Robert Knights

Selection_047How did you come to be in Moscow?

I originally came out here with Mars Confectionary, to set up a service operation here. Of course Russia was a very different place from the UK at the time, but I soon started to like the Russian people, and see the potential here.

It was great fun in the early days, for example, I was amazed to find out that the company that we had hired to make specially modified refrigerated trucks for us had painted our logos on the side of the trucks by hand, because they didn’t have any other method. Amazing ingenuity! That kind of ‘do anything mentality’ was inspiring.

My family joined me and we lived near the Fedorov eye hospital. After the crisis later that year I moved back to the UK for a short period, and then I returned with Pepsi International Bottlers, to help rebuild their business. Mission accomplished, I went to work for Unilever for four years, a period which encompassed the 1998 crisis. That was a traumatic time, when we had to face the mammoth task of dramatically reducing our warehouse stocks, and then bring our operational costs down by a significant amount. The next year we started bringing Unilever’s manufacturing onshore, to alleviate the effects of another such crisis in the future.

After a spell in London and Paris with Newell Rubbermaid’s division Sanford Europe, working as their European Supply Chain Director, I returned in January 2004 and joined an independent company called ProLogics. It wasn’t until 2008 that we merged our outsourcing business with Work Service. Which quickly became a major market player in Eastern, and Western Europe.

What exactly does Work Service Do in Russia?

Our main activities in Russia are: providing outsourced merchandising and sales support solutions, recruitment, field audits and temporary staff. Some clients are very large where we employ several hundred people for them, with operations all over the country, others just need two or three people to promote their product in Moscow. As the Russian retail universe has grown, we’ve grown with it. We work directly with the brand owners or with the retailers.

The other side of our business in outsourcing is industrial. For example we have a very large business with Avtoframos, which is Renault, where we are supplying line workers for their production lines. We provide welders, painters, assembly people, a whole range of industrial positions. We help them with probation periods and all that kind of thing. We also have a very extensive forklift truck driver training programme.

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We have one client now who we are providing 700 people for, and actually this means that we have to find about 10,000 people to find those 700. It’s that kind of scale, because not everybody is suitable, not everybody passes the test, we have a very large data base of candidates. For our clients to set this up themselves would be a major job. Rotation of people is a big issue here. Medical issues are complex, especially if you are going to be working with fresh food. We operate in over 150 cities for the same client on one project for example.

The other thing we do here is classical recruitment; technical positions, finance positions, sales positions, general management positions.

I suppose what really cuts us off from the crowd is our ability to come up with solutions for some quite complex servicing problems, sometimes involving very diverse geographical locations and logistics. We enjoy and thrive on helping clients to take their businesses to the next stage and we are equally at home when downsizing and restructuring is required.

How long do you think you are going to be in Russia for?

Well I’ve been here now for about 20 years now, I have another 5 years in mind, but I have had that in my mind two or three times. I’ve got some great Russian friends here, this place is a challenging, enjoyable place. It’s certainly a lot cleaner than it used to be from an environmental point of view. You add it all up, and yes, it’s still comfortable being here, I’m happy to be in Moscow, I’m still happy to be part of the community which is full of expat friends, and still happy to spend another 5 years before having to make a decision.