Mark and Lois Gilbert

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How did you come to be working and living in Moscow?

Mark: We’ve been living here a little over 4 years, going into our fifth year. I had been coming back and forth here for 6 years. The travel became too hectic, so I suggested to Bombardier that I’m happy to stay if you move me here, so here we are.

How did you survive in the beginning?, did you have difficulty adapting?

Mark: We rented a flat, work was busy, I was travelling a lot into the regions. For my recreation I do a lot of running, swimming and cycling to keep fit. I still run six days a week, and now I go out with the Moscow Street Riders on the weekends, when we can do 100k plus on one ride.

Lois: I’m somebody who will jump in and start doing things wherever I am. The first day I was here, I joined the AWO and the IWC. Eventually I started working on their boards, and I became totally involved in Moscow life in a different way from Mark. Right now, I am volunteering for Sochi 2014, I’m interview international volunteers for the Olympics and am very involved in the wine and cuisine culture in Moscow.

How did you get involved with Sochi?

Lois: I was involved with both the Vancouver and London Olympics. When the Olympics was first announced here, I approached the Sochi 2014 team and told them that I have relevant experience. I didn’t think that there is a culture of volunteering here, but I was wrong. They had about 200,000 people apply for volunteer jobs, about 5,000 are international volunteers, so we are working our way though that. It is interesting that their PR office has asked me to speak to a lot of different people about volunteering and the culture of volunteering. We always thought that the culture of volunteering is not here, but we have had people coming off the street and saying: I want to be a volunteer. It is surprising and heart-warming how many Russians are coming forward.

Do you think this could be the beginning of a new Russian national idea?

Lois: This is definitely the beginning of something, the excitement of the games has really caught hold, and this is something that people want to become a part of. To me, this is really exciting.

Do you speak Russian?

Lois: I try, I’m not very good. We have a zone at work where we can only speak Russian, so I go and talk to anybody who is there in Russian. Russian was actually my first language; my grandparents were Russian. They immigrated to Canada in 1899, I spoke it as a little child, but you know when you get into school, your knowledge of a second language stops pretty quickly if they don’t speak it at that school. My writing and pronounciation are quite good, I can’t say the same thing about my vocabulary skills!

Mark: I speak enough to get by.

What was doing business here like at the beginning?

Mark: From a work perspective it wasn’t bad, because I had already been travelling here for some time. I had been working with commercial airlines, which were buying western aircraft, they had people who spoke English, so I didn’t really have to speak Russian to do my job. I think the most difficult part was having lived a life of travelling, staying in hotels etc., to then all of a sudden coming here and moving into my own flat and having to look after myself. This was much more of an eye opener than I thought it was going to be. After that, it was fine.

How do you find Russians to do business with?

Mark: At the end of the day, business is all about relationships. So you have to get to know your customers fairly well if you want to be successful. That takes time, so a lot of things that might go faster in the West, like negotiating a deal, putting everything together, finalising everything can take longer. Most companies here have one single person who makes the decisions, but decisions have to be vetted by a group, and this process can be bureaucratic and very time consuming. This needs to be factored in.

Do you find Russians reliable, honest business partners?

Mark: I find them honest. When they tell you things, that’s usually the way it is. You may not like that, you might want to change it, but in the end of the day you come back to the position they adopted in the first place. This may not be very easy to communicate to people from head office who come over, because their business environment is so different.

Lois: I find Russians need time to get to know you, if you find somebody that you have a connection with then it seems to go a lot faster. Russians don’t seem to like the departure side of things too much. If you are going away, they will cut things off quite abruptly, they wont hang around and be emotional.

What are the main difficulties that you experience when living here?

Lois: Trying to get work done in the apartment. We have a relatively good landlord so things get done in a decent time, but major projects sometimes get left undone. They come and view it, say yes we are going to do it, but things only get done after a long time. This is not something we are used to. If we hire a contractor to come and do something, we expect it to be done in a certain time. For example, going and buying a washing machine and getting it installed. You would think that the guy who delivers it would install it, but no, you have to have a plumber, then the guy to remove the old machine and all that sort of thing, all the jobs here are very compartmentalised.

