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Andreas Romanos Moves on, Having Rebuilt the AEB
By John Bonar
Andreas Romanos, CEO of the Association of European Businesses for the last three years, is moving on. Romanos has transformed the AEB from a business club on the peripheral edge of the Russian business community to a vibrant and key player in that fast changing world.

Andreas Romanos,
CEO of the Association of European Businesses

Andreas Romanos, CEO of the Association of European Businesses for the last three years, is moving on. Romanos has transformed the AEB from a business club on the peripheral edge of the Russian business community to a vibrant and key player in that fast changing world.

Talking to Passport, Romanos acknowledges that a lot has been achieved, but is quick to point out that the achievement is not mine alone. We have two boards, an audit commission, some twenty committee chairpersons and their deputies, a dedicated staff, and now over 500 members all of whom are playing their part.

When he joined in the autumn of 2004 he found a demoralized staff that had been without a CEO for almost a year, were faced with a shrinking membership and a substantial financial deficit that had been growing for several years.

To cap it all I had to share my office with some small furry rodents, the multi-lingual, dynamic Greek recalls.

Since then the operation of the AEB has turned around. The mounting losses were stopped for the first time in 2004 and today the deficit is all but paid off. Income, in line with membership, has risen by 50% by the end of 2006.

In addition we diversified our product offering and income base, providing an enhanced service to our members and reducing our reliance on membership fees alone. Conferences and the introduction of new publications played major roles. All of this also helped to improve staff morale, the morale of our working committees and, by extension, our reputation among the business and diplomatic communities, recounts Romanos. Even board meetings became peaceful!

He recalls the speech by Ambassador Marc Franco at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the AEB at the end 2005. The European Union Ambassador commented that when he had first arrived in Moscow in late 2004, he had not been impressed by the AEB as an organization. The Ambassador said he was happy to have been able to revise that opinion.

Since that speech we have continued to engage more closely with the Delegation of the European Commission and with all areas of the Russian authorities, both Federal and Regional, says Romanos.

I was brought into the AEB as a businessman and the AEB now functions far, far more effectively as a business than when I arrived. Could it be better? Of course it could. How much better is for others to judge, the CEO said candidly.

We have expended a lot of energy over the past three years by that I mean particularly the staff and could have channeled that energy in different directions. There have certainly been fierce arguments. But overall we have been in the happy, if difficult process of growth and practically any growth is good. In any case, it will be for my successor to decide with the board how best to implement the strategy we have defined over the past months and then get to implementing it.

How does talk about Russian-European Community relations being at an all time low affect business relations?

This is a recurring theme, he acknowledged, and the answer tends, with variations, to be the same. Business in Russia is good. Business confidence is high. There are major irritants as in any relationship. In the end, business people will find ways of doing business however hard politicians argue and however black the press might paint the picture.

When asked about the frustrations of doing business here, Romanos risks a tirade:

Ive recently taken my medical tests for a work permit renewal and it is a reflection of something bigger. A major frustration in the medical test process was lack of information: Which clinics can you go to? Who do you go to for information at the venereal disease clinic? I still havent found out. How long does the process really take? Are certified results from abroad acceptable? The same lack of exact information has haunted the adoption of the new registration procedure. If the process was known from the start; by its victims as well as the officials responsible for the process, the burden would be less, Romanos says.

You can extend this argument to far more macro issues than my syphilis test. I am sure that energy companies would find doing business in Russia a great deal less frustrating if the rules on investments in strategic industries were set out clearly and, of course, then adhered to.

The same with tax claims, Romanos continues, there is too much left open to interpretation, not to mention the substantial financial exposures that result. And then, of course, there is the bureaucracy and the corruption.

I risk calling forth further wrath by asking if there is any chance of these issues being resolved.

I think it was Abel Aganbegyan who once said something about anyone trying to forecast anything in Russia is a fool. Presumably he was talking about the economy, but the same applies here. It can only be hoped that at some point the pace of reform will resume and that Russia will complete its transition into whatever it resolves to become. At that point we can hopefully expect the stability of established rules of the game and, hopefully again, the fully independent rule of law to guide us through any ambiguities.

On a lighter note, Romanos, who speaks fluent Russian, recalls an incident from when he was a business executive in Russia, in an earlier time.

It was at the banya, during my visit to the Poltava mine that is now in Ukraine, but then was still the same country, and visits by Western managers were still fairly rare and were marked by the full treatment: feasting, vodka, banya, quick dip in the Dnieper, more vodka, samogon when we had finished the vodka and back into the banya, etc. Taking part in all of this was this wiry, wrinkled miner who had been looking at me with a twinkle in his eye all evening. During our last visit to the banya he revealed what lay behind his twinkle as he sat on my rump thrashing me for all he was worth with the steaming birch branch leaves and screeching, or: I have always dreamt of beating a capitalist! as I screamed back, I love Lenin, I love Lenin! Looking back it always makes me smile, although Im not sure it seemed funny at the time, just like the 16- hour train ride home the next day with the smelly smoked fish and the cockroaches, but then that is another story

Romanos leaves with many happy memories of the AEB, but a particularly satisfactory one was standing in the office in the early days sharing a joke with a few of the staff members when a board member walked in. He stopped, smiled and just said, Its good to hear people laughing in this place.

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