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Vladimir Potanin: entrepreneur, like a surgeon, should be able to inflict pain

July 06, 2015, 8:00 UTC+3

The president of Norilsk Nickel in the TASS special project Top Officials

7 pages in this article
Vladimir Potanin

Vladimir Potanin

© Alexander Shcherbak/TASS

About victory podium, soul strings, allergy and sulphur emissions

 Vladimir, what is it like to feel yourself the richest person in Russia?

— My friend Slava Fetisov says that the first step from the victory podium is always down… On any top it is important to be able to soberly evaluate the situation. The best way is to start with answering the question how did you get there, was your way honest and worthy, so do you deserve a place you are in. Then it’s easier to get used to the thought that sooner or later you’ll have to descend to the pediment. There are no absolute champions. So, you should have time to enjoy the feeling of height and opening views but without too much zeal, without being intoxicated with your own success. To step down on the ground, to become second, third, fifth, tenth… And to continue living. Besides, Forbes rating is not exactly the height which is so nice to be at.

 Are you posing?

— You see, it’s a list based on wealth, money, not on pucks and goals scored or matches won. In other words, in the Forbes case we’re talking about weighing a money bag. The one I’m carrying is heavier today. That’s it.

I’ve been persistently trying to deliver to my countrymen a message that it’s immoral and wrong to brag about your wealth, showing it off

 I suspect there would be a lot of champions who would gladly exchange their gold medals for you bag.

— Yes, I’m leading in a prestigious nomination but it really doesn’t give me much inner joy. I’m talking without generalizations, about myself. In the civilized world there has long existed the idea of pay back, something like returning debts to society. And I’ve been persistently trying to deliver to my countrymen a message that it’s immoral and wrong to brag about your wealth, showing it off. In my opinion, there isn’t much to be proud of, as well as nothing to be ashamed of. If the money was earned honestly, it’s just silly to have complexes about it. In the world of market economy a financial situation of a person is a measure of success, and of course I admit the significance of this fact but at the same time I don’t feel any excitement or euphoria of being on top of the list. 

 In the 'Forbes club' the company is ambitious, so it must feel nice to be ahead of them.

— Modesty, of course, makes one look good but among successful people you will hardly find an unambitious one. It relates not only to businessmen but to politicians, athletes, artists, journalists. In the major league of any kind of human activities only those who are strong-willed and goal-oriented survive and take leading positions. That’s why the statement of successes gives satisfaction but what I’m trying to explain to you is the balance of this feeling. It doesn’t touch deeper strings in my soul associated with highest values. What example shall I give you? In the early 70s I took up judo and sambo. The first fights won were bringing a feeling of real overcoming. Then I got keen on football and had the same emotions from beautiful goals scored and bright victories over strong rivals. When I had to switch to badminton due to a serious trauma, the progress in the new kind of sport gave me a real joy. Now it’s hockey’s turn: each puck delivered is a reason for pride. If I’ve done it I can achieve something on the ice. In this sense emotional burst from being Forbes list number one is more modest, however surprising it may sound. Believe it or not.

 One thing left – to find out how you managed to climb this height?

— In such situations it’s always difficult to tell about yourself… Many people mark that over the 2 years I have been the CEO of Norilsk Nickel, there have been obvious positive shifts in the company. I brought a new team, we formed a strategy and started implementing it. We have improved financial discipline, cut down working capital, introduced KPI for the employees, dealt with assets, singled out Tier I ones and started getting rid of the rest, carried out a lot of other internal work. We focused on the modernization of production. This program is being implemented, as the British say, in time on budget. By 2018 we hope to overcome bottlenecks caused by old infrastructure and move on. I mean geological exploration, increasing overall metal recovery, implementing an environmental project on capturing sulphur dioxide emissions at the Nadezhdinsky plant, finalizing the closure of the Nickel plant. To put it simply, taking care of the company’s efficiency has grown into an analysis of growth possibilities. And the state, I believe, should know that the company is managed efficiently. One more change touched reconsideration of what we call human capital. Norilsk Nickel should become an attractive employer. So that people will come to Norilsk and live there voluntarily, as we say, not because they can’t come back to the ‘mainland’. It’s a complex program – professional orientation, training of highly qualified personnel, right incentives for employees motivating them. Plus changing the environment. This didn’t have place before. Properly speaking, modern people don’t want to live in a city which smells sulphur. 

 Smells is putting it mildly…

— Well, yes, I agree. Though in the Soviet time the situation with emissions was even worse. Now our main problem is sulphur dioxide. Not that it’s very dangerous but unpleasant. I’m allergic and I know what it feels like. When I’m in Norilsk and there’re sulphur emissions I feel, frankly speaking, not so good. And people have lived in this atmosphere for decades…. 

A boss’ visit distracts people from normal work

 That’s why you’re not such a frequent visitor in Taimyr?

— I go there not so often only partly because of sulphur. Not even that much. I believe that a boss’ visit distracts people from normal work. I come to Norilsk to look the people in the eyes, to feel «the air they breathe»…


— Rather figuratively speaking. I know pretty well what it’s like, I’ve had a lot of «tasting.» It’s important for me to understand the mood of the team, to feel their discontents and readiness to implement the tasks set. As for giving orders on site and teaching workers how to turn the screws – it’s not who I am. The art of being a manager is about being able to delegate powers so that people will have independence and responsibility for the delegated part. And a boss is to control. Exactly like the Bolsheviks taught us…

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