Mehdi Douss, Mathematician and Businessman
By Valeria Cheshko
Photo by Sasha Antonov
Mehdi Douss came to Moscow from Tunisia, North Africa, in 1981. He studied mathematics at Moscow State University, and then took a PHD in bridge and tunnel construction. He is now the owner of a timber business, and of La Maree restaurant and boutique; his specialist foods business supplies many of Moscow’s top hotels and restaurants.
Please tell me about the beginnings of your Russia story.
I came to Moscow in 1981 on a special governmental programme from Tunisia to study mathematics in MGU. I got two degrees: after mathematics I did a PhD in bridge and tunnel construction at the Moscow Institute of Highway Design. At the time I thought I needed to do something substantial, like engineering. But I have never made a single project of either a tunnel or a bridge, apart perhaps from the one in my degree thesis.
Why is that?
When I finished all my studies I realised that there was no future in either mathematics or bridge building; but there was a future in business. And so in 1990 I went into business. It was also the time when Russia was embarking on another path of development.
Why did you choose the Soviet Union as a place to study?
Because it was a closed country, different from Europe, Canada and the US, and I was curious. There was a competition among the students for places, and I got fi rst choice. It was very interesting to me.
And after your studies, why did you decide to stay?
I finished my studies in 1987, and I was supposed to then go back to Tunisia. The reason I stayed was a girl, who later became my wife. She is Russian. We met in 1983 and I simply did not want to part with her. I stayed because of her – it is not a secret. Now we have two daughters – 16 and 5 years-old. The oldest is a master of sports in artistic gymnastics.
You said you went into business in 1990; what was that exactly?
In 1990 I became a representative of a big foreign timber company in Russia, which had been operating in Russia since 1958. The beginning of the '90s brought about huge changes throughout the whole of the economy, and as a result also changes in this company – reorganisation of production, deliveries, etc. They were looking for someone who could manage those changes.
Why did they come to you?
The company needed a man who knew the country and spoke the language to recreate a business that had broken down. Somebody needed to restore customer relations and find the timber goods; this we did in 2-3 years. The company itself approached me, but I knew of them before; the owner was from Tunisia, so it was not by chance. I became their representative straight after university. It was a big thing then.
Who you know is important…
But even more so fortune, or luck. And now you are…?
I am the owner of the company. We export timber, timber goods, cellulose and paper, mostly from Russia, but also from Scandinavia. The main part of the business is in Russia – it is my child.
Timber seems to be your prime business; however, you are known in Moscow as a supplier of superb quality fish and seafood. How did you become involved in that business?
By chance. I was already a representative of the timber company. In Russia it was the time of restaurant business development. I used to go to TrenMos – a Russian-American restaurant on Komsomolskiy Prospekt, and got to be friends with their chef – a Frenchman Bernard Derroissne. He used to work in Tunisia in the '60s. He told me that there is no fish or meat in Russia of a quality that would be suitable for fine dining. So I talked to some people then, and we delivered the first 20kg package. From then on it was getting more and more. This is how La Maree company was born – at the time it was the first such company in Russia.
So your first delivery was a 20kg package a week?
Yes… and now we deliver 50 tons of fish and seafood every week and employ 120 people! We deliver throughout the whole of Russia; 90 percent of restaurants in Moscow are using our fish and seafood. Actually, fish and seafood currently constitute about 60 percent of our operations, while the rest has to do with other delicacies, like truffles, superb cheeses, and Spanish ham. Our clients are hotels, restaurants, and good supermarkets.
Ninety percent of restaurants in Moscow! Do you have any competitors?
During the last 17 years competition has emerged – it is normal, the market is so big. It would be naive to dream that we would remain a monopoly.
And what about your employees?
They are very international – Frenchmen, Italians, Cubans, Tajiks, Ukrainians, Turkish, etc., although predominantly Russians.
Is it true that you train them abroad?
Even though the La Maree business has been here in Moscow for over 17 years, the delivery of fresh fish is still a new area in Russia. There simply were no oysters in Russian restaurants before. That is why professionals in this area need to be created, or rather, prepared. There is no time to learn from mistakes. People need to know the rules and requirements for transport and storage. I am sending my people where this kind of production has been taking place for ages. This way is extremely effective – it is better to see something with ones own eyes once than to hear it 100 times. I also invite professionals to come here.
There is also La Maree restaurant and fish boutique. How come?
