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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg's Grandeur Is Realtor's Business

ST. PETERSBURG — Dressed in a pinstriped suit and bearing an aristocratic-sounding name, Sebastian FitzLyon is the very model of a modern English gentleman.

Indeed, he grew up in Britain and holds a British passport, but when FitzLyon came to St. Petersburg 10 years ago it was from Australia.

His arrival has been something of a homecoming — his historic apartment on the edge of the Moika canal once belonged to his grandfather, Lev Zinovyev.

St. Petersburg and Sydney have something in common, he says, and he regrets that there are no serious economic ties between the two cities.

"I even have an 'Australian corner' in my office and I am prepared to promote Australian businesses here, but few have shown any interest so far," he sighs.

In Australia, FitzLyon worked in the real estate business and it is in this field that he has carried on in St. Petersburg.

The business is an important one for the northern capital with its numerous palaces and an above average number of communal apartments.

FitzLyon was one of the first foreign businessmen to open his own enterprise in St. Petersburg. He was the first to open a real estate valuation agency office back in 1992. He subsequently resold this agency to DTZ, where he had previously worked, before setting up again on his own.

When FitzLyon arrived the process of breaking up the communal apartments and transforming them into elite apartments was in full swing. However, there was no class A office space in the whole city.

Since then much has changed and the heyday of the St. Petersburg property market is over.

Nevertheless, an apartment with a window opening onto a canal, a shop on Nevsky Prospekt, or an office on Italyanskaya Ulitsa — to put it simply, the city's historical center — are still in demand.

FitzLyon is very proud of his Russian roots. S. Zinovieff & Co., the firm he founded in St. Petersburg, bears the last name of his grandfather, a businessman who owned a timber mill near St. Petersburg and a foundry. In addition, Zinovyev was a deputy representing the Russian aristocracy from the area around St. Petersburg in the last State Duma before the 1917 Revolution.

FitzLyon speaks the excellent Russian that was preserved by the first wave of emigrants after the Revolution. It is a Russian that does not have such words as television, computer, or, for example nayezd, criminal slang for extortion.

The realtor says that in 1993 he had a clash with bandits. He went to the St. Petersburg economic crimes department for help where "an aged colonel" gave him the necessary advice on what to do and told him how to solve his problem.

"The days of being mugged on the sidewalks of St. Petersburg have passed," FitzLyon says.

His company offers commercial and residential properties for rent or sale, assists in the planning of redevelopments, and offers valuations to potential investors.

Among those to have used his company, which employs 12 staff, are tobacco firms BAT and JT International, the Canadian and Norwegian consulates in St. Petersburg, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, KPMG, Unilever, Skanska and Pratt & Whitney.

Like many St. Petersburg entrepreneurs who began their activities when Anatoly Sobchak was mayor, FitzLyon had several encounters with Sobchak's deputy, Vladimir Putin, who is now the nation's president.

However, FitzLyon is not as quick as some to declare himself a "friend" of Putin.

He knows the English saying "It's not what you know, but who you know that counts" and acknowledges that Putin's St. Petersburg roots are likely to benefit the northern capital, perhaps even financially.

For example, FitzLyon says, the city is to receive billions of rubles from federal funds for the celebration of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary. He hopes some of this money will be spent on restoring the city's historic buildings.

"Nevertheless, support from Moscow is much less important than the general economic conditions, which are as bad as ever: The Land Code has not been passed, businesses find it hard to predict what barriers bureaucracy will put in our way," he says.

Throughout the world businessmen love to complain about bureaucrats, but Western businessmen like FitzLyon do so constructively and form business associations and lobby groups.

FitzLyon belongs to one of the committees of the St. Petersburg International Business Association, which tries to create favorable conditions for expat companies.

FitzLyon's firm was first of all created to serve Western companies and foreigners. However, more recently it has started to attract Russian clients.

He said that previously Russian company names had made local clients wary.

"Many clients think that everything that is Russian is of poor quality," he says. "Because of this several of our competitors adopt a foreign name so that they will be considered a foreign company. This is a very silly practice, that, thank God, is disappearing."

There are considerable differences between the Russian and Western business mentality. At his firm the working day begins at 9 a.m., which the majority of St. Petersburgers regard as far too early. "I don't want to say that work discipline is worse than in the West. It's simply different. At a first glance there is chaos in Russia."

Everything seems to miraculously work out at the last minute. A good example was the burial of the remains of the last tsar's family in 1999, which was beautifully done despite looking as if it would not even happen just a few days before, he says.

FitzLyon, who says he is interested in everything connected with pre-revolutionary Russia, is especially interested in the renovation of the Rossi pavilion on Yelagin Island, which his firm is preparing for the World Monument Fund.

Indeed, FitzLyon himself seems to personify that strange mix of old and new Russia, and he loves to tell tales to illustrate this point.

Last summer, for example, he traveled to Oranienbaum — the old name for the town of Lomonosovo — with Andrei Golitsyn, an artist from D?sseldorf, Germany, who is the direct descendant of the last owner of one of Lomonosovo's palaces. Like many museums in Russia there was a fee for photographing and filming in Lomonosovo, and so the descendant of Russian princes had to pay 50 rubles in order to photograph his ancestral home.

Staff writer Yevgenia Borisova contributed to this report.