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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diary of a Mad Beer Distributor




Hankering for a tale of an entrepreneurial upstart in Russia that's a combination of frat-boy-does-Moscow and hit-the-ground-running business commentary? Then Timothy Harper's Moscow Madness: Crime, Corruption, and One Man's Pursuit of Profit in the New Russia is the yarn for you.


A serious political or economic history of the post-Soviet Union this book is not. Starting with the clich? on page one, chapter one, about a Russian wearing a "cheap, ill-fitting suit," be assured this is not a work of literature that belongs next to Dostoevsky or Pushkin.


The book reads like an MBA student's homework: a case history of how not to run a business in an emerging market.


But what makes "Moscow Madness "a page-turner - at least toward the second half of the book - are the trials and travails of its unlikely protagonist, an American sailor turned entrepreneur named Rick Grajirena, who lights upon the idea of setting up a Miller beer distributorship in Moscow just as the Soviet Union crumbles.


Where does Grajirena get this bright idea? It was on a trade-exchange trip to the former Soviet Union, when a Russian passenger next to him cracked open a Miller to celebrate the successful landing after a particularly harrowing airplane ride.


Miller beer, Grajirena decides, is just what this vodka-soaked nation is thirsting for. If that sounds like Moscow Madness, it's a start. That madness, by the way, didn't just apply to Western businesspeople working vainly to slap American-pie ethics and models onto a rough-and-tumble, lawless country, and somehow reap a fortune.


The madness also applied to those Americans who came to Russia as historical tourists, "getting a close-up look at the biggest political, social and economic upheaval of the late 20th century."


The Americans drank too much, danced on bar tables, and generally disgraced themselves in a way they never could back home - simply because they weren't at home.


If the book can turn somewhat didactic, patronizing and one-sided, it may be because the subject of the book, Grajirena, tries to run a business in Russia from his hometown in Florida half way around the world.


But there are meaty, nuts-and-bolts business dilemma chapters as well, including one entitled "Roofs," detailing how exactly a small business could be forced to pay for protection from the ubiquitous Russian mafia.


Harper also does an admirable job, down to the rubles and kopeks, of explaining how byzantine the country's network of bureaucrats, forms and customs could be for a small business, particularly without the backing of a multinational corporation. (Grajirena's company, First Republic, eventually lost the support of Miller, based in Milwaukee, which treated its Russian distributor like a provincial outpost.)


Harper has deep empathy for his subject, and it shows in the lengths to which the author goes to justify some of Grajirena's most hapless business decisions. Among his flops: hiring ill-suited "friends" - both Russian and American - including one dubbed merely "the Spy," who tried to turn Grajerina's U.S. investors against him; as well as failing to seize upon a much more lucrative opportunity to distribute Heineken beer in Moscow.


And then there were times when any decision, no matter what, was doomed - buying delivery trucks that turned out to be too big and illegal to drive through the center of Moscow; renting space in a Soviet-built warehouse that collapses in midwinter and buries 14,000 cases of beer ahead of the important holiday season; or simply trying to operate by the rules.


That, finally, may have been Grajirena's biggest mistake, as his successor, Robert Greco, a younger American who moves to Moscow and becomes fluent in the language, realizes: "Operating strictly legally was not possible if the company wanted to stay in business."


After 70 years of communism, Russia had no tradition of free enterprise, but a deep tradition of breaking laws to survive. And since "business was illegal, there was no consideration of ethics in business."


Russia's economic conditions and politics have changed even since Harper's book went to press, so it is bound to sound dated.


But if you don't mind wading through some gratuitous stories about gorgeous Russian women ("when she walks toward you, all you can think of are two zeppelins in a dead heat") and dead-end investment leads, then "Moscow Madness" just might be the cautionary business tale you're looking for.


Just don't go mad before you finish.


"Moscow Madness" by Timothy Harper. McGraw Hill. 256 pages. $24.95.


Erin Arvedlund is a staff reporter for TheStreet.com, where this review was first published.