 60% of its value against the U.S. dollar. Citi Commerce Bank started hemorrhaging capital as people rushed to withdraw deposits. Tron faced two ugly options: Save the bank by defaulting on its obligations or pay out its customers by depleting its liquidity.
As always, he didn’t shy away from the bigger, better fight, and he chose to pay out. After a six-month struggle to keep his bank afloat, Citi Commerce Bank was sold for a single, shiny dollar.
Mining Bitcoin’s Potential
Finding himself at yet another crossroads in 2015, Tron refocused on his interest in the technology industry. Steeled by the many crises throughout his life, he quickly saw in Bitcoin the promise of stability for a world of uncertainty. Mining the two most prominent cryptocurrencies early in their histories, both Bitcoin and Ethereum, it was clear to him that one had intrinsic advantages over the other.
“Having mined both ether and bitcoin, I concluded that the foundational principles of Bitcoin were unbeatable,” he says. “Ethereum appeared vulnerable to modification and human corruption.”
After a trip to China to examine bitcoin mining equipment firsthand, he bought his first mining machines, offering 2 megawatts (MW) of capacity, and installed them in Romania. This exploratory gamble worked well enough to convince him to build a modern data center in his home country. He poured $40 million into a mining operation with a 10.5 MW capacity on the premises of Dniester Hydroelectric Station in Chernivtsi, a Western oblast, or region, that is the country’s smallest.
Around the same time, the small town of Zug, an hour outside of Zurich in Switzerland, was quickly becoming the country’s own “crypto valley” — a place where, even back then, you could easily run into Bitcoin enthusiasts and eager tech investors. In 2018, betting on Switzerland’s friendly Bitcoin regulations, Tron established his holding company White Rock Management in the Swiss town.
Bitcoin’s popularity was growing, his business ventures were succeeding and, by then, Tron was a decided Bitcoin maximalist. He invested in his next venture to set up a 30 MW data center in Kazakhstan but, due to difficult circumstances, he pulled out from the country in 2021. (However, he notes with his ever-present fighting spirit that it’s still too early to put a lid on the matter.)
Following that mining venture, Tron started thinking about where to expand. With an understanding of the unique incentives that make bitcoin mining such a powerful industry, he was focused on the price of electricity and jurisdictional stability and picked an area of Northern Sweden surrounded by hydroelectric stations, installing $85 million worth of equipment there.
In 2022, the company expanded across the Atlantic Ocean to Texas’ Brazos Valley to work with a potential alternative to hydroelectricity: natural gas. Uncovered during oil extraction, this gas is often either vented or “flared” — burned off — and Tron decided to explore the opportunity of using it to power bitcoin mining by building a data center there.
Based on his industrial expertise, Tron theorizes that major oil and gas corporations will soon work closely with the Bitcoin industry, since the latest mining technology would allow them to continue extracting profits from exhausted oil sites. He’s also confident that holistic mining operations are prepared to usher in the next generation of industrial success.
“In 2023, we may see a reduction in the number of hosting providers because they will continue to lose clients,” he explains. “Only vertically-integrated companies, with their own equipment, data centers and complete process control, will likely survive the current down market.”
And now, Tron is working on his latest project, located near Niagara Falls in New York State. But it seems his fighting days are far from over — in November, New York State passed a two-year moratorium on permits for cryptocurrency mining operations that seek to retrofit fossil fuel plants.
While some Bitcoin enthusiasts have cried foul over the policy, Tron remains optimistic. He believes that the Bitcoin community would be wise to adopt new environmental standards and sees the moratorium as an opportunity to do just that. It’s the positive outlook that has helped him weather so many battles, including the most recent crypto winter.
“I think that any crisis is a business opportunity because the market is changing,” Tron explains. “The high bitcoin price leading up to the latest dip attracted lots of quick investments and unrealistic expectations. The bankruptcies we see within the ecosystem have revealed the projects vulnerable to price fluctuations of bitcoin and electricity.”
Spreading The Message Of Bitcoin To Ukraine
Tron’s upbringing and the challenges he’s faced in life have given him a unique ability to find reasons for optimism while remaining a realist and a harsh critic. He is certain that Ukraine’s Soviet past has left it with a corrupt system that continues to stall business development. The businessman in him is convinced that the greatest victory for Ukrainians will be over the darker sides of themselves.
In his view, the media is a part of this problem. As a step in changing that, taking on perhaps the biggest fight of his life, Tron partnered with Bitcoin Magazine in 2020 and negotiated its publication in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. His goal is to build a medium where the latest Bitcoin innovations are quickly shared with readers and where the best homegrown talent can be supported and celebrated.
“There are unbeatable magical returns from investing in the things that support the future, such as technology, science and educational initiatives,” he says
Under his watch, Bitcoin Magazine will stay independent of the corrupting influence of political actors. Tron believes that Bitcoin’s philosophy is the best way to end the corruption remaining from his country’s turbulent past. For him, Bitcoin’s destiny is much bigger than to serve as a store of value or a medium of exchange. He sees a future where digital assets will make up a new market sector on par with finance or energy.
And Bitcoin will be the leader in this, with its unrivaled, solid fundamentals ensuring that it remains a flagship of the digital asset market. And perhaps, the businessman states, it will become a reserve currency and an index for other cryptocurrencies.
Tron thinks that the next step after the blockchain revolution is a legitimate financial revolution. On its evolutionary path, humanity is destined to remove itself from its addiction and subservience to fiat money. For him, Bitcoin’s principles of freedom of choice and transparency will one day form a new basis for human interaction.
His belief in Bitcoin’s potential is evident in the evangelizing he does throughout the region surrounding his home country, though progress is coming more quickly in some places than in others.
“On my recent visit to Uzbekistan, my conversations with some government officials left me puzzled,” Tron recalls. “I offered to bring high-quality Bitcoin content and educational investments into the country and I got a reply that it would be best if the world did not hear about Uzbekistan. They feared that outsiders would come and spoil the great little Bitcoin ecosystem they’ve got going. But I fail to understand this logic. Again, we run into a variant of the post-Soviet perfectionist mentality. I was left disheartened, but we agreed to nurture our relationships slowly if that is what it takes.”
The Fight Doesn’t End
So, after hearing the story of a young boxer who tasted his hometown’s dirty air in his mouth, who was once robbed of a billion-dollar business by war, who loves his home country and its people but sees the corruption there for what it is, who never backs down from a fight but hopes to save others from them — what are we to make of Tron?
Today, Tron’s life is filled by his wife, three children, employees and business partners. But even as a persistently busy man, he is always on the lookout for new opportunities. And yet, he leaves an impression that somewhere, deep in his mind, he stands all alone. It seems as if, in a way, he is still in the boxing ring, tall and broad-chested, agile on his feet, vigilant and distrustful, his mind always focused on a long game, ever ready to pull and duck, bob and weave.
15 March 2023 16:42