feature

From Russia to Booth with Love

Moscow has a flourishing community of successful Booth alumni who do business with each other and feed a pipeline of promising students to the Executive MBA Program Europe.


By Phil Thornton

From his office at Moscow-based IFG Basis, Evgeny Tonkacheev, '05 (EXP-10), reflects on how his Booth MBA has propelled his career. Tonkacheev launched the investment company five years ago with a fellow Booth alumnus, Konstantin Sokolov, '05 (XP-74), whom he met through the Booth alumni network in Russia and recruited to a previous investment firm.

IFG Basis has been able to attract alumni investors from Russia and other countries for their projects. "This networking works for me very clearly," Tonkacheev said in an interview. "The outcome is evident."

The path that Tonkacheev trod more than a decade ago has since been followed by a growing number of fellow Russians enrolling in the Executive MBA Program Europe. As a result, the program has become a hub of highly successful Russian alumni, who do business with each other, or simply serve as sounding boards on professional issues. It's one of the largest and most tightly connected national networks of Booth graduates.

Since the Executive MBA Program opened its first European campus, in Barcelona, Spain, 20 years ago, the number of Russian students has risen sharply. The first three joined the EXP program in 1996 (See "Russian Debuts: Where Are They Now?") and now students from Russia are heavily represented in the program year after year. A total of 165 Russians have come through the program in the 18 years it has been running, representing about one-tenth of all graduates from the Executive MBA Program Europe.

The number of applications picked up beginning in 2003 and accelerated with the program's relocation from Barcelona to London in 2005, according to Glenn Sykes, associate dean for the Executive MBA Program Asia and Europe. "Russia had been opening up to a point where people had started to think about their personal development," he said.

Add to that a desire by Russians who had been educated in the Communist system to obtain a Western education. "I think the fact that Chicago stands for free markets was also appealing to Russians," he said. "As they were coming out of a centralized economy there was a natural pull toward a place like ours."

The value of a Booth MBA extends well beyond the lifetime of the program, as the achievements of generations of alumni demonstrate. For Russians, as with all graduates, it places them within a global network of more than 48,000 alumni in some 166 countries. Around 250 alumni who graduated from the Executive MBA and Full-Time MBA programs are active participants in the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of Russia. Not all are Russians - about 30 of them are foreigners who live and work in Russia.

ALUMNI IN HIGH PLACES

It is not just the size of the network but the elevated positions that many alumni occupy that is impressive. The roll call reads like a Who's Who of Russian business, commerce, and finance.

For example, Alexey Ananiev, '05 (EXP-10), who serves on Booth's Global Advisory Board, is chairman of Technoserv Group, the largest Russian company dedicated to system integration, IT services, and engineering facilities creation. He also is chairman of Promsvyazbank, the second largest private bank in Russia. Ananiev owns the bank with his brother Dmitry Ananiev, '06 (EXP-11), a former senator in the State Duma. The brothers' combined wealth is valued at $3.4 billion by Forbes magazine.

Kirill Androsov, '05 (EXP-10), is board chairman of Aeroflot, the Russian national airline, and of RZD, the country's railway network, as well as a former deputy chief of staff in the office of Prime Minister Putin. He is now managing partner of Altera Capital Management AG, an investment and advisory firm with about $700 million in assets under management. Androsov cofounded the firm with fellow alumnus Evgeny Astakhov, '05 (EXP-10). Altera's investment director, Olga Shompolova, is a student in the London program (EXP-20).

A Booth alumnus who has made his mark in government is Alexey Rakhmanov, '03 (EXP-8), deputy minister at the Russian Federation Ministry of Industry and Trade. He was previously director of the Department of Automotive Production and Agricultural Engineering at the ministry.

Maxim Donde, '99, CEO of LUKOIL Lubricants Co., came out of a military academy with a major in military politics and propaganda, "as far from economics and finance as you can get," he said.

During his time as a student in the Full-Time MBA Program in Chicago, "I was surrounded by talented, interesting, and challenging people," Donde recalled. "That was probably the only time in my life that I was constantly in an environment of such stimulating classmates. I made some good friends and those friendships have lasted, which has become a great benefit."

The Booth MBA was "an entry ticket into the world of high profile companies," he added. After graduating he was hired as an investment banker in Goldman Sachs Group's London office, where he worked for two years before becoming a vice president of the Russian oil company TNK-BP. He has been CEO at the LUKOIL unit since 2005.

