In­ter­view Avril Con­roy Ir­ish­woman at the top in Rus­sian oil says Dunnes Stores was the best train­ing ever

Irish Independent - Business Week - - BUSINESSWEEK -

sion plans, both crises have spurred the oil gi­ant to ex­plore new mar­kets. In ad­di­tion to the Es­sar Oil deal in In­dia, Ros­neft is ex­pand­ing with stakes in a Venezue­lan oil project, a re­fin­ery in In­done­sia, and deals to de­velop five oil fields in Kur­dis­tan.

Doubt­less there will be more twists and turns ahead, but re­gard­less of what hap­pens, the for­mer Dunnes Store man­ager from Coosan in Athlone, Co West­meath, will be along for the cor­po­rate ride – rel­ish­ing every minute of it.

Since leav­ing Ire­land to take up a sales agent role in Moscow in the early 1990s, Con­roy’s ca­reer has spanned re­tail, au­to­mo­tive, and the oil and gas sec­tor. More­over, her time in Rus­sia co­in­cided with some tu­mul­tuous decades in the coun­try’s eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

Be­fore join­ing Ros­neft, Con­roy briefly worked for Wal-Mart at a time when the US re­tail gi­ant was eye­ing an as­sault on the Rus­sian mar­ket. Prior to that, she worked as gen­eral di­rec­tor of BP Re­tail, where she was re­spon­si­ble for all re­tail op­er­a­tions and mar­ket­ing of the BP brand through­out Rus­sia. She also worked for up­mar­ket car dealer Inch­cape, mar­ket­ing BMWs, Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and Land Rovers.

Re­tail is clearly where Con­roy ex­cels. It’s a pas­sion she dis­cov­ered as a school girl while work­ing part-time in Dunnes Stores in Athlone.

When she was at school in the 1980s, se­cur­ing a place on a management pro­gramme at Dunnes Stores was one of the most sought-af­ter roles in a coun­try blighted by mass un­em­ploy­ment, she re­calls. “I started work­ing in Dunnes Stores when I was 16, while I was at school,” she says. “I stayed with Dunnes for nine years and I went into their management pro­gramme. It’s funny to look back now. I re­mem­ber when my schools ca­reers ad­vi­sor asked me what I wanted to be when I left school. I said I wanted to be a man­ager in Dunnes Stores. It was the best train­ing I ever got in my life.”

That train­ing would stand her in good stead when she moved to Moscow aged 26. Con­roy was quickly ap­pointed man­ager of a su­per­mar­ket there.

Re­call­ing an era in re­tail­ing that was pre-in­ter­net and when ac­count­ing soft­ware pack­ages were rare, Con­roy says: “That was a time when most things were done on the back of a piece of pa­per. And most re­tail­ers, the suc­cess­ful ones at least, will tell you that’s what kept them bal­anced. And maybe it kept me bal­anced, too.

“I ran a su­per­mar­ket, we played Ir­ish mu­sic in the store, and I was out on the floor stack­ing the shelves and meet­ing the cus­tomers. I had to learn Rus­sian fast be­cause I had no choice, no­body spoke any English.”

Three decades on, Con­roy has taken the coun­try and its peo­ple to her heart.

“The Rus­sians are such gra­cious peo­ple they al­lowed me to keep my thick Ir­ish ac­cent in Rus­sian,” she says, with a laugh.

Per­fect­ing the lan­guage was key to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gat­ing the ranks of cor­po­rate Rus­sia.

“When I ar­rived here first, I hated hav­ing an in­ter­preter, so I started to learn the lan­guage. I quickly wanted to un­der­stand the peo­ple, and speak to them in their own lan­guage, and be able to get a feel for the cus­tomer,” she says.

“If I didn’t speak Rus­sian, I don’t think I’d ever be able to move to this level. I’m very op­er­a­tional. I’m very much out in the field and you need to be able to feel and un­der­stand peo­ple.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, given her love of her adop­tive coun­try, she be­lieves the Western me­dia’s por­trayal of Rus­sia is largely un­fair and doesn’t re­flect her pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of liv­ing and work­ing there.

“What you read about isn’t what you ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m here now nearly 25 years in Rus­sia. Did I ever think that I would be here that long? Never. Yes, of course it’s dif­fer­ent, but I have had noth­ing but good ex­pe­ri­ences in Rus­sia. I don’t say that lightly. I have seen the kind­ness of the peo­ple, but not only that, I’ve also un­der­stood the in­tel­li­gence of the peo­ple. I’m not here teach­ing peo­ple any­thing, I’m grow­ing and learn­ing from work­ing with them.”

Mar­ried to a Greek Cypriot busi­ness­man Ni­nos – whom she met when she was man­ag­ing one of his fam­ily’s su­per­mar­kets – the cou­ple have two sons, Cian and Leo, and they have made their life to­gether in Moscow.

“My chil­dren are be­ing well-ed­u­cated here and we are very happy liv­ing here,” she says.

En­sur­ing op­er­a­tional ex­cel­lence and brand con­sis­tency across Ros­neft’s vast re­tail port­fo­lio is Con­roy’s day-to-day job. Ros­neft has forged a number of strate­gic part­ner­ships with Euro­pean re­tail fran­chises across its port­fo­lio of ser­vice sta­tions. A ma­jor deal in­volves Ital­ian tyre­maker Pirelli, which en­abled Ros­neft to de­velop a chain of tyre cen­tres on Ros­neft re­tail sites. An­other strate­gic part­ner­ship with Milan-based Au­to­grill Group led to the roll-out of branded cafés at Ros­neft ser­vice sta­tions in Sochi and Moscow, with plans to ex­pand to fore­courts in St Petersburg.

“We are con­stantly look­ing at how we can im­prove our of­fer­ing,” says Con­roy. “When you have such a broad ge­o­graph­i­cal spread and so many dif­fer­ent for­mats, try­ing to get a con­sis­tency is never easy. But that’s what my­self and my team spend our time do­ing.

“We’re the number one brand in the mar­ket, by volume and by pure phys­i­cal size. And our whole phi­los­o­phy is to re­main number one.”

Con­roy’s links to Ire­land re­main strong, de­spite her decades in Moscow. She is co-founder of the Ir­ish Busi­ness Club in Moscow and has served as both the pres­i­dent and chair­woman of the or­gan­i­sa­tion. She is also a key fig­ure be­hind the an­nual St Pa­trick’s Day pa­rade in Moscow. Con­roy’s work abroad also hasn’t gone un­no­ticed at home. She was awarded with an Ir­ish Pres­i­den­tial Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice award for 2014 by Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins at a special func­tion in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Re­main­ing grounded and true to her roots is very im­por­tant for Con­roy. Re­gard­less of her board­room suc­cess in Rus­sia and the ac­co­lades she has re­ceived in Ire­land for her am­bas­sado­rial role and char­ity work, Con­roy places great store in the virtue of hu­mil­ity.

“Hu­mil­ity is a very strong qual­ity that peo­ple need to keep. I think we lost that a bit in Ire­land at one point, but it has come back. And I’m so happy to see that. We have been hum­bled, but we’ve been re­minded that we are still a very able peo­ple.”

“We come from an is­land and we need to un­der­stand that our is­land fits into a very small part of Moscow. When you put into per­spec­tive, it can be scary. Peo­ple here in Rus­sia have hu­mil­ity and they have this drive. They have gone through so much and they have sur­vived. But I think Ir­ish peo­ple and Rus­sians are very sim­i­lar.”

Ros­neft vice-pres­i­dent Avril Con­roy says the com­pany is con­stantly look­ing at how it can im­prove its of­fer­ing

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