Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Izosimov
“I am a corporate manager to the very core…”
Aleksandr Izosimov is one of Russia’s most prominent businessmen and respected executives. He achieved success in every company he ever worked in. He drastically changed Russia’s telecoms market, creating the most expensive Russian brand of black and yellow stripes - Beeline. It was under Izosimov’s leadership that VimpelCom became Russia’s largest telecommunications operator and second largest mobile operator – he conducted a massive rebranding campaign, won a 3G license (third generation mobile services), realized a $4.35 bln deal (the biggest ever in the field) and started the company’s expansion into Southeast Asia.
Early years and student activism
Aleksandr Izosimov was born on January 10, 1964 in Yakutia in eastern Siberia. His parents worked as geologists. After graduating from a school specializing in physics and mathematics in Yakutsk, Izosimov left to conquer the capital. At the age of 17 he entered the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI) to study economics.
He graduated in 1987 with a Master of Science degree and remained at the institute as a postgraduate. His prospects in the Soviet system were bright but his dynamic nature demanded action. In 1989 during his English-language study trip to Yugoslavia, Izosimov accidentally learnt about AIESEC – an international student organization that helps economics and management students receive internships abroad. When he returned to Moscow he started a new chapter in the history of his institute. A recent graduate and published author of a book on computer science entitled “Metrics of Software Quality,” he set up a student exchange program between the Soviet Union and Israel at a time when the two countries had no formal diplomatic relations. Fourteen students from his alma mater went to study at the University of Hifa, and Israeli students attended classes at MAI, one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious and secretive research institutions. Thus Izosimov’s talent as a manager was revealed. "I arranged an exchange program at a pretty classified school, which didn't let foreigners come close," Izosimov said in an interview. He later joined with students at other institutes to found AIESEC USSR.
With AIESEC Izosimov often went abroad to meet representatives of foreign companies, learning more about the practical side of management. At the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s the country was entering an époque of change and Izosimov decided to seize the moment – he had always wanted to work on an international scale. So it wasn’t by chance that Izosimov landed a job at McKinsey & Co., which used AIESEC's network to recruit young talents.
On the road to success with McKinsey & Co.
The American company was only eyeing Russia back then and still didn’t have an office in the country. The reputable consulting firm was thinking of an experiment – to hire several Russians to work in its European offices and see what they were like in business. The competition was great. The selection process consisted of innumerable interviews. Izosimov was questioned by about a dozen McKinsey managers of different ranks. In the end, the former postgraduate was one of the three lucky chosen ones. He was offered a job as a junior consultant in the Stockholm office of the company. He left Moscow in October 1991, just two months before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Today Izosimov says that knowledge of the language and culture of the country is an advantage but it’s not what defines professional suitability. However, in those times language was one of the main problems for him. English was the working language in the Swedish office of the company and Aleksandr was far from a fluent speaker. Another problem for Izosimov was plunging into the unknown atmosphere of corporate culture.
Within five years he managed not only to build a career as a consultant but also to graduate from Europe’s best business school and even get married. Sweden's capital is where Izosimov met his wife – Sarah Korduner.
After three years in Stockholm, in 1993, Aleksandr Izosimov entered the French business school INSEAD. A year later, he held an MBA degree from the school and joined McKinsey’s London office where he focused on sales and marketing issues as well as cost optimization. It was there that in 1996 headhunters working for the Moscow office of Mars Inc. tracked him down.
The sweet life at Mars Inc.
The company was looking for a talented and ambitious manager with Russian roots that could eventually head their office in Russia. The headhunters went through long lists of Russian graduates of the world’s best business schools, gathered information about Russians who had worked in British companies and interviewed about a hundred candidates. Their choice fell upon Aleksandr Izosimov.
That same year Izosimov returned from Europe to Russia, a different Russia from the one he had known. His hopes for a fast career within the new company came true. After just nine months at Mars Inc. in Moscow he was promoted to the position of financial director and, after Russia’s financial crisis of 1998, he moved to the position of sales director. In June 1999, having successfully overcame the consequences of the crisis, which debilitated Russian consuming capacity, Izosimov became general manager for Russia and the CIS. Two years later he moved back to Stockholm to serve as a member of the Global Executive Management Board and Regional President for the CIS, Central Europe and Nordic regions for Mars Inc., in charge of more than 20 markets in the region, including all of Russia and the CIS.
Top job with VimpelCom
During his time at Mars Inc. he received several other job offers but he always declined them however interesting they were. For example, one of Russia’s former tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky, who now lives in self-exile, once asked Izosimov to join his Media-Most holding as financial director. Despite very attractive conditions, Izosimov declined the offer, as it didn’t fit his principles of doing business. He was never focused on simply “building a career” – his main motivation was interest: he needed to like his job. So why did he move into telecommunications?
