What brought you to Russia, and how long have you been living here?
There were actually a number of things that brought me to Russia. I had visited Moscow and St-Petersburg for the first time back in 1990, in what was still the Soviet Union. I was then still a student, and was fascinated by the country and its people. Although it was the time of Perestroika and Glasnost, the country was still very much a mystery to Westerners. I remember the empty shops, the long row in front of the McDonalds at Pushkin Square, but also the first private shops and restaurants that had appeared, the warmth of the people and their hopes for a better future.
So when I graduated from law school back in 1992, I decided to go to Moscow and study the Russian language at the Pushkin Institute. I reasoned that there would be career opportunities in this market that was just opening up, but that you would have to speak the language. So I just packed my bags and lived a year with a Russian family. By that time, the Soviet Union did not exist, and Russia was trying to transform itself into a market economy and democracy. It was like seeing history playing out in front of your eyes.
I travelled to almost every corner of this vast country, and understood that Moscow is not Russia. The more I learned, the more I appreciated the complexities of the Russian culture. But at the same time, there were of course the fun element of living here as a student in those days. Papa Jones, the legendary Hungry Duck, Rosie OâGradies,… Those who lived in Moscow at the time will know what I mean
Why do you stay?
The same fascination for the country and the people, and also the dynamics of seeing the society transform. Compared to living in Russia, life in Belgium is actually very dull, and nothing really big ever happens there. In Russia, you live the extremes. You see tremendous business opportunities and growth, but also downturns like in 1998, 2008 and now again.
And my own career of course made me stay. Following my studies at the Pushkin Institute, I started to work in 1993 as a lawyer for Alcatel, a large telecom vendor. Alcatel had at the time a joint-venture in St-Petersburg, so I moved there. From 1996 till 1998, I then moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I worked for a venture-capital fund that was set-up by the EBRD.
But I was just 30 years old when Alcatel asked me in 1998 to return to them and offered me the position of CEO Russia. Obviously I took the challenge. The business grew very fast, from $60m in 1998 to around $800m in 2008. At that time, I was up for a new challenge and left Alcatel to lead the activities of an American multinational, Emerson, in Russia/CIS and Eastern Europe. Working for an American company in Russia in the Oil & Gas sector is, to say the least, very interesting. But we have a strong strategy focused on localization and import substitution, in fact we open our new factory in Chelyabinsk this spring. Employing over 1,700 staff in Russia, Emerson is considered locally a Russian company. So I look with confidence to the future.
What are the main differences in the way that Russians do business in comparison to Belgians?
Let us start maybe with the similarities. Russian people are rightfully demanding the very best quality for their products and services. They are very well informed about competitive offerings, and are sharp negotiators. So you need to invest in a proper organization, also for post-sales support, and, recently, local manufacturing became critically important.
While the days of going to the Banya and drinking vodka are long gone, it is still very important to establish a good personal relationship with your customers. And, again, speaking the Russian language is absolutely necessary.
The difference that is less positive is, of course, the mind-staggering bureaucracy. You need papers, stamps, acts, for almost everything. In the UK, Emerson has a business which, in size, is comparable to our Russian business. But in Russia, we employ ten times as many accountants and lawyers.
Do you think Russian-Belgian friendship and business activities will continue through the present crisis?
For a couple of years now, I have been the Chairman of the Belgian-Russian Business Club (BRBC), which was established with the support of the Belgian embassy. As a non-profit organization, we regularly have meetings with the Belgian business community and Russians working for Belgian companies. We have typically a presenter talking about a topic of general interest, and we of course network. During our last meetings, we had for instance Jones Lang LaSalle giving a presentation on the Moscow commercial real estate market and how to optimize rents, or we had Dentons talking about the accession of Russia to the WTO. We also arrange visits to Belgian production facilities in Russia, like InBev or AGC-glass. A lot is taking place.
And when talking to our Belgian friends, we see a clear dedication to the market. You have indeed to think long term. Companies that stick to this market today or even open their business now, will come out on top. Those who leave will have lost the market when business rebounds. And it will rebound just as it did after previous crises.
So yes, the Belgian-Russian friendship is here to stay, and having new Belgian cafes in Moscow offering our delicious beers will only further help this friendship to become even stronger.
Belgian Russian Business Club (BRBC)
Secretariat: Anna Korneeva
Tel.: +7 495 424 88 33