Interview with Stuart Lawson

Selection_043

Stuart, what bought you to Moscow?

I went where I was told for 25 years. I was with Citibank, and over that time I worked with them in 11 countries. After I arrived here and worked here for some time, and I realized what Russia is, I left Citibank after a spell in London, I returned in 2000 and I’ve been here since then.

Have you ever wanted to leave?

Have I ever wanted to leave, or have I ever had to leave? Once I had come back in 2000, I really didn’t have a horizon on how long I would stay, the fact that I am still here in 2013 is really due to a set of circumstances that I would never have foreseen. It’s also, by the way, one of my excuses as why I don’t speak fluent Russian. My horizon in Russia has never been more than two or three years.

Yes, after one job or another came to an end, I have wanted to leave, but something always happened. After Citibank came to an end I worked for Delta Bank. That ended, and I didn’t know what to do, then I got a call from Platon Lebedev who said come and work for Menatep, which at the time was Russia’s 5th largest bank. Six weeks after I joined them he went to jail, and I decided that this was not a good sign. So I decided to carry on working there for a while, but basically to leave. Then I got a phone call from Oleg Deripaska asking me if I’d like to run his bank. Each time, I left a company I packed to leave. Then HSBC called and asked if I’d like to be the CEO of HSBC in Russia. HSBC decided to close it’s retail division and I left again. Six months after that I started working for Ernst and Young. I have left the country 5 times and come back 6 times. I went to my mover’s wedding.

I think what’s interesting about this series of assignments is that none of them had any connection to the others. I think it’s very important to stay in the game, of course Moscow is not an easy place to stay in the game if you’re not actually working, a lot of people pack up and leave. But once you’re gone you’re gone, you become yesterday’s news. The reason that I was able to come back with Ernst and Young, was that when I left in June 2010, I had committed myself to writing and then teaching the risk module for the Skolkova MBA programme. It was when I was back in Moscow that the next opportunity came up. If you are sitting in your garden far away, don’t expect your phone to ring, because it probably won’t.

I have now expanded my teaching work to teach at MGIMO, the Finance Academy, basically trying to pass on to Russians some of the experiences I have had. One of my courses is on Strategic Risk Management, and the other, which I really enjoy is a course of leadership, where I talk about, first of all, the difference between leadership and management. I found that the Russians have soaked it up, they are truly interested in the practical side of things. The fact that I have had so long as a practitioner is something that they find interesting.

Selection_044What is your general impression of Russians?

I have spent longer in this country than I have in any other. I wouldn’t have spent so much time here if I hadn’t liked the people who were around me.

The criticism would be that you spent so much time here because you were able to make a lot of money.

As I have said in a class; you have to be careful what you ask for. If you set your goal to be to earn lots of money, you might get that, but what you won’t get is the satisfaction of having an interesting life. Of course things are good here in terms of remuneration, but I don’t think that’s ever been a driver for me. I am concerned about the interests of the job, the dynamics of the market, the ability as a foreigner to take part in some pretty important local issues which you wouldn’t do in other countries. A fundamental issue is that this is a country that has a deep history that is facing significant issues, but which isn’t starting from scratch. It all started back in the 90s, from the wrong place; after three generations of communism. But the fact is that it had a culture, it had a fundamental academic background, it had well trained people, it had 99% literacy, it had all of these things. It just needed to put them into a certain sort of order. So no, it isn’t about money.

One of the things that I’ve felt about business life is that you need to have an external world. If your life is hermetically sealed in the business that you do, you run a risk because if something happens to that world, that’s it. So I’ve been involved in weird and wonderful things with some amazing Russians, like the Tango world, not that I can dance the Tango, but I did try. Then I got involve in sponsoring them and so forth. I also got involved in the art and music worlds in Moscow. And then even rock’n’roll, I have friend who is a famous rock’n’roller. All of this has really helped enjoy Russia.

Could Moscow really become an International Financial Centre?

I think that an International Financial Centre concept is directional. Nobody thinks this is going to come about overnight. I think that this is a dialogue between Russia and various countries, in particularly with Britain and the City of London. This has allowed a series of work streams to happen on certain issues. There is more progress in some areas than others, the important thing is that there is dialogue. I think that if you look at where we are today versus where we were four years ago, you will see that significant progress has been made.

Are people’s stereotypes about Russia in the West slowly being destroyed or getting worse?

Nothing fills a newspaper or crime novel than a cold war story or a guy with a Russian accent. Again and again this caricature of Russia and Russians appears in the press, sometimes in the serious press. In every big country, and Russia is a big country, bad things happen. If you sit down and focus on these, you can generate a list of very negative things. I think the important thing is to acknowledge where there are issues which need to be dealt with, not to dodge them. But also, for heaven’s sake, why can’t we talk about what it’s like to be in Gorky Park these days, as compared to what it was like three years ago? Let’s talk about cycling around Sparrow Hills on an autumn day. Or being in a restaurant and being surrounded by normal Russians doing normal things and being very pleasant about it. There are no bears on the street with vodka and guns.

Any regrets about things that you have liked to do but did not manage to do in Russia so far?

The language, it is clear that if I had known that I was going to stay here this long, I would have treated it more seriously. I’ve been lucky to go round the regions, when I was working for Deripaska, but I haven’t been travelling as much as I used to, and this is something I regret. Not a regret is the fact that I have a 15 years old son who comes here all the time, my regret is that he can’t spend more time here.