Originally published in Business Digest, December 1997

Rubles and Radios

by Julia Lynam

Chief accountant for a company before she left college, and running her own accounting business by the age of 31, Marina Semyenova's career must seem meteoric to young accountants in the U.S. Semyenova, who comes from the city of Omsk in flat south western plains of Siberia, explains that young people like her were "in the right place at the right time" -- poised to move into positions of responsibility when older, Soviet-trained accountants hesitated to take on the challenges of the economic changes of the early '90s. "The young people had a chance to jump right in," she says, speaking through an interpreter at the offices of Burlington CPA firm Gallagher, Flynn and Co., where she spent three weeks in November learning about business and accounting in this country.

Although still at college, 20 year-old Andrey Alekhine is working with a recording studio in Omsk to set up a new commercial radio station. "In a city of two million people," he explains, "there are only six commercial radio stations, and none of them is very good. Omsk listeners have been suffering too long without a really good, local station." Due to be launched in January, the new station, "City Radio," will include regular coverage of crime, direct from the police station, as well as rock music and Communist party broadcasts. Alekhine spent his three-week internship with audio/visual specialists Sound Vision on Pine Street in Burlington.

Semyenova and Alekhine are members of a group of 10 young Russian entrepreneurs brought to Vermont by the Middlebury College-based Geonomics Institute for an intensive, four-week training and internship program focusing on small business practices in the U.S.

The nationwide Community Connections program, run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Information Agency, will bring more than 1,300 business people and government officials from the former Soviet Union to the U.S. this year. In Vermont, Community Connections is sponsored and run by the Geonomics Institute, with additional sponsorship from The Snelling Center for Government, Champlain College, the Vermont/Karelia Rule of Law Project, the Addison County Economic Development Corp. and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

The interns spent one week at Middlebury College in an intensive training program, before moving in with host families in Chittenden and Addison counties.

[Ed Gallagher & Marina Semyenova] Marina Semyenova, a young Russian entrepreneur who owns an accounting firm in Siberia, spent three weeks in November at Gallagher Flynn & Co., Burlington CPAs. "Marina's been especially interested in our internal procedures," Ed Gallagher says. Semyenova is one of 10 young Russian business people brought here by the Middlebury College-based Geonomics Institute.

Semyenova found that her time in Vermont exceeded her expectations: "People here are very busy, but still willing to devote time to answer large and small questions for me," she says. "I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me here."

She stayed with David and Fran Mount on South Union Street in Burlington, and walked to work every day at the offices of Gallagher Flynn in the former Chace warehouse on South Champlain Street. Partner Ed Gallagher says it was the first time his company, established in 1960, had hosted a foreign intern. "We thought it would be a good experience for us and that it would give someone a good experience," he says. He wasn't disappointed. "It was terrific; learning about what's going on in Russia has been very interesting."

Applicants for the program, adminstered in Russia by the International Exchange and Research Commission, were carefully matched to their host businesses in the U.S., so that both could glean maximum benefit.

Semyenova and her husband, Pavel, with another partner, established Initiative, an accounting and auditing business, in Omsk in 1995. They have a staff of 10 and their client base is largely among the thousands of small companies that continue to spring up in the new economic climate of Russia. In Omsk, a major industrial city with a population of two million, she calculates there must be about 7,000 small businesses. They continue to come and go quite rapidly, and her business is heavily involved in helping companies set up and, with many failures in a struggling economy, wind up.

Gallagher, Flynn and Co. is five times the size of Semyenova's company, and operates in a much more stable business environment, but their client base, too, includes many closely held entrepreneurial companies and Semyenova has been fascinated by their operations.

"Marina's been especially interested in our internal procedures -- personnel manuals, job descriptions for accounting staff, time and billing systems," Gallagher says. "She studied our accounting and auditing manuals, reviewed papers of live jobs and visited a client's office to observe auditing procedures in action."

The Mounts have played host to a number of business visitors from Japan, Russia, India and Mexico in the past. "It really helps us to get a broader exposure to things going on in the rest of the world. It's useful in business and in life in general," David says. The couple runs Western Staff Services, a temporary recruiting service on St. Paul Street in Burlington, and David teaches accounting and entrepreneurship at Champlain College.

"As well as host, I'm Marina's business mentor," he says, "which means that I am also helping her to develop her business and write a business plan." That plan is a central part of the interns' American experience and in formulating it, Semyenova carefully assessed the relevance of her U.S. experiences: "It's essential that our business should grow," she says, "but it's not possible simply to import U.S. methods and standards. With the way things are in our country," she continues, "the quality of our work exceeds demand. It's a question not of lowering the quality level but of adjusting the experience I've garnered here to the conditions there.

"We do need to apply the U.S. experience," she adds. "It's the experience of a great number of people, 100 years worth of experience -- but we can't make an abrupt change from the old to a new internationally acceptable method of accounting."

Semyenova notes these changes take time, but they are on the works. "I've seen legislation designed to gradually bring about these changes. Some major steps have been taken in the past two years, and one of the biggest has been the separation of the taxation and accounting functions within companies.

"But it's a very complex problem," she concludes. "Even now the people in charge of companies don't understand what an audit is.

[Andrey Alekhine & Ralph Miner]At Sound Vision, Alekhine made the most of his internship by visiting every radio station in the area to study equipment and techniques.

Sound Vision's work in producing high-tech, digital audio/visual conference presentations dovetailed with Alekhine's interest in sound production, said the company's president Ralph Miner. And they quickly found that computer technology can transcend international boundaries and provide common ground for communication, despite language difficulties.

"Anyone who's a "techie" is going to speak our language," Miner says, "It's like playing soccer -- you don't really need to talk. Andrey uses the same kind of computers and the same programs in Russia that we use here."

Production manager Carl Severance, who worked closely with Alekhine during his internship, says, "It's been fun, to find out about a different culture, especially one that's evolving as theirs is. Andrey is very intelligent and he's made some interesting observations about our business, from a very objective point of view."

Severance says that they had discussed the idea of Alekhine promoting Sound Vision's type of technology in Omsk, but felt that it was probably too sophisticated and costly for the market.

"In Russia everyone seems to be stumbling to get going," Severance says, "and when they do get doing, there's no money for the sort of enhancements we offer."

Perhaps the biggest difference for Alekhine was not on the technical side, but in the open American style of running the business. "He found our monthly staff meeting, where everyone had an equal voice, very surprising," Miner says. "We discussed in a group subjects that, in a Russian company would have been spoken of only in private interviews."

While the Community Connections program provides obvious benefits in helping entrepreneurs like Semyenova, Alekhine and their fellow interns to develop and operate profitable businesses, the advantages are not necessarily all on one side. The Geonomics Institute also expects that the project will provide Vermont companies with a low-risk, low-cost way to explore possible commercial and trade opportunities in the Omsk region, which may be particularly appropriate as this area has the most advanced agro-industrial economy in Siberia. Program director Chris Beattie says that several Vermont businesses have acquired useful connections through previous programs.

Community Connections also helps its participants to develop personal connections they would not otherwise have made, and leads to increased understanding between Russians and Vermonters through the interns' homestays with local families, and their participation in cultural and community activities.