Neil Withers

President of the CFA Society (Chartered Financial Analyst Society) in Russia, and board member of the Canadian Russian Business Association.

Neil, you have been here for 18 years, which is a considerable amount of time in anybody’s life. Did you plan to be here for that long?

Selection_185I had no idea about coming to Russia up until two weeks before I arrived. At the time I was working for CIBC, which is one of the top five Canadian banks. The head of the Trade and Finance Department was looking for somebody who might run a project in Russia. The EBRD and the World Bank had picked some pretty good Russian banks, who wanted to understand and reach international standards of banking, as potential partners in ‘twinning’ projects. I was just finishing another project and had some varied experience in both commercial and investment banking, so I was selected.

Out of the 15 Russian banks who were interested in becoming our international partner, there were only three with which we really felt comfortable working with. One of them was ‘Vozrozhdenie.’ So in September of 1997 I had 18 people from that bank over to Canada for a week. I introduced them to CIBC, then in the middle of October 1997 I was over here. It was supposed to be a three-year project but, of course, in August of 1998 the whole financial system collapsed, and I said to my Russian colleague: “I understand that you don’t want us to be here anymore, we’ll pack up and go home.” He said: “It has all been very useful, but yes, it is probably best that you go home, however you personally are very interesting AND useful; could you stay?” I said: “well I don’t know, I have a real job back in Canada.” So by December when the World Bank decided to suspend the project, Vozrozhdenie asked me if they could hire me. I said: “well, no, but if you are willing to pay CIBC what they pay me, I can probably convince my boss to let me stay here.” That worked for five months, and then eventually Vozrozhdenie did hire me, and I worked there until 2008. I would have stayed on longer, but VTB, the second biggest state owned bank, offered me a ridiculous amount of money, so I moved over to them. So I joined VTB as Senior Vice President of investor relations.

Were you married when you came out here?

I had been divorced for about 10 years and was living in Toronto. I had two children. My son was already at McGill University in Montreal. My daughter was finishing High School, and she decided to go to McGill as well, so it was an easy time to move here. I just got married last year here, and I have a new daughter!

Congratulations! How did you find working with Russians when you arrived in comparison to working with colleagues in Canada?

I found the Russians to be very confident and well trained.

Even back then?

Yes. This was a good bank, one of the reasons that we picked it was because their team had been together for a long time. Nevertheless, the thing that struck me, as being one of the biggest issues was the amount of time it took to get the paperwork done. Not the decisions, they were made quickly but the paperwork. Now it is better, and the systems work reasonably well, but there is still little appreciation of the value of people’s time.

That’s not to say that Canada is necessarily better. My daughter who was born in Russia is Canadian, but it will take 8-10 months for her citizenship certificate to be processed by Ottawa. Her Russian ‘paperwork,’ including her international passport took about a month, but involved more visits to different offices.

What other problems were there at the beginning?

I think there was a lack of understanding at how you could actually ask for help. It was a surprise to my Russian colleagues to discover that you can actually phone unknown people and ask them for advice; I have never had anybody turn me down.

Do you think you have come to understand the Russian mentality by working for such a long time here?

As a Canadian, I have an advantage because I grew up English in Montreal. So growing up there I had to realise that I was growing up in a culture that wasn’t necessarily mine. So by default I was more aware of cultural differences. People from smaller countries all over the world have a similar experience and outlook. But not so the Americans, (who I feel quite sorry for). They have never really had to come to terms with another culture in that way. So I think I am more aware of cultural differences and able to understand where people are coming from.

It was pretty easy in the mid-nineties to get money overnight, if you could do something – anything. The expectation was that you should do something and then you’d get rich. It’s not that way now exactly, however Moscow is certainly a much pleasanter place to live in than it was back then.

Do you think there are more similarities between Canadians and Russians than there are dissimilarities?

I think there are more similarities: Canada, like Russia, is a ‘northern’ country: we understand snow! I think the world is in such a state that you have to give up too much to be isolated. The Russian government is certainly not ignorant of the demands of its people for a better life, but not in the same way as we are with a parliament that is responsive and so on. I think the main difficulty is that a ‘new world order’ is appearing that is different to a world order subservient to American supremacy, which didn’t work any better than the one subservient to the British empire a century ago. So I think there will be an opening to the East and a reopening to the West. It is hard to imagine why Russia is not considered more favourably than China when you look at human rights and corruption. Russia simply doesn’t do capital punishment.

Neil, you are also President of the CFA. Tell us a bit about it please?

CFA represents the gold standard of financial professionalism in knowledge and ethics. It was started over 60 years ago in several cities in Canada and the US and in the last 20 years has spread around the world. We started a CFA Association in Russia 11 years ago and now have over 500 members. Last fall we awarded 82 new CFA charters to Russians here in Moscow. To become a CFA charter holder you take a six-hour exam once every year for three years, which requires about 350 hours of studying and reading to be able to pass. The pass rate is about 40%. In each of the three exams, 20% is on ethics, and there is a code of conduct which you have to agree to abide by, which basically says that you should put your clients first, don’t cheat, and let them know how you are being paid. We now have about 2,000 Russian students taking part in this three-year course. I took my CFA back in the 1970s. Globally about 120,000 people have qualified. It has become a professional designation, a lot more useful than a general MBA if you are going to be working in finance. The advantage is that you don’t have to give up your job while you study. Career development is the major incentive for taking the CFA.

That says a lot for Russians.

I have great respect for people here doing the exam not in their native language: it is taken around the world only in English. But Russians succeed as well as anyone because, if they are committed to studying, they study well. Young people here want to do well and are prepared to make sacrifices to succeed.

Now we have a young generation which has already been working for ten years in a free market situation. This is bringing about a cultural change in a way that affects the way they see work and personal responsibility. This is really only just beginning, and it takes a long time, as it does anywhere.

Do you have any advice for people just arriving here?

Be flexible and appreciate the differences! But don’t move here in October because you are facing a winter without sun, which is long and tiring. My daughter came here on her first trip in March of 1998, and stayed for a month. She didn’t like Russia at all. My son came first in May and loved it. He has been back almost every year. The winter is actually pretty long and tiring, and you don’t realize how depressed one can get without sun. Now I try to get away at least once during the cold months to get some sun. My second piece of advice is: don’t leave learning Russian until your mid-50s. It doesn’t work. My Russian is still improving but it’s still far from perfect. I’ve only been learning it for 18 years! So there is still time.