Ru En

The 21st century — The Time of People

Ruben Vardanyan Troika Dialog Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO Manager

Date: 18 June 2010

Source: Imperial magazine

The CEO of Troika Dialog admits he doesn’t possess musical or artistic talents. The only thing he knows how to do inside and out is to create business and oversee ambitious projects with an aim for the future.

Ruben, according to many, one of the questions you ask job candidates interviewing with Troika Dialog is how the candidates see themselves in twenty or thirty years’ time. Why is that?

It’s very important for a person to have a goal for the sake of which he or she is willing to work many hours in a row, and at the same time for him or her to understand which criteria measure their successes or failures. For some people this means success, while for others it is money.

And for you?

For me – professional recognition and inner freedom.

Recognition is no issue: even a superficial look at your biography and everything you managed to achieve over a few decades attests that you are a man of many talents.

I grew up in a creative family: my father had a lengthy career as a professor of architecture at Yerevan Polytechnic Institute, while my sister is a composer. Whereas I, in my opinion, lack any particular talents. To this day I dream of learning to play at least one musical instrument, and to take up drawing. To be honest, there’s nothing I’m capable of besides earning money.

Why’s that? You also know how to spend it, and in very original ways. Apparently you made a promise that if Troika’s capitalization reaches $1 billion, you will shave your head bald, jump with a parachute and give out $10 million to the company’s employees! Did you keep your promise?

Basically yes. In 2007 I made a parachute jump and gave out the money to employees. Although I didn’t give out ten million, but altogether twenty. The additional ten million was distributed among the employees based on the amount of time they had been with the company. With this gift I wanted to express my thanks to everyone who together with me made Troika the company it is today – and to everyone who has worked with the company nearly since the day of its founding, and to everyone who joined the company recently and, hopefully, will be just as committed to the common business. There was a task – to build an effectively functioning Partnership. For me it is important that the company's employees understand that together we aren’t simply earning money, but building something greater – something commanding universal respect and bringing joy to us ourselves.

You allocate a lot of money to charity. You aren’t afraid? After all, in our country, charity often goes hand in hand with theft.

Indeed, there’s a universal crisis of trust happening in Russia, and people, as a rule, give money for good deeds personally into the hands of those they can trust. Therefore, the philanthropic model existing in our country today is built upon addressed help.


Do you know how Herman Gref rephrased the eternal Russian problem of “roads and fools?” He said we have bad infrastructure and a lack of quality managers. So there, the reason interfering with the creation of a philanthropic industry in fact is concealed in the lack of professional managers, lawyers and accountants who would service it. In the U.S., for example, more than 100,000 people work in this industry: gathering materials, conducting accounts, preparing reports. The entire chain should be built on the basis of appropriate principles and be transparent, then people won’t be fearful of handing out their money.

Perhaps Russian people became unaccustomed to helping one another?

In Russia, unlike other countries in Europe, philanthropic traditions have been around for a long time. In this regard we are more similar to the U.S., where people redeemed their sins through good deeds. Furthermore, philanthropy is a rather broad concept encompassing not only help for those who need it, but changing attitudes toward life overall. Supporting educational systems, athletic schools and kindergartens, ecological and cultural projects – all of this is an investment in the future.

With regards to your investment in the future, SKOLKOVO business school, legends have begun circulating.

Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO is an immense, ambitious and innovative project in the sphere of business education in the 21st century. In the 19th century, all the wars were for land, in the 20th century – for industrial resources, then came the 21st century – the time of people and battles for the best personnel. Furthermore, this is one of only a few successful examples of partnership between the government and private investments producing a non-profit project. This is understood by Dmitry Medvedev, who, acting as a private individual, became Chairman of the International Advisory Board, as well as by many Russian businessmen, including Roman Abramovich, Leonid Melamed, Leonid Mikhelson, Konstantin Nikolaev and others, who collectively invested more than $100 million in SKOLKOVO.

What do they teach in this business school, and how?

SKOLKOVO’s core educational programs are fully functioning – MBA, Executive MBA and Executive Education. The accent is placed on “learning through action” – for example, MBA students (one-third of them foreigners) work on projects in Moscow, then in China, India and the U.S. Upon finishing the program, the graduate can either join a large corporation or become an entrepreneur, work in Russia or in China. It should also be noted that the partners-founders play an active role in school affairs: sharing their experiences with students, holding job interviews, which sometimes last several hours.

Let’s return to practice. Could you tell us, please, what long-term impact the current crisis will have on the world financial system? You said at one point that you wouldn’t rule out its disintegration.

Events could develop in one of several ways. One of the ways is only possible provided the key countries agree to general principles and rules of financial market regulation, to a shared system of information disclosure, to regulation and control over participants, to the relationship of debt to capital and other important things. True, a serious question will then arise about how to regulate all of this and punish violators. However, there is another, no less realistic scenario – the countries don’t reach agreement. For example, neither China nor India experienced a banking crisis, and these countries could take the position of “each man for himself.” In that case, everyone will have to survive on their own, making protectionism the prerogative not only of the emerging market countries, but developed ones as well, who will attempt to restrict their markets, not allow China into European banks and so on. This, in turn, will lead to demarcation and the division of the world between multiple poles.

How did the crisis affect Troika Dialog?

Today’s crisis isn’t the first to happen during Troika’s lifetime, since our company is already 19 years old. This was the latest test of strength, and we endured. A source of help was our strong partnership culture, and the fact that we selected the right business model: Troika operates through customer service and does not place large assets on its own balance. Furthermore, the company was always geared for the long-term: when the market was experiencing rapid growth, we didn’t always win, but this allowed us to survive and develop during times of crisis. True, over the last five years we grew too fast (tripling staff headcount, opening branch offices), and the growth sickness let itself be known during the crisis. Other than that, liquidity vanished from the market, and if this situation had continued a little longer, it would have been hard for us. We realized there was no way for us to proceed without our own bank, and that concentrating our efforts on the market of a single country presents certain limitations. It became necessary for us to differentiate our risks in different regions in the world, and we concluded that the combination of Africa, China and Russia will be optimal for business, so we made a deal with South Africa’s Standard Bank.

With such an international take on business you must literally live on an airplane.

That’s the way it is. I fly often – I have about 1000 flying hours, the same amount that professional pilots have. I remember when I enrolled in MSU in 1985 and arrived to my relatives’ home in Moscow (people from the diplomatic sphere) and told them about my dream: to fly to Paris for breakfast and come back. They looked at me as if I were crazy and suggested dreaming about something more realistic. And so, just recently I flew to New York for breakfast with a client and two hours later flew back to Moscow. My most hectic flight was in December 2006 following the route Moscow-Shanghai-Bangkok-Hyderabad (India)-Dubai-Frankfurt-Liublyana-Moscow-St. Petersburg-Moscow. I completed it in less than a week, experiencing all the climate zones – from +40° С to -20° С – and thoroughly forgetting about time.

It would be easy to begin resenting planes under such conditions.

No, I love flying – with the frenetic pace of our lives somehow it’s easy to think in the air, there are no meetings, but there is the opportunity to forget about everything. When flying, I enjoy working with documents or simply reading for pleasure. And after the breather in the sky – again the urge to get to business. On the ground.