How did you get to be in Russia?
Before I came here almost three years ago, I worked for ten years in the export business. The first time I came to Russia was in the beginning of 2000. The wild times were over by then, but Moscow was still very different. Right from the beginning I always felt very comfortable here. In 2005 I started to work for Julius Meinl; at that time Russia was simply a country we exported to. It soon became clear that Russia is going to be one of the strategically most important markets for our company, and in 2007 we took over the Russian import and distribution company, and founded Julius Meinl Russland OOO.
So youâre the man who came here and set it all up?
The earliest work was done by the Russian importing and distributing company, but after 2005 I was involved in managing and boosting development. In the beginning I used to come here a couple of times a year as most of the work was done locally. In business terms, we made the classical mistake of taking over the complete management team. The ways of doing things locally differed with our Western European, transparent systems. In theory, we were doing the same thing, but the practical side of things was a different story.
In 2008 we finally realised that themanagement which we had inherited was not going to work out in the way that we thought it would. There was the belief that all development should come out of the regions. We started 12 regional offices. This turned out to be far too ambitious for the time, as we were still quite small in terms of revenues. At one time we were employing 150 people, which was really a lot. So the train was travelling fast in the wrong direction. Then came the crisis. We pulled the brake at the end of 2008, and appointed a new Russian general director who started to reorganise the company and make it more feasible. She had perhaps thought that the job was going to be easier than it actually was, and decided to leave the company after one year. As I was the only one in the company who was truly familiar with the whole story in Russia, my boss asked me if I might be interested in going to Russia as general director. I spent all of one night thinking it over; as I loved Russia and Moscow. I arrived in March 2010, and have been working here since.
My first job was to continue with the restructuring of the company that my predecessor started. We shrank down to 70 people, then last year we started growing again. Now we are up to 90 people again. But in the meantime we have tripled our revenues, and we are the fastest growing unit in the group. In Russia we are one of the biggest suppliers of premium grade coffee.
What are the problems and advantages of doing business in Russia?
I was able to travel a lot during my ten-year stint in the export business. I was in touch with a lot of different countries and cultures from Japan to the Middle East, the US, South America, Africa and Russia. I am inclined to repeat an Italian saying: âtutto il mondo Ã¨ un paeseâ. At the end of the day, you have the same kind of problems everywhere, the same kind of desires, the same kind of good or bad people, education and business etiquette. If you are open-minded and simply try to accept the people you are working with and respect their historical, cultural and religious tradition, you begin to see that insurmountable problems do not really exist; there are only huge opportunities. I personally think that mixing cultures and ideas is a good thing. The synergy that comes out of the area behind San Francisco known as Silicon Valley is perhaps a good example of this. Creative companies have thrived there because the population is multi-cultural and full of energy and ideas.
Russia is a special case, because Russians mostly look like Europeans. But they are not Europeans. One of the biggest surprises for me when I first came here, was to find out that Russians talked about Europeans as those people in the West, because they donât consider themselves to be a geographical part of Europe. Russia is a huge bridge between the East and the West. Russia is full of different nations, philosophies and races, which makes the country very interesting and fascinating for me. Certainly I am amazed at the depth and richness of Russian culture. For me, I have never experienced â to such a degree â the âlive for todayâ attitude to life. This sometimes creates problems with implementing the plans of western companies like ours, which is 150 years old and employs long-term planning. I am not sure how much importance Russians place on savings. Most Russians say that they actually donât know what is going to happen tomorrow, so it is better to enjoy today. But on the other hand, when you take into consideration the history of this place, you can understand this philosophy.
Whatâs the best and the worst thing that has happened to you here?
I have met a lot of wonderful people here, amongst them my current girlfriend. Russian women are very beautiful and emotional. They understand themselves to be women, whereas in a lot of western countries, they try to be more like men.
As far as the worst thing that happened; on the 17th of November last year, I was driving my car and stopped by the traffic police who accused me of being drunk. They confiscated my driving license. A battle against the police started which I finally won. Last week a Russian court decided that the Russian police had not been proceeding in a proper way, because they did not provide me with a translator, and made a lot of procedural errors. So I have to say that the Russian legal system is working better and better, things are in general improving.