John Warren’s been an international trader, a banker and a mafia target. Now he makes sausages for Moscow’s expats and delivers them himself. We met him to find out what kind of stuffing he’s made of.
By Stephen Dewar
John Warren has spent nearly half of his 36 years in Russia, arriving here in August 1991 “to look around” and staying on ever since. Furthermore, he was not just a spectator. He was an active participant in the roller-coaster ride of Russia’s chaotic, dangerous and unpredictable 1990s – and has a bullet wound in the back of his neck to prove it – making and losing lots of money in the process. Today, of all things, he and his Russian fiancee make sausages for Moscow’s expats. This guy, who was shot by a Russian cop in Vnukovo Airport back in 1993, now makes sausages?
Why Russia in the first place? “When I was at school I realized I didn’t want to be a mediocre achiever in a large market. I wanted a narrower niche where I could excel. I was a good musician with an ear for languages, and Russian was an exotic challenge.” Not many British school kids were studying Russian in the early 1980s and, on top of that, it was still the Cold War and Russia had a mysterious attraction. He had no idea what he would do in later life as a Russian speaker. “Maybe become a spy or an arms dealer? Who knows at that age?” He continued his Russian studies at Bristol University, and is now so fluent that the passport control officers at Sheremetevo sometimes refuse to believe that he’s a Brit.
John got his first job in mid-1991 as a grain trader, servicing Russia’s imported grain needs. Even back then, his maverick tendencies were beginning to emerge – arriving late one night at Vnukovo Airport, he found it locked up and “effected entrance,” earning a bullet in the back of his neck from a cop for his deed. So it was in character that by October 1994 he got itchy feet, needing to be his own boss and convinced that the real action in agribusiness was not in Moscow, but in southern Russia’s Black Earth country.
He ended up in Rostov where he founded Agrafin, a company that extended credit to farmers and bought their outputs for export abroad. Soon, the company was booming – in 1996 and 1997, for example, he was the biggest exporter of sunflower seeds in Russia.
By mid-1998, John was 30 years old and acquiring the trappings of a very successful businessman. He’d just bought a huge apartment and a 27-foot, 256 horsepower speedboat, he was two weeks off getting married to his girlfriend, and he was a non-smoker. A measure of success was that there was hardly a single day when armed hoods didn’t drop by, demanding their share of the action, and threatening him with their guns from time to time.
But then came August 17 1998, the great Russian financial crash. That was the day John started smoking (and still does today) and his company, together with its principal customer, lost a total of over $10 million.
What were his greatest satisfactions before that fateful day? “I would stand on this bridge over the River Don and watch this ship sail out and I’d think, ‘that’s the ship I organized to carry my cargo out. I did this!’ Of course, the money was important too, not for its own sake but because of the freedom it buys, the freedom to do the things one wants in one’s life. Money is important for that reason.”
After the financial disaster, John spent a couple of years trying to get the company back on its feet, before realizing that there was no immediate economic recovery in sight outside Moscow. Next, he tried his hand at various jobs in finance, selling bonds and trading, but he didn’t enjoy it. “Corporations tend not to use their people to the best. Then there are the office politics. People don’t give of their full ability. Besides, I’m not easy to manage. I need the freedom to do what I think is best.”
And then, one day in May this year during a short trip back home, he was stocking up with goodies to take back to Russia when the idea hit him. Sausages! (“Bangers,” to Brits). For fourteen years he, along with thousands of British expats, had been lugging kilos of sausages back to Russia, because they weren’t available here. Inspired, he bought a few books on sausages and surfed the Internet.
Armed with this and his own knowledge of food and cooking, supplemented by his father’s advice (“He taught me so much, a real gourmand”), the next stage was some basic market research. “In the UK, on average every man, woman and child consumes six kilos of sausages a year. There are 2,500 British citizens registered with the Embassy in Moscow and probably the same number again who aren’t. Now, if you do the maths…”
Sausages? Isn’t this a bit of a change from big-time grain trading or banking? “It’s an idea that can work and it’s my idea. I’d rather be my own boss busking at the nearest perekhod than be someone else’s employee. It doesn’t matter what the business is, as long as it’s mine with all the freedom that goes with that.”
After a $60 capital investment in a sausage-stuffer, umpteen experiments with the mix of ingredients and a successful tasting session with British friends, J & D’s Sausages was born. The D stands for Diana, John’s Russian fiancee (she was visiting her parents in the apartment downstairs from John and they met in the elevator). “Diana is a huge support and inspiration. It’s wonderful to work with her as well as spend our lives together. If you can’t work with your spouse, you shouldn’t be married.” The business soon began to take off within the British expat community.
A big development for the fledgling enterprise was when American Karen Kuchins got involved. Americans, she helpfully pointed out, like sausages too, but with different flavors from the British. As a result, John and his helpers (he’s hired two professional Russian cooks to help out) now turn out 17 different varieties aimed principally at the British and American markets in Moscow, with Karen providing expert culinary advice and doing the marketing to the American community. Selling over 1,000 kilograms a month to private customers, the business is poised to soar. “Hotels, restaurants, caterers, then the supermarkets,” are the next stages.
Two last questions: what happened to the cop who shot him and where’s the speedboat? “The cop got five years and I sold the boat in 2001 at a profit.”
Linguist, musician, sailor, banker, international trader, sausage deliveryman, but above all an irrepressible entrepreneur with an incredible zest for life, John Warren is once more on the up and up. By the way, he’s also a very nice guy with a terrific sense of humor, who swears he cooks a mean green curry. We stuck to the sausages. They were great!
Find out more about J & D’s Sausages at www.sausage.ru.