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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Celebrity CEO Brings Color to Russian Faces

MTBrannstrom, CEO of Cosmetics firm Oriflame, has recruited 700,000 freelance salespeople during the last 10 years.
For hundreds of thousands of people across Russia and the former Soviet Union, the person they credit with giving them the power to take control of their lives is not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin but a tall Swede with an uncanny resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As the chief executive of cosmetics firm Oriflame, Magnus Brannstrom is at the helm of one of the fastest-growing cosmetics companies in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Under Brannstrom's stewardship over the last 10 years, Oriflame has signed on 700,000 freelance salespeople. His job has taken him to every corner of the former Soviet Union, with pop-star treatment wherever he goes.

"It's the nature of our business," he said. "I became the symbol of Oriflame in Russia, even though it's not my company. This is a people business and people are looking for someone to connect things to. In Russia, this seems even stronger than in many other places."

Working with interesting people is what gets Brannstrom out of bed in the morning.

"We grew up during the Cold War thinking of Russians as being very disciplined and boring and having no heart, and then when you come here you find it is completely different," he said. "They are exceptionally welcoming, friendly and really want to have a good time."

Brannstrom sought out Russia, an interest in history, a desire for adventure and a military background all helped draw him eastward and as a student he combined a business and law degree with studying Russian.

"The Soviet Union was intriguing, an adventure. Russia was different, and as an officer in the reserves, enemy red was always on the table, so in that sense it was natural to start learning Russian."

Brannstrom grew up in the far north of Sweden, where his family has lived for the last nine or 10 generations. He was the first in his family to get a university degree.

"My parents played an enormous role in helping me see that the world is bigger," he said.

Brannstrom, himself now a father of three, recalled that when he first went abroad as an exchange student to the United States, his father sent him on his way with a Swedish expression, the gist of which was "you won't get lost, the earth is round, you'll stay afloat, there's nothing to worry about."

After graduating in 1992, Brannstrom had a summer job in St. Petersburg before returning to Sweden to start an internship with Procter & Gamble.

"I did three months but then I realized it was so boring! Sweden is a mature country where nothing happens," he said. "In Russia everything was booming, there were opportunities to make money. It was the place to be."

Brannstrom's summer job had been with the Swedish companies building the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, and after his escape from Procter & Gamble, he worked with others buying and refurbishing St. Petersburg real estate in order to rent it out to foreigners. At the same time, he helped Swedish companies that wanted to have subsidiaries in Russia start up their operations. His work with a Swedish beer company was particularly successful until new import duties ended the party early, and Brannstrom decided to return to Sweden with the company to shore up his credentials in the developed corporate world.

But his business achievements in St. Petersburg had not gone unnoticed: he started to get offers to come back to Russia, and in the summer of 1996, having become acquainted with the company's founders, he became the managing director of Oriflame's Russian operations, based in Moscow. To this was added the firms' CIS operations, then its Asian markets, before Brannstrom reached the top of the corporate ladder in 2005, when he was made chief executive.

Brannstrom attributes much of his business success to his military training, first during Sweden's compulsory military service then as a reserve officer during his student years.

"It taught me self-discipline, getting a hold of yourself as an individual. I learned a lot about myself and my potential, my strengths and weaknesses," he said.

The officer program teaches about the basics of leadership, he said, and offers practical leadership experience through working with soldiers.

"The military is also results-oriented; it's not just leadership for the sake of being popular. It helps you learn how to achieve with people. Some people know what they want to achieve but don't understand how to get people alongside them to help them ... They don't understand what fun it is to have people alongside you."