Warm as a Banker’s Heart
By Charles Borden
Photos by Alexei Rogov
teven Fisher is a twenty-year plus veteran of Citibank and now Managing Director of Corporate Banking for Russia and the CIS. He recently joined Passport publisher John Ortega and I at Cantinetta Antinori to discuss commercial banking in Russia.
Citibank, then National City Bank, first arrived in Russia’s capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), in January 1917. The bank’s president commented then “that of all the foreign countries, there is none that offers a more promising outlook than Russia.” The foray lasted only until December, when the Bolsheviks declared banking a state monopoly. The bank still lost around $10 million, a good deal of money at that time. Now, almost a century later, Citibank is one of the fastest expanding banks in Russia, with branches prominently arrayed throughout Russia’s two capitals – Moscow and St. Petersburg.
What was your background before coming here?
My master degree was in foreign service from Georgetown, but after that I got twenty years with Citibank — still it’s in development economics and very much a multi-cultural job. It is not government, but it is very rewarding, even more so. I was in London for three years, Prague for two years, Thailand for four years, and Taiwan and Hong Kong for seven years. I speak fluent Chinese and Thai and studied three years of Japanese to boot. In Thailand I went to school an hour every day before work so by the time I left the country I had clocked the equivalent of three years of college level Thai. I have no plans to leave Russia right now. Who said that ‘it’s not good to leave until the party’s over?’
What is the relationship between the Russian and international Citibank?
ZAO Citibank, is a Russian bank with its own balance sheet, but it is also a subsidiary of the Citigroup. Our corporate clients have the use of the full range of our international services.
How did Citibank come back to Russia?
Citibank returned to Russia in 1994. In the early years, we were primarily supporting multi-nationals with operations in Russia. But we always were intent on acquiring Russian clients and the pace of this activity quickened post 1998 crisis. We now are doing business with companies active in every sector from metals and mining, oil & gas, telecom, cars and planes, to trains, beer and vodka!
Is consumer banking a big new commitment?
Consumer banking is a definitely a big commitment. The new Citigroup branches you see all over the city are consumer bank branches; we’ve been recently hiring over 100 people a month. The challenge is to be able to hire and train enough people to grow responsibly and maintain our high standards. The growth of Consumer banking of course benefits our corporate banking activities.
What services do you offer corporate clients?
We have two corporate offices; one in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg. Our corporate banking division now serves multi-national and Russian companies with complete international banking services. We have a whole product menu: from helping to manage their cash, supporting their import/export trade activities, letters of guarantee, long-term and short-term loans syndicated or otherwise, long term export credit loans for imported equipment, M&A, underwriting ruble bonds and Eurobonds, and securitization. We offer the entire corporate bank menu that our clients would find anywhere in the world.
The financial crisis didn’t scare you off?
We were very committed to the country. It didn’t scare us off, but we did lose a lot of money in the financial sector meltdown that occurred at that time from current forward agreements with banks that went bust. We didn’t lose one kopeck on any multi-national or Russian corporate client; we only lost money on the banks.
Do you have time to explore Moscow or other parts of Russia?
I was a Russian studies major in university. What I like about Russia is just being in Russia; its a living laboratory for me. I like the history, going to other historical cities. I like speaking Russian, and being with Russians. I am very excited about the culture; it’s accessible, it’s bountiful and it’s affordable!
Do you have advice for foreign visitors?
Don’t be afraid to explore. Because many foreigners don’t speak Russian, they may be uncomfortable taking the cultural plunge. Typical night: I took some friends to the Russian theater, and they loved it despite not a word being spoken in English. I gave them an English translation of the play beforehand to read. Then we topped it off with a nice Russian dinner in one of Moscow’s trendy eateries.
As a multi-national, and further a US company, it must sometimes be difficult to deal with corruption?
Sometimes difficult? We have a permanent regimen to not accept it at all. We have strict anti-money laundering and “Know Your Customer” policies that govern even the smallest financial transaction we may do with our clients. We also stress the importance of good corporate governance and transparency. I believe that the greatest long-term franchise value a company in Russia (or anywhere for that matter) can create for itself comes from a commitment to its investors, lenders and other “stakeholders” to continuously improve its performance in these areas.
How do you evaluate political and economic risks of business in Russia?
Russia is a high reward/high risk environment. This means great opportunities to grow in a balanced and disciplined way. We look for government stability, continuation of important reforms in the financial and industrial sectors, and strengthening of the rule of law and transparency. We also use a bottoms-up approach which takes into account the plans and performance of individual companies we work with.
WHAT WE ATE
Cantinetta Antinori is a Novikov creation, and a joint production with the famous Antinori wine family. Antinori also has CA’s in Florence, Vienna, and Zurich. Without a doubt, if to calculate by the total value of automobiles on the street, CA has become the place to see and be seen for dinner. The location behind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t hurt; Condeleeza Rice has been a guest. CA is under the careful supervision of Domenico Anaclerio, a native of Puglia, who nightly wanders the floor chatting up his guests.
We started with an appetizer of Cow’s Milk Burata with Puglia Bread (400 r/100 gm). Burata is a wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella cheese stuffed with a creamy mixture of mozzarella curds which ooze out when cut, just waiting to be swept up with CA’s homemade Puglia bread.
The Burata was accompanied by thin slices of Prosciutto di “Cinta Brada” – a specialty of Siena from Cinta Brada pork, which provides a dark, almost black and white marbled meat (850 r /100gm). Our pasta was the Tagliolini with Tomato and Basil Sauce with “Pecorino” cheese (450 r).
Our meat dish was Steak Florentine with White Beans “Cannellini” – a t-bone steak from Tuscan Chianina cows, prepared to perfection on CA’s essential open grill (440 r/100gm).
Naturally, the wine list at CA is 100% Antinori, though this does not limit; Antinori has estates in practically every wine region of Italy, and also Chile and Hungary. We started with one of John’s favorites, a 1999 Col Solare, a Cabernet/Merlot that is a joint production of Antinori and Chateau St. Michelle in Washington state. The Bocco di Lupo from a Puglia estate of that name, was memorable, a blend of Aglianico and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. We managed a third bottle, this time a Brunello di Montalcino from the Pian delle Vigne Estate, a velvet wine aged on oak for three years.
We departed on a frothy, creamy anise house specialty liquor, Anicella. CA also makes its own Limoncella and Rosalio di Cioccolata, each a complimentary offering to special guests.
20 Denezhny pereulok
Bill: 17,700 rubles