So how do you get things done?

Lois: I just continually persist. I keep on and on to the landlord, and they are very good to us now. I recognise that the worst thing to do is to lose my cool and start shouting at people, that gets nowhere. I actually found it relatively easy to fit into the lifestyle here. Even though my language skills aren’t that good, I am still able to get what has to be done, done.

On the business side Mark, it must be really difficult now because you are up against local suppliers?

Mark: 10 years ago there were only Russian aircraft, but we looked at the market and thought that there was a lot of opportunity for us to be able to participate. We realised that this is going to take a while, this is not something that is going to happen overnight. We persisted, and successes were seen by the company, and that helped. Now Russia is an international market like many others.

So it’s a long-term business, long money? It also means that you need to be around for long time?

Mark: Yes, it’s long money, but it’s the company that decides if I am going to be here for the long term or not, not me. Eventually the company will hire more local people, there are many good people around, but I am in no rush to leave.
I cover the entire CIS as well, so you can take what you learn here with you, but they are all different and have their own personalities, which is something you have to bear in mind when you are talking to people. It’s not just one country, is a collection of countries, and they are all different one from the other with some similarities.

What’s the main thing you need to remember when you are doing business in Russia?

Mark: Be patient, work with a trustworthy partner or group of people. Apart from listening to them, you have to work with them very closely. You can’t sit back and put your western ways of doing things in front of you, you’ve got to find out what the issues really are, and deal with them.

Lois: I agree, you do have to develop a relationship so that people can trust you, you have to be yourself. For me, the answer is just to be friendly, and I am lucky because I am an easy-going person, and I will talk to anybody, I didn’t find the experience of moving into Russia overwhelming.

You are both Canadians, is the Canadian community in Moscow active?

Lois: There is a good Canadian community here; I coordinate the activities of the Canadian Women Club in Moscow, although the only main activity we are doing as a group activity now is a Thanksgiving Dinner. I would say that outside the embassy, there are a couple of hundred Canadian women who are in contact with me. We have taken part in the International Women’s Club charity drives and generally stay in contact with each other.

Is there a Canadian school here?

Lois: There isn’t a Canadian school, but there is a Russian Canadian who runs a school which has been expanding quite rapidly recently.

What about on the business front, is there a Canadian business club?

Mark: Yes, I am a director of the Canada Eurasia Russian Business Association, which is going strong.

What do you find to be the most interesting element in Canadian-Russian relations?

Mark: Both countries have a lot on common: both are large and are bountiful in raw materials, but Canada’s population is very small in comparison to Russia’s. There is a lot of exchange in the resource sector. We don’t have the power that the Americans or Brits do when it comes to issues, we try to keep in the centre as much as we can.

Do you feel overshadowed by the Americans?

Mark: Not really, because the Americans are doing different things in Russia. Some of our board members are Americans and visa versa.

How is business going between Canada and Russia?

Mark: It’s growing. There is the oil and gas sector and the aerospace sector, which are the two strongest segments.

Lois: There are a lot of small businesses like restaurants that are coming over to try the waters here. For example ‘Fresh’ a company from Toronto, a vegetarian restaurant chain which has just come over. Russian culture in Canada is growing as well. There is a very large Russian community in the Toronto area that tend to live and shop and do everything in the same general area.

Like Brighton Beach?

Lois: No, it’s much more integrated. They are bringing their restaurants and stores over to Canada. There’s a totally Russian store just north of Toronto called Yummy. The clerks only speak Russian, the food is just the same as in Moscow. We have a pretty open door policy to Russians.

Canadians respect authority and pay their taxes, the country seems from a distance to be quite conservative. How do Canadians react to being in Russia, which at times can be a reckless?

Mark: A lot of people who are coming over have already done business here, and have been exposed to Russia. A lot of people have misconceptions about how difficult everything is here, but when they have come through customs and check into their hotels, they seem to say, Oh, we didn’t realise that this is such a modern place! They don’t necessarily see all the underlying issues which you see if you are living here, but usually they find that their preconceptions are not right.