I am a great gourmand, and the idea of a restaurant was always somewhere on my mind. I just waited to find a good spot and good partners, which happened three years ago. Actually the boutique is not a separate undertaking, but a face of the restaurant. I always wanted it to be like that. My partner now is Kirill Tomashuk – a great gourmand and a good friend.
You recently received an award for the best wine list in Moscow?
Not only in Moscow! La Maree received an award for having one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world from Wine Spectator Magazine last August. It is like a Michelin star of wines. And it happened by chance. The gentlemen from Wine Spectator just happened to walk in for dinner one day.
Your restaurant is famous for its exceptional service…
The success of a restaurant depends a lot on its waiters. That is why I send my waiters to work in the kitchen on a rotational basis. Every day two waiters assist the chef and watch the food-making process. Then they really know what they are talking about when they advise a customer on his choice from a menu.
Do you choose the waiters yourself then?
No, I do not have time for that. But I am very carefully choosing those who choose the waiters. The most important quality we are looking for is their willingness to learn. If they have it, then we have a chance!
What business do you feel is closer to you – timber or La Maree?
The timber business is a profession. I know how to do it. The rest started by chance and was initially a hobby. Now it is no longer a hobby, but a serious business, although a happy one. It is very interesting to me. I cannot live without either and it would be extremely difficult for me to choose one if I had to.
Truffles at La Maree.
Photo by Sasha Antonov
You are a foreign businessman involved in a diversity of businesses; what is your experience of working with Russian companies?
In the timber business there is a very narrow circle of partners, and new ones do not appear. It is a rather closed sphere, we even joke that the timber business is a timber club. This is also why I am not trying to look for new partners. It is better to expand and develop the business with the old ones. In the La Maree business, cooperation with Russian companies is going well. I still remember that when the default happened in 1998, all hotels still paid for the delivered products. With our long-time Russian partners, we work successfully and calmly. With the new ones it takes time, it is a gradual process. Currently, we have more than 1,200 clients.
You have experienced business both in the USSR and in capitalist Russia. How is it different?
Take the timber business for instance. During the Soviet Union it was much calmer; entrepreneurs were much more passive. State companies owned the whole business; it assigned quotas for each country and appointed companies that were in charge of the distribution. Nothing much was happening. Now it is different – you have to undertake things yourself. It is very laissez-faire. The development of business depends only on you, your possibilities and your strategy and policy. It is much more interesting now. There is freedom.
What was your experience of the '90s?
One had to adjust to the changes. One had to always think about every step and decision in a country where not very good things were happening. Those were diffi - cult and complex times. But after the 1998 default I was not upset much – I took it as it came. My philosophy then was that the money was made here and so it stayed here as well. It was a pity of course, but everybody was in the same boat.
Some people say that Russia now is a country of unique opportunities and possibilities…
I agree. Europe, for instance, has exhausted all its possibilities. In every area of activity business already works at its maximum potential. People have extracted all that was possible. Russia is a country that is in no way exhausted; there is a huge scale here, not only geographic but also economic. However, it is not easy to start up a business in Russia. One needs to prepare for that well, establish connections. It is not that simple. One needs to understand the country, its psychology and character. Preparations are essential.
What in your opinion is important in order to succeed in Russia?
The most important is having a good and decent partner, who at the same time sees a good and interesting partner in you. One has to earn not only the money here in Russia, but also a reputation and trust. These are the most important in business. The best recommendation one can get is that of being a decent person. Especially in closed professional spheres – where everyone knows everything about one another – you have to be perceived as a desired partner.
I would also say that everyone should follow one’s profession. A chef should stay a chef, for example. Learning something new is much more diffi cult, and Russia needs professionals in many areas. For instance, opportunities are rapidly expanding in the service area, which is growing fast, as the standard of life increases.
What do you do in your free time?
Seafood at La Maree.
Photo by Sasha Antonov
Free time… I have very little of it. Having several different businesses is very timeconsuming – restaurant, timber, La Maree. Now I am planning to open a second La Maree restaurant in St Petersburg. But when free time does appear, I like relaxing at home and spending time with my children. We also travel together.
Do you think you will stay in Russia for good?
I am not thinking about that. It is not a relevant question when someone is constantly moving – Russia, France, Tunisia… I have a great affection for all three countries, but especially to Russia. I grew up here, both as a person and as a businessman. It is a country very close to my heart. I cannot stay away from Moscow long. Here are my family, my friends, and my work.
What do you like in Russia the most?
I love all that is beautiful; beauty in all its manifestations and forms. I like good friends; I already have a wonderful family; I like to eat well; and I want to have an interesting life and work. And all that I have found here in Moscow.