"I would never have gotten into Goldman Sachs without going to Chicago. Without that Goldman Sachs experience I would never have gotten into a senior management position for one of Russia's biggest companies," he said. "Experience works in your favor, but I would never have gotten that experience without going to Booth."

POWER OF THE NETWORK

For alumni in Russia building their careers, the network is an enormous asset. Tonkacheev was looking to advance his career after graduating from Moscow State University in 1995 with doctorate degrees in physics and mathematics. His transition into commerce took place following perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

"I had no special business education but got a lot of experience working for this big company," recalled Tonkacheev, who by 2001 had become CEO at Basic Element Co., the giant industrial and financial conglomerate company established by the industrialist Oleg Deripaska. Tonkacheev recalled that his colleague Igor Zhukov, '02 (EXP-7), invited him to a meeting of the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of Russia. He was impressed by the caliber of the alumni and, having done his own extensive research into the options, decided to apply to Booth. "I remember that when I met these guys, I had a desire to be their equal," he said.

His partnership with Sokolov at IFG Basis is a testament to the power of the alumni network. Even though they studied on different continents (Sokolov earned his degree from the Executive MBA Program North America in Chicago), the two knew each other from a class week in Chicago and stayed in touch through the alumni network. In 2006, one year after graduation, Tonkacheev joined Eastfield, an international investment company, as CEO, and recommended that shareholders hire Sokolov as first vice chairman and global CFO. He and Sokolov left Eastfield in 2008 to launch IFG Basis.

Tonkacheev is now president of the alumni club, which hosts speeches by leading figures on key Russian issues and holds social events for alumni to meet former classmates and make new contacts. One upcoming event scheduled for May - part of the Chicago Conversations series - will enable Booth alumni and industry professionals to share their outlook for energy and natural resource markets. "It's a good network - good for life and good for business," Tonkacheev concluded.

Alumni club members often assist the Booth admissions teams in recruiting: organizing information sessions, referring friends and colleagues to Booth, providing references, and meeting with admitted students. "I regularly give personal reference letters to those candidates whom I consider up to the high marks of the school," Alexey Ananiev said.

Russian executives tend to be extremely willing to recommend Chicago Booth to their colleagues. Sykes said the Russian alumni always have taken brand ambassadorship seriously: "Once the snowball starts to roll its gets bigger and bigger; we now get more applications from Russia than any other country." 

THE VIEW FROM LONDON

Student Evgenia Efimova, a national tax manager at oil giant BP, is part of the influx of professional Russians studying at the London campus. She expects to graduate this spring (EXP-19).

BP, where she has worked for the past nine years, sponsored her to attend a business school of her choosing as part of its accelerated career program. She said her decision to attend Booth was influenced by BP's CFO in Russia, who is a Booth graduate, and several of Efimova's Russian friends, who also are Booth alumni.

efimovaThe structure of one intense week of classes in London followed by four or five weeks of study at home in Russia is a good mix for a full-time working professional, she said. She also values the ease of travel to London, which is only a four-hour flight from Moscow. "The travel and the schedule are very convenient for me," she said. "It was a good fit."

Dmitry Khalilov, who in August started in the EXP-20 class that will graduate in 2015, said the recommendations from senior executives at EY, the business advisory and accounting firm in Moscow where he works as head of retail, consumer products and pharma, were an important consideration for him as well.

He pointed to six alumni in key executive positions at EY, including the managing partner for Russia, the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) advisory practice, and the partner for transactional advisory services. All said Booth's international campuses provided unmatchable opportunities to gain experience and develop relations in different parts of the world at the C-suite level.

Khalilov said he appreciates that the London campus attracts students from a range of countries and regions: the Middle East, Africa, and South America, as well as Europe. This diversity immediately gives students access to ways of thinking they would be unlikely to have in their home countries.

"It is interesting to see how people with different nationalities express their opinions," Khalilov said. "There were cross-cultural differences that I rarely see when I am working."

Michael Gibbs, clinical professor of economics and faculty director of the Executive MBA Program, observed that Russian students are comfortable speaking in the classroom even though English isn't their native language. "They enjoy the intellectual back and forth of the Socratic method found in US and UK universities, and they like to debate each other, too."

