Doing business in what was the Soviet Union requires, among other things, learning how to say "little bit" when offered a glass of vodka, knowing that not everyone is Russian, and figuring out how to structure a payment plan that will put real money in the bank.
A panel of Baltimore businessmen who addressed a luncheon seminar in Baltimore yesterday agreed that the vast territory does offer opportunity for the patient and knowledgeable.
The country is wrestling with enormous political and economic changes that can make working there difficult, noted Alexander V. Bobilev, a Russian expatriate who operates a consulting business in Columbia.
"We're watching the downsizing of the empire," he told about 120 business people who attended a seminar, sponsored by the World Trade Center Institute and the Greater Baltimore Committee.
His advice for those interested in working in the former Soviet Union included being culturally sensitive to the various ethnic groups and being cautious when drinking with Soviets. "People may get you drunk to see who you are and whether they want to do business with you," he warned.
Jack Tymann, president and general manager of Westinghouse Electronic Systems Co., which is part of a consortium developing an air traffic control systems plan for the Soviet Union, said one of the three essential utterances he learned in Russian was "choot-choot" or "little bit."
That little word, said in response to offers of liquor, helped make his experience in the Soviet Union more pleasant, he said. The other two essential words, he said, are the Russian words for "thank you" and "good-bye."
Tymann praised the Soviet people as warm and generous, but said they often are naive in business and advised anyone interested in working with them to be patient.
Ryland Trading, a subsidiary of the Columbia-based Ryland Group, decided to pursue overseas ventures because "it would be no more difficult to build overseas than in California or New Jersey," said Joseph Barker, company vice president.
Currently his firm is exploring options to build housing for expatriates now living in the former Soviet Union and developing joint ventures with firms there.
Unpleasant aspects of working there include coping with bad food, expensive hotels, currency that is not easily converted to dollars, uncomfortable air flights, and death-defying taxi rides. On the positive side, he said, is a huge market with a need for houses and other consumer goods and people who are "outstanding."
Baker said he first went to the Soviet Union with cold war images of an Evil Empire, and was surprised to discover the country is "a very, very pleasant place to be."
Soviet business leaders are anxious to work and usually quick to learn Western concepts. "I found they are anxious to embrace the new, but scared to death to release the old," he said.
If Maryland companies are interested, they should develop a clear idea of their objectives and be prepared to make a substantial commitment of time and resources.
"Before you go, read something about Russia so you're greeting a friend when you get off the plane," he advised.
Also, he said, "constantly review your risk-reward criteria. You want to know when to get out."