School Demystifies Local Business Habits

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ST. PETERSBURG Rude service, vague signs hanging in shop windows that say "back in 15 minutes," surly counter workers who would rather talk among themselves than make money, lousy advertising no one can accuse Russian business of not having a rough-hewn style of its own.

This style is precisely what 21 foreign students have been studying during a two-month course at the St. Petersburg Summer School of Marketing and Management under the aegis of the Tempus Tacis exchange program. The course ended Wednesday.

But teachers say that despite the lackadaisical atmosphere projected by most Russian businesses, they are tough competitors and are beating foreign stores in the local market a fact that surprises most participants in the seminar.

The seminar teaches foreign students the basics of Russian history, civilization, language and the often rough-and-tumble process of local business management.

"The main thing we wanted to show in the history of Russia is the number and specifics of political systems, from medieval times to the last few years," said school spokeswoman Natalya Pastukhova.

At the start of the program, students were asked to write an essay answering the question,"What do you think of Russia and Russians?" marketing teacher Natalya Tiraspolskaya said.

Many students from Finland who make up 80 percent of the participants wrote that they would not want to run their own business with Russians, who they consider "lazy and incompatible partners."

"When a Russian businessman faces a problem, he prefers to wait for the problem to fix itself," said Torsten Hekkelstrand from Finland. "I think its a specific part of the national character. However, if the Russian government reduced taxes, Id like to start my business here."

Tiraspolskaya said business schools in the West "give a clear understanding of economics, management and psychology, laying out which steps a businessman should take in a European setting." But Westerners leave these rules behind when they enter the Russian market, she said.

"When foreigners arrive, they have wild ideas about the wild Russia, and they think there is no rival market here, that everything is easy and they can forget all they were taught," Tiraspolskaya said.

One aspect of her marketing seminar was to look into what competitive edge Western stores have over their local counterparts. Students compared high-profile Western stores, such as Stockmann, Kontinent and Super Siwa, to a Russian retail outlet of their choice. The results were surprising.

"Students were confused," Tiraspolskaya said. "In spite of the bad service and lack of advertising and attention to style, Russian shops are alive and quietly doing business."

James Brown, a student from England, said the program helped him make some sense of the Russian way of doing business.

"We found the existence of a market system here, and the specifics of its regulation. For instance, the Russian finance system it differs significantly from the European. Some things still go over our head."

One of those things is the poor quality of advertising. "For instance, why is it that a shop, which advertises that it has no break during the day, can put up a sign saying gone for lunch and disappear?" Brown said. Under these circumstances, he said, "we hardly understand how advertising works" in Russia.

Tiraspolskayas answer was fatalistic: "Every Russian knows that advertising is a pack of lies, so its difficult to explain to a Russian or to a foreigner how to make an advertisement that will actually attract a customer.

"Thats why we are trying to bring some basics of the Russian mentality into foreign minds, teaching them Russian history and civilization," she said.

The idea for the program was conceived three years ago by the Northwest Polytechnical Institute of St. Petersburg and the Finnish Education Ministry. This summers session was the second and the number of participants nearly tripled. The seminars first graduating class consisted of eight students.