Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Nobel Knight

After 42 years with Dutch chemicals and pharmaceuticals group Akzo Nobel -- including 13 years in Russia -- Anno Wolff shows no signs of stopping.

Although the soft-spoken Wolff retired as general manager last May, he wasn't ready for a rest and has since rejoined the company as a freelance consultant.

His contribution to Russian-Dutch business relations was recognized last year by the Dutch Queen, who awarded him the distinction of Knight of the Royal Order of Orange-Nassau. The award was presented by Dutch Ambassador Jan-Paul Dirkse in a ceremony at the Dutch Embassy.

Wolff credits his achievements -- including successfully building two chemical factories in Russia -- to long-term relationships with Russian officials and advisers whom he met at the Chemical Ministry before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many have since joined private companies or become advisers to Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the Kremlin. A phone call to them, Wolff says, is sometimes all it takes. He said he has never given a bribe to a Russian official.

"If you are unknown, it is very difficult to get something done," Wolff said. "But if you know the people, nobody will ask you for any payments -- one phone call to these people is enough."

"This is how this country works," he added. "It is a relationships society. You do something for friends and you do something for people you trust."

Wolff was born in Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, but grew up near Rotterdam. His childhood ended early with the death of his mother, and at 15 he started working as a quality controller in a Rotterdam factory while studying in the evenings.

Upon turning 18, in 1962, he became a lab assistant at a company that was later incorporated into Akzo.

Next came a three-year tour of duty in Suriname, followed by 12 years running chemical factories in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany.

At 36, Wolff had what he describes as a midlife crisis, and switched to sales -- a move that allowed him to travel the world. He has been to 150-odd countries over the years, he said, and plans to visit the rest.

Wolff came to Moscow in 1986 when Akzo bought a company in Soviet Russia, and he spent the next two years traveling to almost every corner of the former Soviet Union meeting potential customers, getting to know industry insiders on a first-name basis.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Anno Wolff says building friendships is crucial to advancing a business in Russia.
"Central purchasing was still in place," Wolff recalled. "Intourist actually told you what hotel you should stay in and airport taxi drivers wanted cigarettes, whiskey or cognac instead of hard currency."

In mid-1994, the chairman of Akzo Nobel asked Wolff to return to Moscow to head the company's representation.

Remarkably, Wolff doesn't speak much Russian. "I never needed it," he said. "[There are] two ways of looking at it: You can go to Russia because you know you have a certain skill, profession, or you can go to Russia because you speak the language and you hope to learn the profession."

Just make sure you have good language support, he added.

Lodewijk Schlingemann, a lawyer with Moscow-based Dutch law firm Juralink, described Wolff as "reliable as a businessman" and someone who "will not promise something if he can't do it."

"Professionally, he has an analytical mindset, combined with a long stay here," said Schlingemann, who has known Wolff for eight years. "He has a good view of what is really going on behind the scenes."

Officially retired but still working at his desk in Akzo Nobel's northern Moscow office, Wolff has been advising on two building projects that he said were too early to name.

He divides his time between Russia and France, where he has a house. A keen nature lover, Wolff enjoys bird watching, swimming and spending weekends in small Russian towns. And although he has visited such distant places as Kamchatka, Baikal and Altai, a hunting trip with his Russian friends turned out to be too much for him to handle: "I decided it was far too dangerous. Everybody is full of vodka and walking around with loaded guns."

However, socializing is key to advancing your business in Russia, he emphasized. "Quite a few Western companies are not paying any attention to socializing, building friendships," Wolff said. "They come and [bring with them a] Western business style: 'It's my second, third time here -- things should be settled.' It doesn't work this way in Russia."

Cutting corners, as far as laws and regulations are concerned, is also not an option. "You cannot bypass any rules," he said. "This country has a huge bureaucracy. If you want to do something, you have to do all the steps properly. Don't try to bypass one because it will backfire later."