One and a half years ago MIKHAIL PROKHOROV gave his first big general interview. This interview was published in GQ’s December 2007 issue. At that time Mikhail was mostly known for his eccentric behaviour. Now people tend to call him by his second name, Mikhail Dmitrievich, which does not simply come from his “going into money”. Our journalist Nikolay Uskov tried to find out where it comes from.
GQ: Now that you have been ranked as a top businessman, how does it feel? Like joy, triumph, malevolence?
MP: It is the business of journalists - to compile lists of top Russians. No normal person would even think of it because it is so very conventional. Honestly, I would be glad to disappear somewhere at the bottom of Top Ten to become less conspicuous. I have been quiet for 16 years. And I have always been comfortable with all the glory of our group attributed to my partner Potanin. But what has happened, has happened. Generally, it is more important to me to be praised by my team rather than by the general public. In-house credibility is to be gained on a daily basis. Even when it is your own property that forms the centre of your team’s effort, your personal identity and the ability to do something better than others is of utmost importance.
I am in no mistake about how the world goes round and I realize that all the attention paid to me will sooner or later fade away. The country will give birth to new heroes and praise the Lord for that.
An eccentric playboy turned into a socially responsible and innovative businessman. However, you have recently admitted that inside you feel like a “teenager and enfant terrible”. Which is the real you?
This question is quite strange because I am real all the time. One thing absolutely does not exclude the other. I think, one can simultaneously be a socially responsible businessman and have a life pattern completely different from the general standard. This may seem annoying but I have always fought with double standards. That is why I was so unfortunate in Courchevel a couple of years ago. I always asked myself why it is a good thing to arrange a big concert, say, in Norilsk with the whole city partying, but it is a bad thing to do the same concert in Courchevel for Christmas? The former is perceived as a socially important event but the latter – only as a “non-patriotic outburst”. I have done both and I have never wanted to hide.
You just do not fit into the boring system.
I think it is the young age of our elite to blame. Our capitalism is 20 years old and, properly speaking, we have not yet developed adequate behaviour patterns. Hence, the co-existence of several different patterns feels normal. If we start comparing, it is quite normal that Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin, does as he thinks fit. And I feel sure that trying to be someone else is much worse than trying to be who you are. I want to be who I am. If you do not like this – do not look at me.
Were you pleased to be invited to the management team of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE)?
Firstly, it is always a pleasure to gain recognition from your colleagues. Secondly, I believe it would not have been right to refuse the title, especially at this hard time for business. I took control over one of the hardest RUIE committees, the committee on labour and social policies. But I am very interested in these matters. Moreover, I have extensive experience in settling social conflicts, gained back at the time when I performed the duties of CEO at Norilsk Nickel. We had quite a number of difficulties, including dealing with strikes.
This will still be painful.
No bolt should come from the blue. We need a clear action plan to be at all times approved by local authorities. Everyone knows that with the decreasing demand the enterprise should shrink for, say, 50%. Under these circumstances we are forced to take unpopular action and it is useless to postpone them and wait for the company to fall down.
Pessimists believe that everyone will fall down.
This is a national trait: a year ago everyone was optimistic and now almost everyone is pessimistic. This is a matter of faith. For instance, I do not lose my optimism even now. If you look at our history you will see that the most effective reforms were made during crisis. When all went well the reforms either failed or were rejected by society. Now society is aware that changes are inevitable, this is the right time. The key to this is good ideas that allow us to build a new world in an old place.
What are the ideas?
There are two tasks: public and private. The public sector does not need to invent anything extraordinary, it just needs to build infrastructure. I think the most important are roads and housing. It may be useful to give away flats to citizens free of charge; at least every invested rouble makes an immediate return of 25% paid as income taxes, VAT, personal income tax, etc. The private sector should concentrate on coordinating crisis response actions, such as job cuts, with the state. When social unrest is beyond the point that no rational response methods will work, then we need to think through a long-term strategy. Secondly, I believe that the world is on the edge of entering the sixth technology phase. The crisis came just before science and people were prepared to enter it. The crisis will speed things up. So businessmen should focus on catching their train.
What is this phase?
Mankind developed from using cheaper to more expensive, more comfortable energy. The trend is quite interesting: from high CO2 and low hydrogen to increased hydrogen content in fuels. First, we used wood then shifted to coal, oil, gas and finally we are in the threshold of hydrogen energy, i.e. switching from non-renewable to renewable energy sources. Conscientious countries do their utmost to make 25% of their consumed energy come from renewables by 2012, 2015 or 2020 (as the case may be). However, we do not have the right conditions. Hydrogen energy is expensive and all normal countries pay up to the market rate. We do not apply this scheme, maybe due to the fact that we still have a lot of surplus power.
Are we again behind forever?
It is impossible to be behind forever. There is always a strategy that can make us catch up or even surpass others. Look at other countries and their scientific potential. Our advantage is our advanced creative ability. One third of Silicon Valley is made up of our former compatriots. One eminent American person said: “If Russians could apply German accuracy they would become a supernation”. It looks like nature does not need supernations and that is why we are so very lazy.
