Russian to judgement…

Synergy? I couldn’t find any

A winter’s tale of my failure to find anything good and new to justify international expansion in a Russia-British trade event…

Highgate, North London. Dark, bitterly cold, snow in the air. I slowly pulled into a driveway I’d passed so many times, but never noticed before. Guards approached. Greatcoats, dour expressions. All they were missing were fur hats. After all, this was a little piece of Russia in London. Guard 1 scanned his list of names, looking for mine, a task frustrated by the dark and wind. Guard 2, clearly the boss, put him out of his misery, deciding that my car looked the part, even if I didn’t, and waved me forward onto a narrow winding drive uphill through trees. I wondered if I was entering into a John le Carré experience….

But no, this was the evening-before reception for the Russia-British Trade Forum, codename Synergy. Russia is far from top of the list for British firms considering their next international expansion, for reasons you, the reader, will probably be aware of. Nevertheless, I take the pragmatic attitude that very few countries are truly hostile destinations for business. Surely, regardless of politics, a vast country of 150 million people must be a great international business opportunity? The agenda for the main event was interesting, and looked to be a good opportunity to learn more. Also, to tell the truth, I felt quite honoured by the style of the invitation. But maybe I should have heeded the old adage about first impressions.

The reception felt strange. There were hundreds – of Russians. I may have been the sole Brit. Surrounded by a forest of very tall, conspiratorial Russians, and knowing nobody, I have rarely felt so small. But not everything was Russian. For no comprehensible reason, the catering was sponsored by Iceland. No caviar. Big TV screens showed never-ending spreads of their most desirable nibbles, an illusion destroyed by waiters bringing tiny titbits on sticks, warm prosecco and red battery acid wine. As they say, life is too short. I escaped.

No matter, I thought. The conference on the following day was big, and in the QE2 conference centre in Westminster. The first session about Russia business opportunities post-Brexit was to be chaired by David Davies, which I thought gave some stamp of approval to the event. It turns out that there are two Members of the UK Parliament called David Davies. No, me neither. And, you guessed, this wasn’t the one I’d expected. (And now I know that one of them has no ‘e’, just Davis).

It was a panel discussion. Well, no. Each member gave an individual monologue, all way off the topic. Apart from DD, there were two other UK MPs. Tom Brake, a Liberal Democrat, said he thought that Brexit was a terrible idea. I agree, but not relevant to promoting trade with Russia. DD and the other Conservative MP, both Brexiteers, concentrated on complaining that the British government isn’t promoting business with Russia, clearly overlooking that they are themselves part of it.

When I’d signed up to the event, I hadn’t been surprised that the British government, in the form of the Department of International Trade, was not promoting it or even mentioned. Since Brexit, they’ve more or less given up promoting anything. But, listening to these speeches, and seeing that almost everyone in the audience was Russian (easy to establish by seeing who put on headphones for the simultaneous translation), I was now realising that this might not be the event I’d anticipated.

Coffee break – time for some urgent mobile phone Google research that I should have done sooner. No wonder David Davies likes RT (Russia Today television) and doesn’t like the BBC. Apparently RT have paid him thousands for appearances. However, he found hostility on the BBC when interviewed on his views on transgender sex and immigration (let’s just say that he is very right wing). The other MP, Daniel Kawczynski, has indirectly been implicated in the current Westminster sleaze scandal, and has been criticised for taking funding from Saudi Arabia in the past and being paid to appear on RT more recently. Both have asked parliamentary questions recently, but neither of them on the subject of Russia or trade. Whatever the truth, they don’t come across as ideal or impartial representatives of Britain – certainly not from the viewpoint of promoting trade.

Well, how about the Russians themselves then?

Next up was Boris Titov. Currently he’s the Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights, and a candidate for the presidency in next year’s election. His presentation was detailed, lucid and delivered in excellent English. He extolled the wonders of the last period of great growth in the Russian economy, from 1905-1912 (yes, really), achieved, he said, by the premiership of Stolypin. A new name to me. Time for another Google… Let’s just say that historical opinion is divided, and the economic benefits to some were, unsurprisingly, achieved at some expense to others.

The next (Russian) speaker on the digital economy explained how his company has developed amazing databases and how strong Russian IT is. Haha.

None of this was helping trade or business relations between Britain and Russia, and the rest of the agenda, now viewed in a new light, was unpromising. I checked the draft agenda I’d been sent a month previous. Interesting to see that several Brits had dropped out. Wiser than me. Time to go.

No collusion.

Could these be the strangest “executive gifts” given out this year? No pens or pads, but not just one but two pairs of socks…

Postscript – the following day, one of my favourite columnists, Tim Dowling, wrote in the Guardian about spending a week watching RT. Very entertaining (his article, not the TV channel). Nothing like finding out after the event.

By Oliver Dowson

Over the last 40 years, I’ve built companies in many countries from the ground up. I have created, managed and sold businesses in UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, China, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain. I have travelled extensively in over 120 countries, spending an average of 8 months a year over the last 20 years away from my home base.
In my early business life, I successfully created 7 new businesses in different sectors in the UK for overseas owners. I moved on to invent and build one of the world's first energy and environmental management consultancies – long before Global Warming became a headline issue. Over the following 30 years, I grew that company, EnTech, into a true international business by opening 11 offices in 9 countries - and along the way, set up many more international companies for others.

I’m fortunate and proud that EnTech became the international energy management company of choice for Fortune 100 multinationals, selling services directly to GE, GM, HSBC, Citi, Honeywell and many others. Working closely with them gave me invaluable insights both into how multinationals work and the different business cultures in countries around the world. In April 2014, I sold EnTech to EnerNOC, becoming a Vice President and overseeing a seamless M&A transition over the next 18 months.

In all my business activities I’ve also used my languages and programming/software development expertise.
I am also now a Business Angel, investing in companies with international ambitions where I can provide mentoring and support from my practical experience, especially those headed up by women and minorities.

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