Co-Owner, Shopping Centers International, Ltd.
You have lived in Russia since 2001. May I ask you why you have stayed so long?
People asked me that when I came! I usually tell them insanity. 16 years have gone by pretty quickly, and there have been good times and bad. There have been times of better cooperation between the United States and Russia. I guess I am still here for lots of reasons. The reason that I stayed after the first few years was because there was a great opportunity to do things in commercial real estate, which is what I have built my career in. But that industry isn’t what it was. Just to give you an idea of how much things have changed, I am doing a lot of investment with Russian friends in the US now. I am going to the States in a couple of weeks to visit a shopping centre that I own in Las Vegas. I stay here to keep in touch with my Russian friends, and of course I now have a whole family structure here. My Russian wife is younger than I am, and her family is very much a part of my life. I speak to her mum every day on the phone.Eventually I will go back, but when I do, I want to go somewhere where it doesn’t snow. Home is California. Whether I go to California or not, is still questionable, but I’d like to buy a house wherever I go. I don’t particularly want to work anymore, I’d like to do photography or do fly fishing or something. Perhaps I will work part time, but basically, I would like to retire, this has been a long 16 or 17 years.
So, when you came here, you saw it as a career move, then instead of moving out after the 2008 crisis like everybody else did, you stayed. Why?
In 2007 I was still at CBRE and I had negotiated deals for $500 million worth of assets. I had a bit of change in my pocket back in 2007. That’s when I decided to leave CBRE because there were a lot of changes happening in the company, and I wanted to do something else. Together with a colleague in the UK, we started a new company; I saw the opportunity here to do things. So, at the time, the business was still there, without getting into too much detail. Right around that time I met my now wife. That seemed like a pretty solid reason to stay as well.
Do you believe in the Russian idea of ‘fate?’
No, I don’t. I think that fate plays a part of everything but I think that we control our own destiny.
By 2009 you were getting into Russia, but you were in business as well, and communicating with international partners. Do you think it is possible to live in this place, and get deeply involved with it, and remain American enough to do business internationally? A lot of people seem to think that it is either/or.
I think that is the main problem in the world today. There should be more discussion about things, and more openness. I don’t think you lose your American identity when you get involved with another country, but I’m certainly not the same person I was 17 years ago. I think that the opportunity that I have had by living here, with all the interaction I have with Russians, and seeing so many cities of Russia, I did a lot of business on Kazakhstan, and other countries in the former CIS has opened my eyes so to speak. There are more opportunities here to communicate than even in California, which is pretty multi-cultural. So I haven’t lost my American identity; I have extended it perhaps. I don’t want to get political, but when the Crimea thing was going on, I was banging my fists on the table when I saw how differently the various actors saw things. Certainly, the president of this country sees things differently from the president of my country. If there had perhaps been a bit of respect and understanding between these different points of view, the outcome may have been very different.
My son, who is now 5 typically spends a month each year at the dacha, with his grandparents. He is half Russian for all intents and purposes. I want him to have enough of that experience so that when we do move back to the States, he will remember that he is from here, and I want him to remember that we are different, but not that different. I think that this is the sort of thing that will make the world a better place.
Do you think that politics are downstream from culture?
Yes, absolutely. If you talk to the average Russian, the politics don’t really matter. I am not sure that I agree with that, I think they should take more interest in politics. Whether that would change things or not, I don’t know. But I was raised to believe that my voice matters. That is drilled into our heads back home. My wife doesn’t vote, she never has, and she is 29 years old. I push her to vote: “Go and vote, go and vote.” Culturally speaking, Russians are different. It didn’t take me too long to realise after I arrived here that whilst they look like western folks, if you want to divide the world that way, there is a whole lot of Eastern influence going on; in that they do not want to lose face for example. They also like to have fun more than many of us like to.
But there are people, like your Russian business friends who are investing in the States, who are thinking about IRR; about future returns. Are there many such people here?
That’s a tough one. If we speak in generalities there are people who see outside the box. There are a good number of Russians and people from the former CIS who have invested overseas, in fact that is one of the big problems, that they invest overseas and not here. I agree with them. Someone who has a lot of money has a hard time believing in this economy, having seen the rouble go from 17 to 70! So I think that there are a lot of people who have become a lot more international in their thought processes.
One thing that I’ve noticed about Russians, is that when they have a hobby, they tend to take it very seriously. I’ve seen that you are deeply involved in photography; is the depth of your involvement something to do with living here?
I actually started photography when I was a kid; my parents were professional photographers, and I was really into photography by the time I got to high school. But then it fell away, I hardly ever picked up a camera apart from taking pictures of the family. When I do something, I like to do it well. So I bought a good camera, and I do it semi-professionally, I have even made some money doing it. One time I did some photography for PASSPORT magazine.
I’ve heard of that!
I got to take pictures of the Formula One when we had that in Moscow, so it is a hobby, but it is really something more. A lot of Russians have their dacha as their hobby. That is serious, but at one time it had to be, that’s the only way you could eat.
In Russia, it is OK not just to do one thing. It’s OK to be a multi-talented person?
Yes, it’s like you work hard and play hard. You give 100% to your job and 100% to your hobby, I don’t see that is a problem. Before I came here I had never been to the ballet, now we go quite often. I actually like it. We went to visit the States once, and stopped off in some beautiful small towns there, but my wife said no, I can’t live there, there is no opera, I can’t live in a place like that.
What are the main challenges about living here?
There is the problem of bureaucracy. It’s a bit of a red tape nightmare to get anything done as you know. When we got married, it took me a whole three months to get all the papers from back home, and I had been married before, so I had to go to this and that place, then they tell you what day and when your ten-minute time frame is to get married. There are a lot of things like that. When Anthony was born, I had to get him registered, I think that the average person coming here today, simply does not know how to handle all of that.
But despite all of that, you stay.
Yes, over the years, people have asked me: “Do you like Russia?” The answer is that there are some things I do like and some things that I don’t. Like there are some things I like about California and some things I don’t like too. I do not have to stay here, and if I don’t like it, I’d go. It would be stupid to stay if I didn’t want to. Of course, there are some people who have got stuck and can’t move out for one reason or the other, but the majority of us are here because of our own free will, otherwise we would go.