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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Business on the Ski Slopes

Age and experience have mellowed Ilya Shershnev.

At 24, Shershnev -- best known as the brash public face of real estate consultants to the super-rich, Swiss Realty Group -- is surprisingly circumspect.

"I was depressed toward the end of last year because when I was 20, I had all the same things as I have now, I had very expensive cars, a lot of money, all this stuff, but over the last few years not much has changed," he said in fluent English, looking worn out from the hectic post-holiday schedule.

Shershnev, Swiss Realty Group's CIS business development director, seems to have made the most of his time.

"I don't feel like I'm 24, really I don't," he said, understated in an azure shirt and jeans, with silver stag-head cuff links from London aristocratic outfitters Holland and Holland flashing prominently.

To his staff, too, it would seem his youth is not an issue.

"He is young, yes, but he's a good boss and strict," said an employee at Swiss Realty, who requested anonymity when asked to comment on Shershnev. "He demands a lot from himself and from you."

Shershnev said his upbringing was privileged compared with those of the vast majority of Russians. His father, an actor by profession, runs a company building monuments in Siberian oil towns.

Inspired by his grandfather, who transformed his Odessa tailoring firm into a successful clothes factory during perestroika, Shershnev said running his own business had always been an "idee fixe."

Aged 16, with a start-up loan from his parents, Shershnev set up his first company selling air conditioning units over the summer holidays.

While still at university, he began working as a real estate broker, only to be sacked in mid-2001 when he turned his attention back to the more lucrative business of selling air conditioning units. From there, aged 19, he moved on to what later became Swiss Realty Group. At first it was not a management position "as there was not much to manage, but the roles changed quickly as the business changed."

Swiss Realty Group is owned by Geneva-based holding firm SRG, a Swiss-registered venture investment company backed by "Russian-speaking" money. Having established a list of elite clients, it now focuses on larger-scale projects in the emerging markets.

Spending half his time in Switzerland and London, "the places where Russian money lives," Shershnev said he had met or worked with many people on Forbes' Russian rich list.

Forming personal relationships with the company's wealthy clients in their European playgrounds, Shershnev has developed a passion for skiing.

Asked whether his skiing trips were anything like the infamous exploits of the oligarchs in Courchevel, he laughed.

"That style of life was the style of my life for the last few years, and I think that's the real style of life for Russian business," he said.

For anyone attempting to do business with rich Russians, Shershnev's advice is to try to fit in.

"In Russia, if you want to make money with wealthy people then you should behave yourself like they do," he said.

"If you want to do projects with them then you should find a way to them. We are not selling anything but we interest them in what we're doing. You should always be near them."

As Shershnev has matured, so Swiss Realty has grown up. Founded in 2001, the company quickly became infamous through controversial advertising and brash tactics.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
"We had an aggressive strategy on the market and there are hundreds of people in different companies who do not know me personally but hate me," Shershnev said.

A 2005 advertisement for a now-defunct subsidiary pictured Shershnev and a colleague posing in evening suits with two scantily clad models draped across them, above the slogan: "A gentleman is expected to rise when a lady enters the room."

"You know, we were always trying to provoke people," he said.

As an example, Shershnev said he and one of his Swiss Realty colleagues drive the only two red BMW 7-series in the country.

"Some rappers in America may have these cars but I've never seen them," he said.

Despite his obvious experience, Shershnev still displays bouts of youthful exuberance. During an interview, he pulls out his laptop to show off the designs for one of his biggest projects. Looking like the fantasy of a Lego-obsessed 10-year-old, it is a multimillion-dollar plan put together for the son of the United Arab Emirates' president to build a giant pyramid complex in Abu Dhabi by 2013.

"The goal was to make the most impressive project ever," Shershnev said proudly.

Over the past few years, his work life has been itinerant and all consuming. In 2005, he traveled 52 times and, although 2006 was quieter, in the first month of this year, he went on six business trips. He said he starts work at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and finishes at about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.

Recently, however, he said he had "found love" and that he is changing.

"For many people it changes their attitude toward business, but I'm still in the office so it hasn't really changed a lot for me," he said.

"I hope that I've changed. But I can always go back," he laughed.