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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

His Road Led Him From AmEx to AmCham

VedomostiAndrew Somers has been American Chamber of Commerce president for two years.
Was the man dead or alive?

Andrew Somers' first trip to Moscow was in the early 1970s to find out whether a damages claim after a car accident was for death or disablement. The incident happened shortly after he began as legal counsel for American Express.

"I was sent because there was confusion as to whether the person had died or was simply in a hospital," he said.

"I spent a week in Russia trying to get to the bottom of this, and at one point I was taken to a hospital and was shown a man who was wrapped in bandages," Somers recalled. "They said, 'That's the man. But he can't talk.'

"That was my introduction to the legal system here."

Somers kept coming back.

Sitting in his 14th-floor office overlooking Moscow, the 61-year-old president of the American Chamber of Commerce said his experience in Russia and legal career have been the best training for his current job, where he lobbies the government to make life easier for U.S. companies doing business here.

Somers' interest in Russia began during elementary school, when he read Dostoevsky into the wee hours of the morning, sparking a fascination with its history and literature that has stayed with him. His interest in Russia peaked again when studying at Columbia University as a chemistry major.

Following the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the U.S. government decided that American science majors should study Russian instead of the traditional German as a second language.

"I got to like Russian more than I liked chemistry lab, so after two years I switched to major in Russian language," Somers said. He studied Old Church Slavonic and Old Russian, as well as the modern tongue.

"I married an American Russian whose background was Russian Orthodoxy, and I think I was the only one who understood the priest," he said of the wedding ceremony.

But after earning his degree at Columbia, Somers abandoned plans to obtain a Ph.D. and for pragmatic reasons crossed the campus to enter law school.

"In the '60s there weren't many options to use that background -- either teaching or some form of government work," he said of his Russian studies.

Somers became an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, the capital of white-collar crime.

In 1973, he entered the corporate world himself after American Express asked him to join its legal team specializing in litigation. "My goal had been to join an international company and eventually perhaps practice law outside the United States, so American Express seemed the right choice," he said.

Somers spent the next two years reconstructing the litigation department and was transferred to London.

"It was a very rich experience because American Express gave their lawyers considerable latitude in the decision-making process, and it was a very business-oriented legal staff. Eventually I became the head of it," he said. "It exposed me to international business on a major level."

Somers spent much of his spare time with his Russian mother-in-law and reading emigre newspapers and literature. But his knowledge became more than just a hobby when Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Soviet government -- and business opportunities began to spring up.

"Whatever Russians say about Gorbachev, he made the Russian language relevant to the rest of the world beyond the realm of high politics and defense issues," he said.

In 1989 Somers became executive vice president of American Express TRS Co., the travel services division that had operations in more than 70 countries and generated most of the company's revenues. The board of directors decided to use his language skills, and Somers was appointed special adviser on developing the Russian market. His trips to the country became frequent -- and the opportunities began to tempt him.

In 1995 he quit American Express to establish a consultancy that helps Western businesses operate in the regions by providing practical and legal advice on overcoming barriers to foreign investment. The consultancy was based in the United States, but he made many trips to Russia.

Somers liaised with local authorities to help companies decipher the local legislation and draw up contracts. It wasn't clear what the rules were for doing business, Somers said, but his legal background and knowledge of the language had made him more qualified than most to try and make sense of the situation.

The regions in the 1990s are perhaps not the first place that comes to mind as the ideal platform for an independent Western businessman. But Somers said he steered clear of Moscow because he believed it would be a closed-shop business community -- something like his hometown of New York.

The primary difficulties in doing business here were trying to work out how to acquire property, transfer ownership and know what rights the new owners had. Furthermore, the relationship between the city, the region and the federal government remained largely an enigma.

It was very educational, Somers said. "Some of these issues are still here," he said, quickly adding that tremendous progress has been made in legislation.

As AmCham president -- a position he accepted in December 2000 -- he still deals with those issues on a daily basis.

But for the first time in his 30-year relationship with the country, Somers is living here, and he is not planning to move away anytime soon. His term at the chamber finishes next year, but other business opportunities beckon.

"I still learn something new everyday," he said. "By living here I understand better how Russia is going through a fundamental change, and every day I am more convinced that this change is profound and will be lasting. Russia is really joining the rest of the world."

Somers says he has developed a rewarding dialogue with the government, and that his time liaising with international business groups has put him in a good position to take advantage of that dialogue.

But experience is the greatest teacher, he said.

"You learn a lot of things even subconsciously just by your experience. I know my experience in the regions and my experience on certain American Express projects as well as at a corporate level has made performance here something that I take to rather easily.

"And being a New Yorker helps."