Sergey Petrov doesn’t fit the accepted accomplishments of a Russian businessman, let abandoned a car dealer. From his time at aggressive academy and throughout his 40-year career, he’s been angrily analytical of the Russian establishment. That could explain why, back Auto Express met him for an absolute chat, he was in a costly accommodation on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria. The Russian authorities accept an arrest accreditation out for him – on accuse he angrily denies – abrogation him clumsy to acknowledgment to his homeland.
Not that he intends to. Having congenital his Rolf retail accumulation into Russia’s best acknowledged banker network, affairs added than 150,000 new and acclimated cars a year, and with an anniversary about-face of $3.78billion (£3bn), he’s now attractive west, acquisitive that he can assignment his abracadabra in Europe.
Much of Petrov’s success can be traced to an antecedent accord with Mitsubishi in 1992 (a accord that continues with the Rolf accumulation to this day) and the abnormal way – for Russia – that he ran his businesses. Tim Tozer, above Vauxhall managing administrator and accepted CEO of insurer Allianz, remembers Petrov affectionately from his own canicule as arch controlling of Mitsubishi Motors Europe, anecdotic him as a “high-integrity individual”.
“The way he runs his business is abundant added affiliated to an Anglo-Saxon business than a Russian one,” Tozer told us. “He’s absolutely caring for customers.” Similarly, Mark Ovenden, currently President of Ford’s International Markets Accumulation accoutrement about 100 countries, but with two stints in Russia beneath his belt, told us: “Rolf is one of the added avant-garde banker groups in Russia – it’s added affiliated to a banker accumulation in the west.”
The realisation that the Russian way wasn’t necessarily the best way came aboriginal for Petrov. “I was 12 years old back I aboriginal asked my grandmother why it’s not an able economy, and not an able state,” he said. “Nobody capital to run from the west to us; a lot of bodies approved to run the added way. That for me was the background, why I started to be a analyzer about the approaching of the economy.”
Although Petrov was planning to go to medical school, he assured up at a aggressive pilot academy, abiding by a friend, so they could apprentice to fly. His ambitious spirit, however, accumulated with the befalling he saw during the collapse of the Soviet Union, meant he started accepting complex in abundant businesses, some of which were collective ventures with western companies. One of these businesses included a car rental firm, which he larboard in adjustment to set up his own rental and bear business with friends, beneath the name of Rolf. The name was called because it was short, and articulate added western than Russian.
One of Rolf’s aboriginal audience was Mitsubishi. Back Petrov heard that the Japanese maker was black with its again banker in Moscow, he appropriate he booty on the business. “I didn’t apperceive why they chose us, but afterwards some years I asked them and they told me: ‘Because all the others approved to advise us how to advertise cars in Russia. Alone you were accessible to study, to ask us, were accessible to listen, were athirst for knowledge.’ That is one key accommodation why they chose us.”
What started with one dealership anon expanded, in animosity of Mitsubishi actuality almost alien in Russia in the aboriginal nineties. “BMW was already busy. Mercedes was cardinal one in Russia. I was thinking: ‘Who is activity to buy a Mitsubishi?’” He needn’t accept worried. “Later on somebody told me, ‘No, attending at this. The Pajero [Shogun] is a actual acceptable artefact for Russia. It could be a hot dog for us.’ It was accurate – in one year we awash Pajeros like hot dogs!”
In the aboriginal days, cars were supplied via Austria or Finland, and Petrov acutely remembers one of his aboriginal customers. “It was the babe of [former Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev. She bought a Pajero with banknote – that was actual nice.”
In 1998, with Rolf still sourcing its cars from abroad, Petrov addled a advantageous accord with Mitsubishi Motors to become its benefactor in Russia. And because of backroom amid Mitsubishi Motors and ancestor aggregation Mitsubishi Corporation, the accord was assured in Amsterdam, in secret, and in a actual clandestine abode – a toilet!
At the about-face of the century, Petrov took advantage of Mitsubishi’s able accord with Hyundai to alpha affairs the Korean brand, a accord he couldn’t resist. Following Hyundai he angled out into exceptional marques, including Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes and Porsche. Rolf now has 62 showrooms beyond Moscow and St Petersburg, and sells aloof over bristles per cent of all new cars in Russia.
What’s missing from Rolf’s portfolio is any Russian brands, with acceptable reason. “I didn’t accept in them. I knew how Russia’s AvtoVAS produced the Lada.” The cars were cher and poor quality, but ambidextrous with a Russian aggregation would affectation added problems. “If you appetite to organise the accumulation chain, some additional parts, added things, you accept to pay bribes. You accept to be archetypal the way you amusement them, a archetypal Russian way to do business.”
Petrov is accepted for alienated this ‘typical Russian way’ of accomplishing business, from the way he treats his staff, to an abnormal accuracy over aggregation finances.
“You accept to appoint the appropriate people. Our key to success was we assassin bodies who aloof admired Mitsubishi products,” he said. He abhorred anyone who’d formed for Soviet account companies, and aimed for a altered atmosphere in Rolf showrooms. “We approved to actualize an atmosphere like a fashionable club. We had to go to Austria, Finland, or Norway to abstraction how those things worked, and again accompany it to Russia. It was the number-one botheration – Russians banned to do it. And my role was to actuate them, to say: ‘it’s alive in Norway, in Europe, in America. Why is it not alive here?’”
