— Domenico what were your impressions when you first arrived in Moscow?
— I learned Russian at the university in my home town of Bari. In 2003, I came for a six-month language course in St. Petersburg. One weekend, two Swedes and I travelled to Moscow. Straight off the train, we went to Red Square, saw the Manege, the fountains, Alexander Garden. Hanging in the air was the “smell” of money and wealth. I have long since associated Moscow with that “smell”.
Knowledge of a language is not a profession in itself: it is a tool. I decided to open up a consultancy firm. I really wanted more products from my native Apulia to be represented in Russia. I soon realised that living in Italy whilst working in Moscow was impossible. You needed to get a feel for the city, to be sensitive to the minutest of fluctuations in the market, to keep in constant contact with your partners in order to understand the Russian mentality and win people’s trust. For the first two years, I lived in St. Petersburg, but I started to spend more and more time in Moscow, and soon I realised that it was my city. I love speed, I love taking risks. And Moscow is just like a brigantine scudding ahead in full sail.
— What does your work entail exactly?
— There are a good number of Italian manufacturers – of plates, oil, cheeses, ovens, cookers, and so on – who want to sell their goods in Russia. The ideal partners for them are importers, distributers, but you still need to establish contact, using various tools. You can, for example, take part in an exhibition, come to Russia and participate in some kind of events, or go and see professionals already working in that field and who already have good contacts. Our consultancy firm Brokerage-Est is such an intermediary. We evaluate the Italian manufacturers’ potential, examine the product pricing, and choose possible partners for them. The initial result is a long list which is whittled down to the most likely partners: the shortlist. An Italian representative arrives with the relevant samples or technology, and there are further, more detailed negotiations. We assist the manufacturers from Italy at each of these stages. For this we have experts on certification, solicitors, lawyers. For a certain percentage, we also work with those involved in the retail trade.
— Have there been any companies which you have advised not to enter the Russian market?
— We carry out a preliminary analysis. Russia is open to everyone, but not everyone is suited to Russia. The market here is big. There is a lot of buying and selling. But not all products are suitable in terms of price, style, or packaging. Or there is, for example, a strong market leader, and it won't allow room for anybody else. Or there are problems with the customs authorities with importing certain goods. Now, for example, it is difficult to find an importer for expensive high-quality wine. There simply isn’t the demand for it in Russia.
— Do Russian partners differ from Italian ones in any way?
— I don’t agree with those who say that Russian partners do everything slowly. I’ve had negotiations where we signed the contract in one day. And there have been negotiations which dragged on for two years and never led to anything. Russian businessmen are aggressive and temperamental: the country’s scope permits it. To not hurry here is not allowed. The situation in Italy now is difficult, as it across Europe. I don’t sense amongst businessmen there the passion, the burning desire to do something. Whereas that is here in Russia.
— Since the embargo on many goods from Europe was introduced, how has the situation changed?
— For suppliers who continue to import banned goods into Russia, turnover is near to nothing! Some of them have started seriously considering setting up joint production enterprises with their importers. In particular, the embargo has struck a blow to emerging small cheese factories. Or, here is another example. In a recent interview for the magazine RBC, one of the majority shareholders of the Cherkizovsky meat factory, Igor Babayev thanked Barak Obama for the sanctions. He explained this by pointing out that as a result the Russian government had reverted to granting additional funding in order to develop the agrarian sector. His factory was able to expand. Now they are buying more Italian equipment. We are assisting in some of those deals.
Any thinking person with initiative can find ways of developing a business in any crisis. We, for example, have now launched four projects. For instance, in 2008, one of my friends, at the very height of the crisis, started a company along some very original lines. He studied the market and saw what was lacking. He is now developing an original food service. This is it in a nutshell: for example, he offers not the usual salt, pasta, tomatoes etc. but particular types of these products, and explains what you can do with them. Many people know, for example, only one use for salt, but he shows them several other ways in which it can be used. He takes on all the training programmes himself. Those who have worked with him have changed the way they cook and have hugely benefitted. When you offer the market something unique, you are a winner!