Russian students bring perspectives and experiences that other Europeans might lack. "Many experienced the transition from communism to market capitalism, so when I teach microeconomics and talk about price controls and limits on availability of products, these guys lived through it when they were growing up," Gibbs said.

Efimova and Khalilov are confident that their MBA will enable them to advance at their companies and in their careers. For example, Efimova is global lead for the BP tax department's diversity and inclusion agenda. In addition, she hopes to take a more active role in a leadership program aimed at strengthening the capabilities of the BP tax department.

Beyond gaining knowledge and expertise through their course work, students gain broader insights and understandings that build the confidence they need to lead companies or start new ones. Tonkacheev said he gained knowledge of key soft subjects as well as the core financial disciplines. "I got everything I needed - and even more," he said. "I was familiar with corporate finance, with investment and with accounting, but I gained additional knowledge of strategy and game theory and soft skills such as managerial psychology and marketing."

He uses a maritime metaphor to describe how his Booth MBA changed the way he did business. "After graduating from Chicago I had the knowledge of how to run my own business and how to sail my own vessel, and so I left my former position on the big ship," he said, referring to his departure from Basic Element.

For other alumni, the Booth MBA is a tool-kit that enables them to deal with challenges and assess opportunities in a more effective way than they had done previously. Androsov of Aeroflot and Altera Capital Management uses the analogy, "Everything had to be put back on the right shelf," he said. "In Russia we thought we knew everything, and we were quite arrogant. It took me six months to understand that my business knowledge was nothing." Donde is keen to encourage more Russians to earn a Booth MBA, whether in the Full-Time MBA Program in Chicago or the Executive MBA Program Europe or Asia. His wife, Olga Donde, earned her Booth MBA in 2010 (EXP-14). "I would not be where I am right now without having gone to Chicago," he said. "Booth opened the way for me."

Photo: Efimova and fellow students at the London campus take a break between classes. Photo by Phil Thornton

 

Sidebars

Executive Education Could Trigger a Beneficial Cycle

The popularity of the Executive MBA Program has led to an increase in demand for Booth's nondegree Executive Education courses.

Promsvyazbank, the second largest domestically owned private bank in Russia in which Alexey Ananiev '05 (EXP-10), and his brother Dmitry Ananiev, '06 (EXP-11), are majority shareholders, has become the first Russian company to take part in a custom education program.

The school won a tender in 2011 to offer the program over two other business schools. Ananiev, who took no part in the tender process, said he was delighted that the course, started primarily for board members in January 2012, was expanded to include more than several dozen key employees of the bank.

Arnold Longboy, '08 (EXP-13), managing director, executive education and external relations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said that as the number of Russian alumni grows, it is likely to lead to further demand for tailor-made Executive Education programs.

He said the school is close to finalizing agreements on custom programs with a couple of other Russian companies. The London campus also runs three-week general management programs that have attracted a number of Russian executives.

Longboy anticipates a promising cycle whereby senior managers who go through an Executive Education program will be more likely to think of Booth for an MBA for themselves or their colleagues.

"A lot of our alumni in Russia are senior and they like to talk about Chicago Booth and so people recognize the brand," he said. "On the conference circuit they are very happy to say what school they're from."

 

First Russian Students: Where Are They Now?

Meet the alumni who were the first three Russian students in the Barcelona-based Executive MBA Program Europe nearly 20 years ago.

Vladimir Lenski, '98 (EXP-3), has had a wide-ranging career. He is managing director of London-based Matra Petroleum plc, which he joined in 2012. Before that he spent five years investing and consulting in mineral resources and other sectors as a managing partner for Soong Consultants Ltd. Earlier he was managing director of NTV-Plus, the satellite TV broadcaster, and president and CEO of Kommersant, the publishing company. Since 2005 he has been a member of the Global Advisory Board, Europe, Middle East, and Africa Cabinet.

Dmitri Paltsev, '98 (EXP-3), served for 10 years at Moscow-based Caspian Energy Group as a director and then as chairman. He is now a nonexecutive board member of Caspian Energy's parent company Rosshelf OAO.

Dmitri Gourji, '98 (EXP-3), is president of Gourji E-Bazaar, a Russian jewelry and accessories companies that he founded in 1989 and which includes a number of online brands.

Last Updated 1/16/14