Gert Hebenstreit - CFO, Raiffeisenbank, Moscow

Mr Hebenstreit, how long have you been living in Moscow?

For five years now. I had a little knowledge about the city before I arrived, as I was here in 2006/7 for almost a year, in a different role, with a different company. But at that time I was flying in and out every weekend. So you don’t really experience the city like that. Before moving here in 2011, I was pretty – you could say – concerned about the city, in the sense of the traffic, what life was going to be like, actually living here, especially how it was all going to work out for the family. We moved here from Bulgaria where I was working for another bank for several years, and we had a national park just next door to where we were living. So we were apprehensive about moving from a beautiful place in Sofia to Moscow.
But luckily to say, I have been proven wrong over the last 5 years. I really like living here and I have to say that my family does too.

Does that mean you have adapted or does that mean that you genuinely like it?

I think both, because you have to accept some things wherever you go. I would say that the city has developed tremendously over the past few years, you can see the developments, the changing infrastructure, the parks. We really utilise park facilities as we do not travel out of Moscow often. Yes, we have adapted, but the city is big and it is offering a lot. Infrastructure has vastly improved over the last few years.
One thing that I don’t see so many references to, is the restaurant scene here. I am still puzzled by the quality, the variety, that is being offered. I find it amazing. People can’t believe it when they come here. You can hardly go wrong with Moscow restaurants; the standards are very high.

So did you put your children in school here?

Yes, they go to an international school.

How has that been working out?

It is working out very nicely, I am very happy about the school. I grew up in a different school environment. We had formal classroom teaching, but my children, especially for the first few years, were taught at a large table like this one, shared by six children. They enjoy going there. My youngest child, who is going to pre-school, asked one Saturday morning: is there school today? No, today there is no school, I answered. She was very sad about that. So they like going there and this is a big asset.

And your wife, does she not get bored?

When she arrived here, she was finishing her PhD. She has now completed it, and is teaching at a university here in Moscow. She is also very much engaged with the IWC, and is the IWC’s co-chair for charities. She is much more engaged with what is happening locally than I am, to be honest.

Does all of this mean that you are looking at Russia long term?

We have already been here for 5 years, and we hope to stay here for a few more years. It also depends quite frankly on the work front — what other opportunities come up. The decision is not always mine to take. Usually we are on three year contracts, but I would like to stay on here.

Is there a gap in perception and reality when we talk about Russia?

From the work perspective, we are doing very well in Russia, despite the let’s say, not easy times from an economic perspective. I see this of course when I go back to Austria and talk with friends and colleagues who don’t know Russia, despite the fact that there has been no iron curtain now for 25 years. Yet still there is a complete disbelief in how much this country has developed, and you can only change this view when people visit. When they come over they are amazed, they are surprised, they can hardly believe what they see, and this works two ways. I would like to say that it would be great if the European Union could make it easier for Russians to get visas, because visiting is the only way to get to know each other, to understand each other.

It’s strange that in this high-tech world we still need to go and visit somewhere and spend time there.

We do get a lot of news and information; we are overwhelmed by it all. The question is — what are we really taking in. We filter out maybe 90%, and this can never replace the physical presence of an individual in a different environment. When you see Moscow, the lights in the city, the embankment with people dancing down there, you see the energy, it’s always a pleasure to bring friends and guests there, to show how well developed it is.

You say the bank is doing well here, but is that just because it is a huge bank? Are you really able to say that the bank will survive the present situation?

Yes definitely, and not only because you wouldn’t expect me to say anything else! But because we have an extremely solid foundation, and we are amongst the most highly performing banks on this market. Also because over the past year we have done a lot to improve our efficiency, we have become a lot more streamline as an organisation, we have changed a lot. When I came here, and wanted to change things, people asked me why? Why do you want to change things when it is working? I said: just because it is working doesn’t mean it is right. The economy as it was in previous years allowed you to work not looking after your costs very much, it was just booming and prospering. Luckily we started early enough and were able to look after the change in the external environment when it came. On the business side we always focussed on the quality of our clients, on good partnerships, and we are very careful with risk.

Does Raiffeisen allow you to work locally in regard to forming policy?

Raiffeisen always allowed local policies to be created. Of course there is a framework, there are targets, but the management here is free to be able to develop the business within these. Nobody likes to just be an executor, you want to bring in your own ideas and have the possibility to create something. This makes a big difference. Corporations act differently, however the culture at Raiffeisen has always been like that. But you have to deliver, if you don’t deliver then you have a problem, but that’s fair enough.

How do you find the people you need, and how do you train them?

I don’t want to say anything just to please Russians but in fact there are lots of smart Russians. There are a lot of well educated people who you can recruit. We always had a little bit of an advantage because we were viewed as a foreign company, and we have a very open culture. If you look around here, we have a very open plan office, of course you have to search for the right people, you want to form your team with whom you are able to collaborate, I think the collaboration among the team is extremely important. We handle all that locally.