From Worker to Entrepreneur

Vladimir Plyusnin may be exactly what the Group of Seven is looking for when it draws up plans for aid to the former Soviet Union.

Plyusnin, 42, has overcome financial, logistical and psychological hurdles to make the transition from worker to small-shop owner: Last week he opened another Kodak Express mini-lab at 109 Vernadskogo Prospekt, the second in what he hopes will become a chain of stores in other Russian cities.

Until perestroika, Soviet law prohibited most forms of private enterprise. In the 1920s and 30s entrepreneurs and even small-business owners and their families were persecuted, exiled or even executed for what was considered a crime against the state. When Plyusnin first began working as a photo technician 14 years ago, he said he never imagined making the leap from worker to entrepreneur.

But once the idea was born, things happened "very quickly", Plyusnin said. The Kodak project was born in a wooden house by a lake last January during a conversation with friends, "like Field Marshall Kutuzov and his men", Plyusnin said. Kutuzov plotted his attack on Napoleon in a similar wooden house by a lake almost 200 years ago.

The toughest battle for Plyusnin, like other would-be Russian shop owners, was getting financing. Plyusnin and two partners - Alexei Panarin and Olga Altunina - bought two Kodak C-41 processors, worth approximately $150, 000 each, with a loan from RosMedBank and a one-year purchase agreement with Kodak A/0, the Russian wholly-owned subsidiary of Kodak Ltd.

The largest remaining challenge is getting the word out about both photo shops. It is a bit of a catch-22, Plyusnin said, because the price of advertising is high, but without it he cannot expect to pay off his loans by the end of the year.

He and five employees at each shop have partially solved the problem by doing some of the advertising themselves. On a fine afternoon, two technicians with cans of yellow spray paint can be be found creating their own large Kodak window displays near the metro at Yugo-Zapadnaya.

Plyusnin and his partners purchased their equipment new, but Kodak A/0 also sells reconditioned equipment and may soon offer long-term lease of the mini-labs, according to Neil Cooper, Kodak A/0's British operating manager. The agreement worked out between Kodak and Plyusnin was somewhat unusual. Cooper said, because "we already knew and trusted him" thanks to the four years Plyusnin worked as a technician with Rosinter, a Kodak partner here in Russia.

Plyusnin's operation is not the only Russian-owned Kodak operation in Moscow.

"We welcome anyone who wants to go out on their own", Cooper said. Eight or more Kodak mini-labs are operating in St. Petersburg, as well as shops in Irkutsk, Kazan, Murmansk, Georgia, Armenia, the Baltics, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Cooper said.

Kodak has "very strong product recognition", Cooper said, because it was a familiar name in pre-Revolutionary Russia, with shops in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1901.

Plyusnin's two new Moscow stores charge prices comparable with Western prices, because "we pay for all our supplies in hard currency", Plyusnin said. Plyusnin's two labs now offer only photo developing and a limited range of photographic supplies, but Plyusnin has big plans. He envisages a chain of Kodak stores all across the Russian Federation and beyond. The battle has just begun.