“I have always followed the logic of strengthening my personal competitive advantages,” says Izosimov. “VimpelCom’s offer meant another change of competitive environment for me and as a consequence – new possibilities for developing my personal brand. It wasn’t just a move to a new industry but also a new experience of working in a public, not private, company.”
Today VimpelCom is Russia’s largest telecommunications operator and second largest mobile operator under the Beeline trademark. However, in October 2003 when the almost 40-year-old Izosimov took the company into his hands, it was not only catastrophically losing clients – there was also a serious disagreement between Russian and foreign shareholders. The telecoms market was puzzled by this new appointment of an outsider – a “chocolate” man who had neither experience nor special knowledge in high-tech. Izosimov spent several months intensely bringing himself up to date. Half a year later he offered his vision of resolving the most burning issues the company was facing and launched a massive rebranding campaign.
Izosimov’s strategy started bearing fruit almost immediately. As a result, today the VimpelCom Group includes companies operating in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia, in territories with a total population of about 340 million. It was the first Russian company to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). VimpelCom's ADSs (Alliance Data Stock) are listed on the NYSE under the symbol VIP.
In summer 2006 Izosimov considered quitting due to a long-running dispute between VimpelCom's principal shareholders - Russia's Alfa Group and Norway's Telenor. But he was persuaded to stay. Three years later, in 2009, he announced that he was stepping down as chief executive and general director to spend more time with his family in Sweden. He said the decision was purely a family matter. "I must fulfill my family contract. I have obligations to my family," he said, explaining his reasons for leaving VimpelCom. However at the beginning of 2010 Izosimov took up the top role at a newly enlarged company – Vimpelcom Ltd.
The Aleksandr Izosimov brand
In 2004 Aleksandr Izosimov was recognized as the most professional manager in Russia, according to the results of a rating published by the authoritative Russian business newspaper Kommersant. In September 2005 he was named “Best Russian Top Manager” by Institutional Investor magazine. Later for three consecutive years the same magazine put him at the top of its “Russia’s Best Business Leaders” list in the telecoms sector. In 2004 and 2007 Izosimov won the title of “Best Corporate Manager” in a competition conducted by the Russian Investor Protection Association. In 2005 VimpelCom’s general director received the “Best Investor Relations by a CEO/CFO” award from the international IR Magazine. More than once Izosimov was in the “Top-1000 Russian managers” rating by the Russian Association of Managers.
At the end of 2007 Izosimov made headlines when he bought the most expensive house sold in Sweden that year, according to a housing report from Svenska Dagbladet. He is reported to have paid a shade under US$7 million for the detached home in Stockholm's Djursholm district. The price made the house the second most expensive private home ever sold in Sweden.
Izosimov’s experience and professionalism is in high demand. He serves on the Boards of Directors of the GSM Association (since Feb 2005), Baltika Breweries Plc. and United Confectioneries B.V. He conducts master classes at Russia’s first business school “Skolkovo” and takes part in meetings of INSEAD graduates. In 2009 Izosimov was named one of the top 100 managers (within the so-called High-Potential Management Personnel Reserve program) that President Dmitry Medvedev will rely upon to fill senior government posts. But Izosimov has so far said he’s not too keen on politics and civil service - “One has to be internally ready for that.”
In his personal life he’s a happy husband and father to three sons: David, Nikolas and Maxim. In the past, with his extremely busy schedule, he didn’t get to see them often – they live in Sweden where he would fly every weekend.
His marriage to a Swedish citizen has determined the eclectic nature of his household, where a mix of Russian, Swedish and English is now spoken.
“We discussed who our children should be: Russian, Swedish or “citizens of the world” and came to the conclusion that the latter doesn’t suit us at all. And the choice between Russian and Swedish for me was defined by the time I could spend with the children. Given that my wife was primarily in charge of them I decided – let the children be Swedes.”
Of his three sons only the eldest speaks Russian – he takes Russian lessons. But as English is the spoken language in the family, his vocabulary in Russian is quite limited. The middle son “mainly understands Russian but refuses to speak it altogether.” As for the youngest, when his father speaks to him in Russian, he “listens attentively, nods, and then turns to his brothers and asks, "What did he say?’”
Izosimov says, “It may be that Swedish education is not the strongest from an academic point of view, but it’s very good in terms of bringing up an internally free person. Critical thinking, independence in decision-making are cultivated from the first grades at school. Swedes may criticize it sometimes, but for me, as a person with a Soviet past, it’s very important.”
Whether he will get to spend more time with his family remains to be seen but one thing is certain: Aleksandr Izosimov is not the kind of person who is likely to come home every day at 6pm.
Written by Daria Pushkova, RT correspondent