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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Puts Pilot Skills to Work Selling Food

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Bavarian businessman Quirin Wydra said his training as a test pilot and squadron leader in the German air force is invaluable when doing business in Russia.

"I'm not doing the retail business. I am actually doing exactly the same as when I was flying," said Wydra, who has been bringing groceries to the Russian market for the last 10 years.

In the Luftwaffe, pilots were awoken at 5 a.m., given a view of a cockpit instrument panel and placed in a simulated emergency — the goal of the exercise being to analyze the situation, decide on appropriate action and maintain aircraft control.

In business it's just the same, said Wydra, president of importation and distribution firm Mawy. "You continue to operate your business, you analyze the situation and you take the appropriate action."

Wydra served in the Luftwaffe for 20 years, training in a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and moving on to become a test pilot and a leader of a Tornado squadron in charge of 500 people. He said he never crashed and never ejected.

His position brought him into contact with businesses like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Deutsche Aerospace, which later become DaimlerChrysler Aerospace and last year merged with the European Aeronautics, Defense & Space Co. Wydra also began giving courses on motivation and stress relief to top managers.

In 1991, he was asked to entertain Alexander Silayev, son of then-Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, during the son's visit to Germany. The visit went well, and soon after Wydra got an invitation to Moscow.

He was asked to help German fashion house Escada, which had opened a boutique in the GUM department store. Not long after that, using his extensive business contacts he set up Mawy in St. Petersburg.

At the time, many Germans were interested in Russia, but decided that before doing business they had better get acquainted with the locals and find out who could be trusted, Wydra said. But that was not how his business developed. "It was vice versa. Russian businesses needed to know they could trust us."

The first eight months were tough for Mawy, but then Wydra's contacts started to deliver, and the company begin importing and gaining certification for a wide range of goods. Soon Mawy was importing 408 products.

His business entered a new phase in 1994, when dairy product maker Ehrmann, having failed to break into the Russian market on its own, gave Mawy exclusive rights to market its yogurt .

At the time, foreign yogurt makers were well established in the capital. "When we tried to enter the Moscow market, we understood that it would be very difficult," Wydra said.

His military experience taught him not to attack where the enemy is strongest. In this case, the struggle was not against enemies, but competitors — and their weak points were in the regions.

Wydra and his staff went to Samara, Omsk and Yekaterinburg armed with Ehrmann yogurt, stands bearing the Bavarian white and blue and questionnaires. They found that rather than the low-fat yogurt favored in Germany, Russians liked high-fat yogurt, he said.

Mawy changed the product mix and marketing strategy and started gaining ground in the Russian market.

Ehrmann's share peaked at 29 percent of the total market and 50 percent of the high-fat yogurt market in 1997, when annual sales soared to 100 million Deutsche marks (about $57 million at the time), Wydra said.

The 1998 financial crisis hurt business, but not as badly as it might have, and Wydra found that his Russian partners made every effort to honor their obligations, he says. Good relations are the key to success here, said Wydra, who seeks clients with a long-term partnership in mind rather than just one deal.

Wydra said the strong sales convinced Ehrmann to invest in a $50 million dairy factory in the Ramenskoye district south of Moscow.

Mawy, in cooperation with 10 local partners, obtained the licenses, procured milk supplies and developed a distribution system for Ehrmann. The $50 million dairy factory, the company's third, opened in August of last year.

Wydra said Ehrmann's sales were back to 100 million marks last year and that Mawy's other businesses had earned another 30 million marks.

Last year, Mawy sold its stake in the factory, but Wydra is already talking to his business partners about more production in Russia and is setting his sights on new ventures.

Wydra's main concern now is the AVA hypermaket and how to supply the 50,000 products that the $18 million, 26,500-square-meter complex will sell.

AVA's foundation stone was laid in May in the Kotelniki district of the Moscow region, and Mawy is recruiting 700 staff for the complex and group of other stores that AVA chief executive Kurt Lindemann is hoping to build in Moscow.

Mawy now has 45 partners covering the whole of Russia

In what may be Mawy's greatest success, Wydra has been authorized to represent and negotiate on behalf of the Moscow city government, which is seeking financing from Munich to develop 34 industrial projects that require investments of between $200,000 and $9 million each.