Nobody is in a hurry to come back to our country.
There is no need. Let them stay where they are.
Why only Russians?
In terms of business, former Russians are easier to deal with: the common language, the mentality. I had an idea of a “global Russian”. I would say it is not important now if you are here or there. Silicon Valley has started to die because of new data transmission methods. Technology makes data exchange with any part of the world possible within a second. There is no need to consolidate everything in one Silicon Valley. A new innovation management model, the so-called scientific systems integrator, is coming. There is a small group of people having enough brainpower to set a complex system task. This task may be divided in, say, twenty components that may be ordered in different parts of the world. This means that a person who receives an order for a certain portion will not get the image of the whole task. Then research-makers collect separate components and compile a new product. Moreover, there is no need to produce this product since you can order production, say, in South-East Asia. This is a new structure applied to innovation management and development processes.
Is it you day-dreaming?
It is my job. We have developed start-ups for several lines of business. For instance, our energy-saving lamp project is the product of this integrator focused on energy saving. We identified the bottleneck and developed the technology. This product is interesting, very important and comes from an area that we are falling behind enormously. If you are so far behind but able to find a suitable solution you will gain the maximum profit. In general, we are satisfied with this project.
What advice would you give to a young man aged between 20 and 35?
Obviously these are totally different age groups. I would advise a twenty-year old, who still has the opportunity to change his educational background, to look carefully into the future in order to avoid becoming an unemployed lawyer or economist. Instead they should try to take a practical view of their abilities and identify their advantages. There are good handy guys who can be bright engineers or highly qualified mechanics.
Do you think now it is time for “handy” professions?
Without a doubt. Education obviously tends towards technology because of the shift to the sixth phase. Our country is young and labour and education markets depend on a short-term demand. It means, in the 90s everyone was a banker and now for some reason everyone wants to be a lawyer. As if the country is always litigating.
Young people dream of becoming state officials.
This is so but the real sector calls for other professions. I would advise established people who are approaching their 35s to look at opportunities in extending their knowledge to related industries. About 20-30% of our enterprises are non-competitive. The labour market will obviously undergo significant adjustments.
When was it easier for you – now or before the crisis?
Students often ask me the same question: is it easy to be in business? It should not be easy in business. It should be hard, it is the businessmen who should take on enhanced risks and love them. This is inherent in our profession. If you like risk you may go into business. It has not become easier but I do not think it has become any harder. It has certainly become more interesting for me. Although all of my businesses have no debts and have cash on accounts, I cannot rest on my laurels.
You promised to beat the faces of those who offended your sister Irina during her visit to Norilsk for charity foundation purposes. Would you do that?
Do you have any doubts? However, those responsible made their apologies to Irina.
Will you maintain the regional projects of your charity foundation?
Over the last two years the foundation developed many federal projects. However, in general the foundation is focused on the regions since nowadays the regional culture is opposed to global. This is like sports: we still have federal brands like CSKA, Spartak, Dinamo, but if we compare fan percentages in 1991 and 2009 we will see a significant difference. People are fans of their area. Totalitarian society promotes state brands and market society is a fan of its territory.
And here we are smoothly moving to sports. As for disqualification of our biathletes, do you as the head of the Russian Biathlon Union stick to the anti-Russian conspiracy theory?
I never act based on any conspiracy theory complaining about the evil West. I think the weak will always be bullied and the strong should stand up for themselves. It was a totally different story of fighting for the title of the world biathlon CEO. There was a personal controversy between two strong people. In this controversy it was assumed that our sportsmen use drugs. We conducted our research and put in doubt the official investigation methods. I asked for unbiased consideration and for the opportunity to state our position. We were not given this opportunity. It was a highly political, unprofessional discussion. Our team was put on hold for four months under various stupid pretexts like illnesses of investigators, no quorum, personal holidays… the resolution was delayed. This is what this story is about. It is not in the least a conspiracy theory but personal interests of two specific persons struggling for authority in the global biathlon and for country ranks at the Olympics in Vancouver. At present I support our sportsmen in defending their rights in the court of Lausanne.
Do you go in for biathlon?
I had the first category in skiing but unfortunately now I do not have enough time for biathlon as I do not want to undermine my training system.
Any details on this system?
This system is actually very simple and is based on combining the different sports responsible for creating the harmony of a young body. Morning exercises are a must. I have a short five-minute set and a longer 15-18 minute set, depending on my free time. It includes stretching of neck, back, legs and main joints. My strength exercises include only 60-80 push ups at the end of my warm-up, just to wake up my body. Further, I combine different sports that give different effects. For example, kickboxing gives me coordination, sense of distance, fight reserve, reaction, blocking, etc. Scooter develops coordination in space since I perform different tumbles. The tramp helps prepare for a big wave: when I turn a somersault with my jet I do not lose coordination at landing. I had this tip from tumblers. Football is a team game that gives understanding of team work. Mountain skis are for a sense of the extreme, flying and simultaneously overcoming. And naturally jogging. It gives the necessary cardiac load.