— In Moscow you have managed to acquire a house and to get married, is that right?
— I met my wife by chance. A chap I know came up from Kislovodsk, and was telling me passionately about a local dance there, the lezginka. We watched a video together: it is indeed a very lively dance. I went to a dance school and learned how to do the lezginka. Luckily, the school had opened up next door to me. It was there that I met my future wife. She is Azerbaijani, born in Derbent, Dagestan, a doctor by profession. Destiny brought two southerners to Moscow: me from the south of Italy, and my wife from the south of Russia. A year later, we had a daughter.
— How comfortable do you find Moscow as a city?
— Comfortable enough. But the main thing is that it is flourishing. In terms of the number of parks, it is second only, perhaps, to London. Here there are a huge number of theatres and concert venues. In Italy, for example, going to the theatre is a particularly rare treat, but for Muscovites, it is an everyday occurrence. At first, I was surprised when I went to the theatre to see people wearing casual clothes, sometimes even jeans and trainers. Then I saw that for Muscovites, the theatre is everyday life, like going to the cinema after work.
I have been living in Moscow now for 12 years but I don’t have a car. I get about by taxi. About three or four years ago, I would quite often catch an unlicensed cab, which here they call “bombers”. You had to wait quite a long time for a taxi then. Now the situation has changed, a large number of companies have sprung up which are quick and provide a taxi at any time for reasonable prices. You can order either economy or business class cars. This segment in Moscow now enjoys a high level of service. I am also impressed by the fact that Moscow has quite a number of shops open twenty-four hours. After a club, you can go out into the dead of night to a supermarket and buy food. Before, because of the advertising hoardings and banners along the roads, and hanging above the streets, you couldn’t see the buildings. It was easier to pay a miserable fine than it was to take down an advert. No sooner was there a new mayor of Moscow, than the invasive adverts disappeared from the streets.
— And what would you undertake if you were the boss of the city?
— I would make a separate lane for public transport. And I would also severely penalise car owners who obscure part of their number plates. This makes it impossible to collect photo evidence of car parking offences. It is disconcerting to see an expensive car with a piece of cardboard pasted over its number plate. Does that mean that the driver of an ancient Lada has to pay, while someone sitting behind the wheel of a Mercedes is unwilling to?
— Can you call the capital of Russia a safe city?
— Without doubt. I have been to many European cities, so I have something with which to compare it. There are quite a lot of police officers on the streets of Moscow and on the metro. And if you do come across drunk people, then they aren’t aggressive on the whole.
— What can you say about renting office space and apartments?
— In that sense, Moscow is an expensive place. Rents for office premises are substantially higher than in Italy. A third of offices in business centres now stand empty. Many companies, in the interests of economy, have moved over to cheaper premises, both changing location and downsizing. To rent a “one-roomer” in the centre of Moscow, you have to fork out about 1,000 euros. It’s about as much to rent a flat in the centre of Milan. As far as hotels are concerned, there are plenty of pricey 5-star ones, but very few good 3-star ones. But, as far as I know, a programme to build economy class hotels in Russia has been approved.
— So is it worth it for foreigners to come to Russia?
— In 21st century Moscow, as in 19th century Paris, there is a lot going on and history is being made. I would like to address, in the first instance, my fellow countrymen. You should regard Russia not only as a place to sell goods, but also as a place to produce them. You can expand your business here, and export goods elsewhere, including the CIS countries. Russia is a very promising proposition. It has a future before it. The advice I would give to those from abroad coming here to Russia to work is: sleep less - an active nightlife is a must - learn the language, work with passion, be genuine with people, and don’t be afraid to make contacts. And I ask my compatriots not to forget that we are still Italians: you must maintain your style.
— How, in your opinion, are Italians different from other foreigners?
— Italians are considered to dress well, to be ever smiling, easy to get on with, they don’t “overburden” anybody, and know how to enjoy life. It is easy to tell an Italian by the quality of their footwear. It does happen that if you look, there is a German wearing a fabulous suit but his boots are, as they say, ”neither here nor there”. And socks...! There are no such thing as short socks. They really are supposed to be long!