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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Citibank Head Finds Russia Anything but Stuffy

MTHirst, who lives in the apartment once the home of the Soviet-era minister Molotov, has taken Citibank Russia into retail banking.
Citibank Russia president Allan Hirst never wanted to be in the banking sector.

"I always thought bankers and banking sounded pretty stuffy and boring -- just guys in suits looking at numbers," Hirst, 54, said in a interview.

In 1981, after working for 10 years as campaign organizer for the Democratic Party of Texas, Hirst was planning to get a master's degree in business from the University of Texas and work for a consulting firm.

On his way to class one day, he ran into a Citibank recruiter looking for a cup of coffee. Several months later, the bank hired Hirst, a fluent Spanish speaker, to work as a junior loan officer in its Venezuelan branch.

Despite his initial aversion to banking, Hirst has made a career out of working for Citibank in some of the world's most challenged economies -- Venezuela, Poland, the Middle East and now Russia. He has seen central banks implode, companies go bankrupt and developing nations decide their future.

Ask the Texas native what he now thinks about banking and Hirst is likely to passionately overuse words like "fun" and "unique."

Spend 10 minutes or so with Hirst, and one thing becomes clear: This man loves his job.

"I can't imagine doing anything else," he said. "Citibank probably has 270,000 of the most interesting jobs in the world."

Listen to his stories about being a Citibank trainee in Venezuela and you understand why he does not allow Western fears of doing business in Russia to prevent him from taking risks. From political scandals to recreating central banks, Hirst has seen it all.

"You can sit down and make a list of all the things going wrong here, all the things that need to change," he said. "But at the end of the day, you can't wait around for things to be perfect."

Under Hirst's leadership, last November Citibank became the first U.S. operation to enter the Russian retail banking sector after eight years in the corporate market. The bank now has about $60 million in retail deposits and 13,000 customers.

"Allan is committed to the Russian market and has a good understanding of what market he is in," said Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. The organization recently named Hirst Businessperson of the Year.

Hirst said managing an international banking operation is a lot like his experience organizing volunteer campaign workers under tight budgets while working for the Democratic Party in Texas. Both jobs require team and project management skills and knowing how to use employees in positions that suit them.

"It is a waste to fire someone if they are struggling in their position," he said. "If someone is a square peg in a round hole, it is better to find a square hole that fits them. Otherwise, it is a waste of your investment in hiring them."

Learning from your mistakes is also an important part of any job, he said.

"If you make someone a loan and he pays you back, you haven't learned anything. If you make him a loan and he gets in trouble, then you've learned something."

As a boy growing up in Texas, Hirst picked up another important influence on his future career path -- a desire to understand other cultures. In Brownsville, located on the Mexican-American border, you could not survive in the school hallways without speaking Spanish, he said.

He later worked on several campaigns to help get Mexican-American judges elected in Texas judicial districts.

Hirst's colleagues at Citibank Russia said one of the reasons he is good at his job is his interest in and understanding of Russia.

Georgy Zvonkov, a financial investment unit head, said that on a recent business trip with Hirst to Surgut, Siberia, he was surprised by the bank president's acceptance of a "Soviet" travel experience.

"He never complained about any of it and even seemed to enjoy himself," Zvonkov said.

While Russia's rate of reform is often criticized as being agonizingly slow, the country's continued development is what makes his job so interesting, Hirst said.

Citibank's new retail business has fueled a fire of interest in the sector, mainly from the bank's largest domestic competitor, Alfa Bank. Hirst said he welcomes the competition, as it will only push Russian clients to expect better services. He feels the bank is participating in a small part of Russia's history.

"We're building things, and it's fun in a market like Russia, where historically they didn't have the products we offer," Hirst said.

If Hirst is surrounded by financial Russian history in the making at work, he breathes the country's Soviet history when he is at home in his Moscow apartment, once the retirement home of Vyacheslav Molotov. Molotov, a close aide to Stalin, was the Soviet foreign minister when he signed a pact with Germany in 1939 in which the two countries agreed to divide up Poland.

The apartment still contains some of the former Soviet leader's things -- books and a few pieces of furniture. Hirst said he has combed through as much of the library as he can, but has not found much inspiration.

"Who would have thought a capitalist banker would one day be living in Molotov's apartment?" he said.