Do you train a lot?
Two hours a day, no matter what. I may even sacrifice some sleep. I can go jogging at 2 am with a low pulse. For example, if you jog for 10 km your pulse should not exceed 125 bpm. If I have 125 bpm I will fall asleep within 20 minutes after I finished jogging. If the pulse is higher I will have trouble falling asleep. On weekends I train for 4-5 hours. On holidays for 4-6 hours, this is my routine daily training.
Where do you usually go on holidays?
There are two places to practice surfing: Turkey, on the Greek border, in Alacati or Cesme. This is the Aegean Sea, in summer the wind is good and smooth. In March I always go to Venezuela, Margarita Island. My skiing is heli-ski. I do not like to stick to one place, it limits freedom.
But you stick to Courchevel, right?
I have said many times that if this incident is over and they offer their apologies I would be glad to come back as I like Courchevel a lot. It has the best descents in Europe.
How would you account for your almost professional interest in sports?
For some sport is a hobby but for me it is a way to survive. It makes me calm, balanced and well-rested. Not tired but vice versa. I think sport balances off my work load.
Why do you prefer dangerous sports?
I do not like to go in for “my” sports, those that are easy for me to master, such as volleyball, basketball, tennis and ping-pong. I do them without thinking and almost do not need to gain any technical knowledge. In six months or a year I can easily have the first category or the pre-master level. It is so easy that it is not interesting. I am keener on sports where there is a struggle and I do not have so much talent. It means that every sport I go in for is not mine.
Do you compete with yourself?
This is exactly what I need. Psychologically speaking, I structured myself so as to be able to do the things I could when I was twenty at my age of 44.
And maybe more.
Maybe more, but I would like to do the same at least when I am 75-80.
Russian businessmen are said to have a low sense of danger. It helps them work in very hard conditions.
It is hard for me to say, I believe I am rational in everything. But our living environment is certainly harder than that in the West, for instance.
I am trying to give a physiological explanation of your love for dangerous sports.
I keep my head screwed on the right way. Like in any other activity, to minimize the risks you should remember about safety rules. I never cross borders.
What is you main sporting achievement?
I have not had it yet. I hope to have my main sporting victory when I am 75.
It seems that you have started to converse about age more often.
No, I like that I am not nostalgic about my youth and I do not want to go back to my 20s or 30s. It is pleasant to feel the best of life when you are 70 or 80. I have seen many happy people of this age. And I would really like to know what the difference is.
In conclusion, the Proust questionnaire. Would you mind?
Not at all.
Where would you like to live?
Your main character feature?
Tolerance to stress.
A male quality you treasure the most?
To be the man.
Some believe that being the man means to be a couch potato football fan in a dirty T-shirt.
If a man thinks so, it is fine. This is a personal preference. I think it is wrong to induce your own lifestyle.
And what about a female quality?
With women it is very simple – to be clever, beautiful and sexy all in one, but you should be really lucky to meet it all in one person.
A sense of humour?
If she is clever it comes along.
What do you like in friends?
You like to manipulate?
No, it is just that my life experience has shown that friends are loved for their weaknesses.
Your main shortcoming?
It is not for me to say.
What do you have to work on?
What is your hobby apart from sports?
I do not have traditionally recognised hobbies. Sport is not a hobby, it is a part of my life. I have three joys in my life: work, sport and food. All these come in one and do not make a hobby.
What is happiness?
(A long pause.) To have everything as it is now (a laugh). I do feel like a happy man.
And what is unhappiness?
To lose the happy feeling.
Who would you like to become?
I am content with myself.
What weaknesses do you forgive easiest?
Those of others.
Any human weaknesses?
For others – yes. But I am very strict about my own.
What is your favourite colour?
Any preferences in clothes, for example?
Absolutely unimportant. I hate shopping. With my XXL it is hard to find clothes. I do not know anything about fashion.
Favourite fictional character?
By the way, you have been reproached for this answer in our last interview. They wondered why you could not make up something nice.
Why should I? I do not like double standards. I have seen some businessmen who created a certain image but could not live up to it. They had the problem of contradictions between their wishes and images. I am not a politician or a showman, I make business. So my private life is my own choice. I am not in the least inclined to pretend, I do not feel comfortable about it. I have nothing to hide from anyone. It means if I like to go to night clubs, I go. If I like to spend time with nice girls, I do. I have so little time for private life after work and I want to do what I like.
What gift of nature would you like to have?
To understand women. I know this sounds quite stupid. Somerset Maugham said it best: “You should love women, you do not have to understand them”.
Do you plan to marry?
It is hard to say. I am not afraid to get married.
How would you like to die?
Oh… I would like this moment to come as late as possible but when it comes I want it to be quick and easy.
Your favourite saying?
I do not have one favourite. Here is the funniest one by La Rochefoucauld: “Good advice is something a man gives when he is too old to set a bad example”. And I am ahead of everyone in setting bad examples.
Only pure and heavenly thoughts.