Gennady Timchenko, a Russian entrepreneur and the founder and owner of the Volga investment group, described in an interview to TASS the charitable aid and supply of medical equipment as part of the anti-coronavirus effort, the company’s performance during the pandemic and his own self-isolation experience.
— Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has recently presented a draft post-coronavirus pandemic economic recovery plan to President Vladimir Putin. What is your take on these measures?
— I would first like to say that I stand by our government and personally by Mikhail Vladimirovich Mishustin, who had to deal with the great challenges of the epidemic a mere two months into the job.
As for the plan, I would like to reserve judgement because this is just a draft. But I hope that it will give consideration to provincial growth, support for small and medium-sized businesses, unemployment curbing and social support for the disadvantaged. I am all for plans to improve the quality of education, promote domestic tourism and grow the agribusiness. But as a businessman, I believe that our mission now is to save businesses, which means jobs.
— The country is starting to lift the pandemic lockdown; companies are returning to business as usual. What do you think will be the effect on business operations, should we keep working from home? Has it proved effective during the pandemic?
— A majority of the companies that I co-own are part of the real economy. Among those are ones that are expected to run a continuous production cycle. That is why they can hardly work from home. I am grateful to the management for efficient and prompt re-engineering of business processes under the new conditions. Specifically, the companies Sibur and Novatek make every effort to ensure the safety of their staff deployed on a rotation basis.
But we know we don’t yet have a surefire protection against the coronavirus. And where people do catch it, the management makes enormous efforts to save them and reduce the risks. Novatek, e.g., after the outbreak of the disease in Murmansk Oblast, organized and funded 280 new jobs at the infectious disease ward of the Murmansk state university hospital, and supplied it with a full complement of oxygen and ventilator equipment.
— Could you give exact figures for your contribution to the anti-coronavirus efforts? Earlier were reported amounts such as 1.3 bln and 2.9 bln roubles. Is this the bottom line?
— 2.9 bln roubles is our family’s funds that over the last two and a half months have been donated to charity as part of anti-epidemic efforts.
As early as March we understood from what was happening abroad that there would be great demand for medical supplies and safety gear. All covid-affected countries faced an acute shortage of such items.
That is why my management company, Volga Group, wasted no time planning orders in China, using all opportunities and business relationships. As at last April, we indeed spent 1.3 bln roubles, but by then it had become obvious that more medical supplies would be needed.
Apart from purchases for charitable purposes, we tried to factor into our orders the urgent requirements of certain regions that needed prompt assistance with medical supplies. So all in all, we arranged supplies of medical equipment and safety gear for Russia worth nearly 13 bln roubles. 48 states, including Moscow and Moscow Oblast, St Petersburg, Tula Oblast, Khakassia, Kemerovo Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai to name but a few, received timely support.
To give you an idea of the scale: 20 flights were arranged from China over that time. This means 10 thou. cubic metres of cargo: nearly 3 thou. ventilators or more 20 mln units of personal protective equipment.
— That assistance, was it channelled through your charitable foundation or through the Volga Group investment company?
— Volga Group was responsible for the organization and execution of procurement. Assistance was provided to support the anti-crisis efforts of the Timchenko Foundation, as well as being passed on to provinces as part of our arrangements with them. We all serve the common cause. As of late March, virtually all employees of Volga Group have dropped their usual tasks and set up from scratch a complex process for the procurement, storage and transport of medical supplies. The foundation’s team is working in close coordination with them. I believe that my colleagues have passed their baptism of fire with flying colours. Ours were the first medical supplies to be flown into Russia.
— The medical equipment and personal protective equipment were sourced from China? Was it difficult to arrange imports into Russia from China because of the closed borders? How did you go about it?
— The bulk was certainly procured in China. In spite of our good business relationship with that country, it was not all plain sailing. It was when we had placed our first orders that China imposed stricter regulations on medical exports. Specifically, the government tightened its control over the quality of medical exports, which meant more hoops for us to jump through. We had to take great efforts to make sure our cargoes were quickly brought to Russia. I am very grateful to our Chinese partners, the Russian-Chinese Business Council, Russia’s embassy in China and our trade mission for their help. I would like to give special thanks to the representatives of Minzdrav [Public Health Ministry (HealthMin)] and Roszdravnadzor [Federal Service of Russia for the Oversight of Public Health and Social Development], Rospotrebnadzor [Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare of Russia], Rosaviatsiya [Federal Air Transport Agency of Russia], Federal Customs Authority and other agencies for their support.
Small quantities of safety and decontamination gear were also sourced in Russia; my wife and daughter were in charge of that.
— We saw that the assistance involved not only supplies of safety gear and medical equipment. The Timchenko Foundation was hitting on all cylinders in the provinces. What was the impact of the crisis on the principal beneficiaries of your foundation?
— Yes, the epidemics and its aftermath hit the hardest the most vulnerable people such as seniors living alone, families in dire strait, orphaned children and disabled persons. My wife Elena and I have been keeping in touch with our foundation the whole time and supporting its initiatives aimed at bringing relief where most needed. That period saw three new projects launched.
To identify and support old people who live alone, the foundation joined forces with the Third Age alliance to set up a coalition called “Help is at Hand”. It brought together 219 non-profits serving senior citizens in 56 provinces (and even one in Kazakhstan).
The coalition members identify “invisible” old people, help them with their groceries and medicines and talk with them.
You know, sometimes all you need to do is say a kind word and ask them how they are doing, and sometimes you need to show them how to avoid fraudsters or cope with depression. Some 3 thou. such invisibles were found in that time, and assistance has been given to some 60 thou. seniors in all. More than 4 thou. volunteers have been deployed by the coalition. Some of them are seniors themselves. Even in self-isolation, they make face masks, take hotline calls, teach online and provide counselling. But it is gratifying to see quite a few young people, too. And I hope that the people will carry on their charitable work. My wife and I were shown testimonials written by volunteers; I recall that a guy wrote: “I’ve learned how old age pensioners live”. I think he will keep helping them, viruses and epidemics notwithstanding.
— You operate in the provinces through affiliates. Has there been any change in your affiliate relationships lately? Have there been new connections and initiatives?
— Our foundation has been running a number of all-Russian competitions, many of them for more than a year now. We trust our partners and appreciate their sterling assistance to the underprivileged. We are aware that both they and their charges are facing more challenges now. The Foundation has invited them to join its new programme called “Open Door”. It was set up in response to the deepening social distress. Some entities managed to receive funds, account for them, send in a new request and are now waiting on the next donation. And the programme is just one and a half months old.
Another new programme, “Foundation plus Provinces”, is multi-pronged. We are helping 16 regions affected by the epidemics where the foundation has reliable non-profit affiliates. They liaise with the authorities and other NGOs, identifying shortages of resources for flattening the curve. The Foundation delivers to its affiliates personal protective equipment for social and medical facilities, plus additional grants to deal with the gravest social ills.
Let’s come back to the subject of medical supplies. The Timchenko Foundation has also since late March been delivering safety gear and equipment to major non-profits that serve care homes, hospices, the homeless, as well as some clinics.
We are already thinking about how to adjust the foundation’s programmes with regard to the long-term consequences of the epidemics.
— Where did you yourself stay in self-isolation, what did you do?
— I’m spending the stay-at-home period outside Moscow, with my wife. To be sure, I’m still on the job. Among other things, I’m dealing with all the epidemics-related issues we talked about. But thank God, technology has made it possible to sort everything out from home.
Interviewed by Yevgenia Sokolova