Paying agents a fair allowance was additionally important, but in acknowledgment his demands accept consistently been high. “We capital athirst bodies who like to compete, who like to be a leader. Those bodies we assassin – we were hiring bodies who admired to fight.”
In 2008, Mitsubishi bought the majority of the administration business, abrogation Petrov and Rolf as shareholders, acceptance them to focus on the ‘easier’ retail business and expansion. “At the beginning, back we accumulated our distributorship and dealerships, we were additionally not so efficient, because the money from distributorship confused to money from the dealership, and we didn’t do our business properly,” he said.
“We absitively to focus on retail – at that moment we were cardinal four or bristles in the Russian bazaar as a retail network. In two or three years we were cardinal one. To attempt in Russia adjoin Russians, it’s easy! You accept to actualize and advance an atmosphere of assuredly improving, accepting better. For that purpose I created some amount values: one was leadership, but cardinal one was openness, transparency.
That artlessness continued to the company’s finances, a move he agrees “was an abnormal affair to do”. Additionally abnormal was ambidextrous with a western coffer for one specific deal, instead of application Russian lenders. “I didn’t accept in the approaching of Russian banks. It doesn’t affect the best of aplomb for me, so I absitively not to assignment with such a system. Moreover, it was abundant cheaper money from the western bank.”
While Petrov was alteration the way the car business worked, his abbreviate attack into backroom was beneath successful. In 2007 he was adopted to the Accompaniment Duma, demography him abroad from the car business for a while. “At that time I noticed article activity in the amiss direction,” he said. “I absitively maybe I can advice the bodies in assembly to breach a little bit, and to improve. [But] I couldn’t accomplish in any way – it’s Russia. It’s never happened in history.”
In 2016 Rolf invested in addition banker group, Pelican, with four new sites, added BMW and Nissan to Rolf’s growing portfolio of brands and, according to Petrov, convalescent Pelican’s accumulation allowance threefold, while accretion chump satisfaction. “It’s accepted we can do it with addition aggregation – it wasn’t some debris company; it was a middle-size and middle-quality aggregation in Russia. But we did it.” Now, though, with Rolf endemic by the Petrov ancestors trust, the aggregation has appointed admiral to assignment appear a sale. Now Sergey is attractive to accomplish a aberration elsewhere, and booty on addition huge challenge.
“We’ve done it and we appetite to echo it,” he says. “Maybe not alone in Russia, maybe in the adopted bazaar as well. Maybe it’s bigger because I don’t appetite to put all the eggs in one basket, to accumulate aggregate in Russia. I’m attractive at how to aggrandize our business to maybe allotment of Europe. And to prove that we could run a added able business if we assassin added aflame people, added agog people, who are active this business with a admiration to be a leader, to be cardinal one, and to be added amorous for the accepted situation. It’s not an accessible task, because European business is advanced.”
Although Petrov refuses to name names, the amount of automotive businesses in the UK and beyond Europe are at a low point, with abounding that could do with the advance and ability he could bring. “Now, I’m attractive for article to do to be busy. Now, we are in the action of thinking, and I don’t appetite to alarm someone. Each business which is active today beneath efficiency, again three per cent, it’s potentially absorbing for me, because I apperceive it ability be 3.5 per cent and maybe more. Of course, it would be bigger to see how a aggregation runs, but it’s added absorbing to advance a bearings that’s not simple. I’m not attractive for an accessible way to ability some success.”
Petrov says any abeyant new accord isn’t abased on the auction of Rolf, nor does he aphorism out a collective adventure amid Rolf and a western banker group. What he is bright on is the befalling that exists, and what he’d do. “I’d focus on people. What I apperceive is that in the UK and with European companies in retail, they are active with old bodies who accept been alive for the aggregation for added than 20 or 30 years. They don’t feel the charge to compete. They don’t feel the charge to improve. They can acquisition a thousand excuses why for their shareholders. They can’t brainstorm the best way to run the business.”
For a man with about 30 years’ acquaintance in car retail, he’s additionally absorption on the alteration needs of the customer, to accord them a new experience, be that digitally or by advance the acceptable banker model. “Maybe they like to appointment their dealership because it’s too arid to sit bottomward online and buy aggregate there,” he says. “The customer’s social.
“We will assuredly chase customers, their desire, their interests. Of course, you accept to allocution with them, you accept to see, you accept to body their custom. It’s not a acceptable abstraction to booty from Russian ability to apperceive how to accompany us here. The excitement, the people, their admiration to attending for how to chase a customer’s admiration – that’s what we can do, we can accompany in. We can use such things here.”
Petrov admits, though, that the acceptability of Russian businesspeople isn’t that abundant in the west. “I’m abashed that ability be a actual austere botheration for me. If I appear to your business and acquaint you how to advance it, how loud will you beam at me? Who the hell is a Russian guy to appear to me to acquaint me what to do? I charge at the alpha to show, to acquaint you about this abstraction – it’s a all-important footfall advanced for the UK bazaar or European market. That is why I’m abashed it needs to be done in two steps: aboriginal footfall to apprehend the idea, and again to go added to accomplish expansion, extend it to the business. I charge some advice to acquaint that not all Russians are equal.”
It’s activity to be alluring to watch Petrov’s abutting steps, and to see what access he can accompany to a western retail accumulation – and possibly to a car banker abreast you.
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