Elena Baturina: Good Business
Elena Baturina is inspired by the entrepreneurial ability of children to tackle huge societal issues.
To get the vulgarities out of the way, London-based Elena Baturina has been worth, at different times over the last decade, anywhere between US$1 billion and US$4 billion. She is also big on spending her money on young people. Her think-tank-cum-foundation, Be Open, may have been established with rather vague, if noble, intentions of fostering creativity of all kinds (since 2012 it has sponsored design events, led workshops, run conferences and launched art prizes) but lately she’s been at London’s City Hall with the Mayor’s Fund for London City Pitch programme, handing out large cheques to a bunch of junior schools who have had to work up all sorts of entrepreneurial plans.
“It’s amazing how you get these very small kids trying to tackle these enormous issues, such as how to help the homeless through winter, how to make sick children in hospital deal with loneliness, and with actual, practical results too,” says Baturina. “And the younger the child, the easier it is to get their ideas. They’re not spoiled yet. They’re not selfish yet. And it’s down to us if they become that way.”
Perhaps this is why she’s glad that, more by luck than judgement, her two daughters have been educated in the West, because they can own their successes; back home in Russia, Baturina says, they would have been locked into a system of the wealthy and well-connected that would all but have guaranteed that success regardless of their efforts. She’s told them that she will invest in their education but, after that, “they’ll have to make their own way because it’s their life and they should be responsible for it. As to how young people should get going in life, I will say nothing new, I’m afraid: you have to start with yourself. We can improve anything around us only if it goes hand in hand with our own development, both professionally and personally. Study hard, set ambitious goals, work hard to reach them and keep an open mind. Second, never be afraid to speak out and act; this will make the problem visible, find support and allow you to work out a solution together”.
Baturina, 55, may have put school well behind her by the time she turned entrepreneurial, but she had her own ideas too, which, in part, is why she’s keen to foster that mentality in schools. Starting out alongside her parents on the factory floor of an industrial tool-makers, and studying in the evenings, she moved up to work as a research assistant but found that ideas generated by her generation were typically rebuffed by the staid oldies. “As young people in Russia we had a different outlook to the leaders,” she recalls. In time, Baturina would get into computer hardware, earning enough to shift into recycling plastics. Her company, Inteco, became a maker of plastic homewares, in time, parlaying this into investments that allowed it to become Russia’s largest cement manufacturer; then parlaying that into becoming one the country’s biggest construction companies, with a focus on monolithic housing projects.
“This was just at the beginning of the ‘new’ Russia, so, on the one hand, there were these huge opportunities to create businesses and, on the other, there were no clear rules for running businesses, so you could wake up one morning and find that all the rules had changed,” she says. “That certainly keeps you energised. You can’t fall asleep in that situation. But I have to say that I think stability is better for business.”
That’s one reason why much of her work, business and philanthropic, is now across Europe, mostly in real estate and hotels, with interests in solar energy and membrane technologies on the side. Baturina and her husband, one-time mayor of Moscow, live not in Russia but between the UK and Austria. Not, she adds, that everyone should buy wholesale into the stereotype of Russia as entirely corrupt and the West as entirely clean.
“Sure, business in Europe is more predictable. You can see more clearly what is achievable and in what timeframe,” she suggests. “But I can’t say I never saw corruption in Europe. People are the same. If there’s an opportunity to get some extra, then people take it. Then again, I’m used to seeing business as not just subject to the laws of economics but also the political situation.”
Business is, too, what she’s all about. But business with focus. Baturina has said that many of Russia’s super-rich have, it might seem, found themselves locked into dick-swinging competitions of building ever bigger yachts, rather than building much of substance. “The big privilege of having a lot of money is that you can spend it how you want to, which includes philanthropically,” although Baturina adds she feels no societal pressure to do so. “But I don’t think that means you should throw it to the wind. Even now, all the markets, shares and futures... are much less attractive to me than physical things you can actually make.” It’s also why she’s looking for new opportunities to do just that: in line with her philanthropic interests she doesn’t just look to the young. She’s identified, for example, a niche demand for more modern care homes.
“The fact is that, as people get older, they’re less comfortable being alone at home. But older people now are also completely different to how they were just 20 years ago: they’re much more active and they want to maintain that lifestyle. So, we’re looking at ways of bringing those two needs together,” she explains. Nor is this just about pandering to the needs of the monied. “Student accommodation is also an interesting niche,” Baturina adds. “It’s incredible how bad the shortage is, especially in London”.
“Besides,” she adds, although she collects Russian porcelain, loves golf and has recently taken up scuba diving, “it’s business that gives me huge pleasure. I think it’s a form of art. I think when you pull off a successful business project or a successful philanthropic project, you get the same satisfaction as, say, a writer completing a novel. The question is how you see business yourself. You can make a dull process out of writing a novel. But, by the same token, you can make an exciting process out of business.”