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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Travel Agent Whose Business Smells of Roses

MTAndrei Voronine, the CEO of Andrew's Travel House, is about to embark on a career change.
In the early 1990s Andrei Voronine invested the money he had made from a vacation job selling flowers in Sweden into a small business offering Russian visas to foreign businessmen wishing to come to Moscow. Today he is the CEO of Andrew's Travel House, one of Russia's leading business travel companies with total annual sales of almost $20 million and 65,000 customers.

"My life has been full of spontaneous decisions," said Voronine, 34, in an interview in his downtown Moscow office.

While he was still at Moscow State University studying mathematics, he found himself a job with a Korean travel company. It was there that he learned what "providing services was all about." He recalls how his Korean boss would yell at his employees that customers were not interested in any explanations for a failure to provide quality services. That was an eye-opener for someone who grew up in a country where "the customer is always right" slogan was never taken seriously.

After graduating from college in 1993, he took a few months off and went to Sweden to sell flowers in restaurants. During the three months he spent there, Voronine made $3,000, a huge sum by Russian standards and enough for him start fulfilling his desire to be his own boss. Spotting a gap in the market for visa services, particularly catering to foreign businessmen, he decided to start a company with his "flower money" that would do just that.

The "office" of this new company was based in a one-bedroom apartment in the Vykhino neighborhood of southeast Moscow, where Voronine's friend and co-founder lived. The two of them had to spend an entire night doing some serious cleaning before their first clients -- a family of Indian businessmen wanting Russian visas -- could come for a visit.

"I'm still astonished they actually gave us money. They came to Vykhino, the last stop on the metro line, gave us cash and then left," he said.

As it started to take off, the business soon attracted the interest of racketeers, prompting Voronine to pull out and start again.

In 1996 he started a new company called Andrew's Consulting. This time he did it all by himself and registered the company in Ireland. This was not only good for its image with foreign clients, but partially eliminated the racketeer problem: "Bandits were reluctant to deal with foreigners."

Initially, the company offered only Russian visas to foreign businessmen. Later on it also started doing foreign visas for Russian businessmen, in addition to other business travel services that ranged from hotel and ticket reservations to car rentals and conference organization.

Last year Voronine merged his company with the Swedish-U.S. Travel House, giving birth to Andrew's Travel House, with offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. Its client list includes L'Oreal, Morgan Stanley, Megafon and McDonald's.

It was not always certain that Voronine's business would carry on blooming like the flowers he sold in Sweden. Russia's financial crisis in August 1998 forced him to take time out from the MBA program he had started at INSEAD earlier that year to salvage his business. But not only did Voronine's company survive, the crisis gave him an excellent opportunity to employ some of the methods that he had been taught by his INSEAD professors.

"I would torture my employees with all those cost-profit centers, analyses, management accounting, profitability and so on. But it paid off in the end -- we were one of the first Russian companies to introduce those. Now the company can run without me interfering -- not many Russian managers can say that."

The fact that he does not need to be a hands-on CEO has given Voronine time to play at being an amateur web master. He is one of the creative forces behind -- a not-for-profit web site that he describes as "a guide to glamorous Moscow for foreigners." And, in 1998, he went to Ibiza and liked it so much that he launched the web site, popular with the Russian Ibiza-going crowd.

His most high-profile Internet project so far is Voronine has become so passionate about good customer service that he has put his own money into a web site that describes his struggles with British mobile phone company Orange over a broken handset. The site has attracted the attention of several British magazines as well as the BBC.

Voronine's "spontaneity" does not end there. In the West it is now commonplace for people to switch careers but in Russia it is still a new concept. Voronine is about to change that: Although he would not disclose details, he has just taken on the position of CEO in a newly established insurance company that aims to become one of the leaders in the Russian market.

"I would talk to people about it and they would say: 'You have been in the travel business all your life. If you want to change your occupation, you will need to learn everything anew.' But I think that as long as you are a top manager who knows business processes, you can easily switch between industries."