"Moscow Can Be a Financial Capital"

BNP ParibasDespite leaps forward in attitudes to banking in Russia, Ollivier feels it is still up to banks to convince clients of their worth.

Vincent Ollivier, CEO of BNP Paribas Vostok, arrived in Moscow in 2003, witnessing first-hand many recent developments in the banking sector. Although BNP Paribas already has retail branches in five major cities, Ollivier, like many, still sees two Russias: Moscow and beyond.

"The main concern for a banker like me," said Vincent Ollivier, appointed head of BNP Paribas Vostok in 2008, "is being able to disconnect from work. The trick is to focus on the family." Ollivier, an experienced hand in the field, arrived in Russia from Paris to help create Bank Societe Generale Vostok's retail arm, offering competition to some of the biggest banks already on the market.

Now, as he takes on the task of ramping up BNP's presence in Russia, disconnecting from the job may appear a hard task. Both of the group's two retail entities, BNP Paribas Vostok and the Cetelem business line, are going to be developing fast, he said, as the former works to improve the efficiency of existing branches, the latter to build on its partnerships with Russian retailers and expand its regional coverage.

"As number one in a company in Russia, there many issues to face; when I call head office, I realize how I am part of a big machine," he told us. "You have to explain, explain and explain how things operate out here. It is not the same as Berlin, London or Paris." Yet even though Ollivier described the working practices in Russia as different, his adjustment to life in the East was not too tough: "My professional goals were clearly defined and, as an expat, I didn't experience all the difficulties of the Russian system. Moscow is very interesting — it never sleeps, like New York; you get used to its permanent activity and noises of the night, and there is always something to do," he explained.

"The differences between Moscow and the regions are narrower now than they were before, but they are still there and the crisis was a set-back financially."

On the banking side, though, there remain hurdles for Moscow. Infrastructure, business facilities and legal safety nets currently hold it back, Ollivier said, but there have been leaps forward in attitudes to the concept of banking — and associated risk — since it became a commercial reality in Russia.

"French banks are generally prudential and risk reluctant by nature anyway," he said, "and obviously risk parameters will be the key to the future. The Russian people need to improve further their confidence in banks, but already things like the deposit insurance system are very good. It is now up to us to convince clients that we can be pleasant; they should understand that they have to pay for a service that is worth receiving. The ball is in our court."

There is good reason for optimism about the country's banks, Ollivier considered, and Moscow could become one of Europe's financial powerhouses. "As of today we cannot speak of the financial capital of Europe — there will be a couple of capitals in future and Moscow, which is playing an important role, could be one of them."

The push of business and organizations like the Association of Russian Banks, and the quick reactions of legislative bodies is key, he pointed out, underlining the "extremely important role for the financial commissions of the Duma in examining all possibilities."

Moreover, helping the regions is crucial, Ollivier said. "The differences between Moscow and the regions are narrower now than they were before, but they are still there and the crisis was a set-back financially. A lot of money was repatriated to the capital and the crisis stopped the normalization of wealth in the other major cities."

Married with four children, Ollivier, 42, has plenty to focus on when he tries to disconnect from work. Moscow provides a lot of opportunity to relax at weekends, particularly as, unlike many Russians, he and his family do not frequent a dacha. "It's a very green city and at times you can almost be in a forest within the city," he said cheerfully. "Our dacha is really in Brittany, Northern France, so we go there when we go back to France."

And despite his apparent naturalization in Moscow, Europe's biggest city, he always sees the differences when he returns to France on business trips or to see other members of his family: "Sometimes when I go back to Paris and arrive at the airport, I almost feel like I'm back in an old village or something," he laughed. "I come from around the Arras-Lille area and can certainly see the contrast now."

Unbeknown to some, the bank BNP Paribas has in fact got a particular connection with that corner of France, Ollivier explained, dipping into a well-informed history lesson of his company. "Paribas comes from Pays-Bas, since it used to be a French national bank with some Dutch operations. Now the Paribas bit is part of a brand name — and since 1993 it's been privatized."

The French banking connection with Russia is long standing, and that of BNP Paribas is no exception. Since the end of the 19th century, France and Russia have had what Ollivier called "dynamic" economic exchange and his current employer had a presence in Russia before the revolution. "In 1974, in spite of the Cold War, the bank returned to help with state-to-state relations," he recounted, "assisting in active trading in wheat and cereals and other agricultural and raw materials. In 2002 it got its full Russian banking license."

Russia remains an exciting location for bankers. With some of BNP's most senior serving foreign employees currently in Russia, Ollivier mused, conversation never tires.   

Russia - France 2010
Russia - France 2010
To coincide with President Sarkozy of France's visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, The Moscow Times is publishing a special edition of its Partnership XXI Century guides. Russia-France is dedicated to business relations between the two countries.
PDF Download PDF Version