Russian Downhill

Jere Calmes
When new 36.6 CEO Jere Calmes was preparing to start university in 1988, his father's one piece of advice was to study Russian or Chinese. Calmes did what any intelligent teenager would. He decided to study Russian since "Chinese classes were early in the morning."

That decision, coupled with a competitive spirit borne of a youth spent downhill racing at the national level, has shaped Calmes' life.

Born in the ski resort town of Park City, Utah in 1969, Calmes basically grew up on skis. By age seven, he had won his first trophy in a downhill competition.

"I love downhill," Calmes said, explaining the difference between the four events of alpine competitive skiing -- the high-speed downhill, slalom, giant slalom and the super-G. "You leave your head at home in the morning and throw yourself down a mountain," Calmes said.

"Some people think I'm a bit of a risk taker," he added.

The fastest Calmes has ever gone was 80 miles an hour down Mt. Alyeska in Alaska.

"At 78 miles per hour the ride, is still bumpy and you don't see anything. At 80, things start to smooth out," said Calmes.

In his last year of high school, Calmes was on the development squad of the U.S. Ski Team. But he was not consistently finishing with the top competitors and instead of continuing to ski full time, he decided to accept a ski scholarship to Bates College in Maine, a Division I school.

"Ski slow - off to college you go," was the rule, Calmes said.

Calmes studied political science and minored in economics. In 1990, he did a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad.

He returned to Bates and skiing, but out of training after a semester abroad, he crash-landed on a tree stump, breaking four ribs and puncturing a lung.

"Things like that give you a new respect for the mountain," he said.

In 1992, after graduating, Calmes returned to Russia, this time to teach macroeconomics in English as an instructor at Moscow State Open University.

"Russia in the early '90s was chaotic, but in a positive sense," Calmes said. "Everyone had ideas, but no one had any money."

Although the students were interested in economics, he said they were more curious about whether every family in America had a washing machine.

He taught for six months before meeting Augie Fabela II and Dmitry Zimin, the co-founders of VimpelCom, the creator of the Bee Line brand. Calmes helped with the startup of the firm, which became the first publicly traded company in Russia.

"In the '90s, to make a phone call home from Russia you had to plan in advance. You had to wait three days and then more likely than not your call would be scheduled at 2 a.m. It was a luxury to be able to talk to someone. It was great to know I was there at the beginning," Calmes said.

jere calmes
To get a break from his stressful work environment, Calmes takes his family skiing.

After two years, Calmes left Russia and was hired by Motorola. He worked for the telecom for six years at its offices in London, Cairo and St. Petersburg.

In early 2001, Calmes returned to VimpelCom, where he was made executive vice president and general manager of the firm's Moscow operations.

"In 2001, we had between 640,000 and 700,000 customers, today there are around 40 million," he said. "We had a very good run."

During that time, Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanayevsky worked with Calmes in launching Malina, a loyalty program similar to frequent flyer miles.

"It was very important for us to have someone who had two things: good Western managerial skills and a knowledge of the Russian reality. Jere has both of those," said Ordovsky-Tanayevsky, who has known Calmes for more than four years.

"Unfortunately, there are not a lot of guys like Jere in Moscow," he said.

Just as in skiing, Calmes seems never to look back, instead preferring to move forward. In January 2006 Calmes left VimpelCom and took his wife Yelena and their children, Polina, Anton and Matvei, to Rome, where he was charged with leading the turn around of Wind Telecommunicazioni.

At the beginning of last December, however, Calmes returned to Moscow to take the position of CEO and president of Russia's largest pharmacy chain, 36.6.

"The synergy of Mr. Calmes' 10 years of business experience in Russia and extensive management expertise will further strengthen pharmacy chain 36.6's leading position in the marketplace," said 36.6's co-founder Artem Bektemirov in a news release announcing the appointment.

"We welcome Jere's decision to join our team and are confident that both our clients and team will benefit from his professionalism and experience in bringing together sophisticated IT systems and excellent customer service," said Bektemirov.

"Russia is a country on the move," Calmes said, explaining why he likes working here. "For the last 15 years, this has been the land of opportunity for risk takers."

Calmes has a lot to say, but when it comes to being a success in Russia, his only advice is to work hard.

"The only place success comes before work is a dictionary," Calmes said, quoting Donald Kendall, a founder of Pepsi and the man who brought the soft drink to Russia.

His own Russia-inspired maxim is to "avoid anyone who says they understand everything."

The other fundamentals Calmes cites as necessary for succeeding in business in Russia include being flexible, developing relationships while holding true to personal principals and remembering that the opportunities do not stop at Moscow.

Calmes says he was taken on at 36.6 to continue the firm's transparency and increase profitability - a distinct possibility in Russia's pharmaceutical market, which is set to grow from $11 billion in 2007 to $20 billion in 2011, according to Calmes.

36.6's new CEO loves the competition. "There is a certain adrenaline to working here and moving all the time," he said.

"Russia has been one of the most interesting places in the world," he said.

The only place he seems to relax is on the ski slopes, and he looks forward to teaching his kids to ski.

"Matvei is two and just walking, but I plan on getting him on skis by next winter," Calmes said.