Christian Gabriel - General Manager, M + W Group

 How did you come to be living in Moscow?

In 2000 I started university in Austria and chose a course which focussed on Eastern Europe. I remember at the time when Austria became a member of the European Union, they told us that the future is not in the West, the future is in East Europe. I studied international business relations with a focus in eastern Europe. I was offered the choice between studying a number of languages: Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Romanian, and Russian. The choice for me was not so difficult; I didn’t want to study anything too close. Russia was so far away in my understanding then, so I thought, OK, that makes sense.
In 2002 I attended a Russian summer school in Kharkov, then in Sevastapol, and in 2003 I came to Moscow on work practice for one term, and worked in the Austrian Trade Council. Moscow was a huge shock for me. I do not come from the capital in Austria. When you enter a city like Moscow with its multi-million population, it was completely shocking. I liked the work here, it was interesting, dynamic and varied, and my free time was interesting as well, at that time, I went out during the week very often.

I returned to Austria and finished university, I got my first job, which was in politics, then I decided to do a management training programme, and then suddenly, in 2007 I was offered a job to work for an Austrian construction company in Russia, to lead their Russian entity in Moscow. I had never worked in construction, but the good times that I had had previously in Russia left me with no choice but to gratefully take up the offer.

I arrived, there were 56 employees, which I had to lead; I was 27 at the time. Somehow, we succeeded. We doubled our staff over a few years, increased business drastically, it was profitable and the business ran very well. In 2013 I wanted to go back to Austria, not because I had to but because I felt that I should. But repatriation turned out to be more difficult than I thought. My business experience was based in Russia, so after a year I understood, OK maybe this is not such a good idea. So I decided to stay a bit longer in Russia, but felt I should change my job, join a bigger company, a more structured company, with more responsibility, and where I could use my Russian experience. So I joined M+W High Tech projects as General Manager.

Do you have a partner here?

Actually I now have a Russian fiancée, we are getting married at the end of August, and we are getting married in Austria. I have found a wonderful Russian soul.
I also want to say that since I have met her, I have dived into Russian culture. I want to say that it is bright, big, shiny, it’s fascinating. It is bigger than I thought it was.

You talked about difficulties of repatriation, but the longer you stay here, the more difficult it is going to be to leave?

I understand that, and I also understand that I have already spent 20% of my life in Russia. Russian will always have a certain influence in my life. It makes no sense to go back home and put it away like a backpack. But I also know that I will not be a pensioner in Russia. I also do not want my kids to grow up here, I would rather they go to school in Austria.

You know about construction and engineering, and you know about Russia. You also know about politics, which is unusual. Are we coming, in your opinion, to the end of this terrible period of hostilities?

That is a good question. I thought at the beginning of the year that the sanctions will be lifted at least partly. However, the European Union has now confirmed that sanctions will be in place until the end of January 2017. So probably the sanctions will be in place for some time. If you have to import anything, you are in a bad position due to devaluation of Rouble. Our company is doing well at the moment thanks to the sanctions. Micro-electronics, pharmaceuticals and other industries in Russia are experiencing a kind of production boom in Russia under the import-substitution programme.

People joke about the import-substitution programme, perhaps they shouldn’t?

It is really happening; this is not a joke. One of the programmes that has already been launched before the sanctions is ‘Pharma 2020.’ Russia wants to produce 20% of imported pharmaceutical products locally. The Russian State is supporting FDI into this area. Western companies bring the knowledge and technology and the goods are produced here. They want to produce microchips, robots, a lot of investment is going into the space industry, into the energy sector, into the nuclear industry, so I cannot complain about business.

So there is hope?

Europe will suffer because of the sanctions. They are suffering now, because they are not exporting, and when Russia produces its own products they will continue to suffer. Basically the sanctions are helping Russia to grow up, to become more adult, on the fast-track. Europe will probably always have the lead in new technology, but it may lose a major export market for good. The sanctions are also helping Russia to diversify from an oil-based economy.

So the expats that remain have to be really good and offer unique knowledge/experience?

I have seen that a lot of expats have left Russia over the past two years. A lot of companies have withdrawn their expats, and there are less foreigners running foreign companies than locals. I’m not sure if this is a long-term movement, I think expats will come back after a while. The only people who have remained are people who are very experienced and more dedicated to the country.

Why aren’t the Russian creating new technology themselves?

In my humble opinion after 9 years in Russia, I think that Russians are more short-termed focused. If you have an interview with an employee and you ask him where he sees himself in 5 years, you will often see a question mark in his or her eyes. If I ask someone about how long they plan to stay in the company, if he is honest he says one or two years. There are exceptions of course, but this is the norm. People are much more short-term orientated, they don’t think about the next level, about what comes after Industry 4.0, they don’t care. Even Pepsi Cola is now using this slogan ‘here and now’ to advertise here. What is amazing is that Russians were the first nation to go to space. Space is almost Russian invented. How can they manage that when they cannot manage to standardise the production of cars, like Germans can? For me, Russians are good tactical, not strategic thinkers.

The Russians are catching up, but not in all sectors. They can catch up to a certain point, then technology jumps further.

Could it be because the soviet space industry, for example, was a State controlled industries, which could afford long term thinking?

I think that out of 142 million people, there are a number of people who think long term. There are Nobel prize winners from Russia, but in this big country you need to fight to survive. I think this is the answer for me. You don’t have the freedom to develop your capabilities, of course intellectuals who get some sort of state sponsorship do have this opportunity, but the average Russian has to fight on a daily basis, and he or she doesn’t have the possibility to think long term.