Canadian Presses for Success
- By Julia Solovyova
- Mar. 19 1999 00:00
Geoff Carr-Harris first came to the Soviet Union as a scholarly linguist, but when he returned in the late 1980s, he didn't come to study. Rather, he began "selling picks and shovels to people going on a gold rush," as he puts it.
Ten years later, the man who brought AlphaGraphics print shops to Moscow has come along way, one of a small group of die-hard expatriates who has traveled the rocky path from pioneer to veteran to survivor.
His story is both typical and outstanding. An irrepressible Canadian scholar with a strong background in linguistics and anthropology, he has turned himself into a highly successful businessman in post-perestroika Russia. He has AlphaGraphics print shops operating in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod. Also in Moscow, he runs the MicroAge computer firm, the Matrix Internet provider, Anglia bookstore and several boutiques around the city.
Carr-Harris first came to the Soviet Union in 1976 after completing a classics degree in Toronto. Trying to track down his Georgian ancestry - his grandfather came from there - he enrolled at university in Tbilisi to study the Georgian language and spent four "wonderful years of singing, dancing, toasts and skiing."
After Georgia, Carr-Harris moved on to the Paris Sorbonne and then Los Angeles as he continued his language studies. In Los Angeles, he got hooked on computers through using them for textual analysis. When he returned to Toronto, Carr-Harris promptly started a retail computer business.
In the late 1980s, his friends in the former Soviet Union started bombarding him with requests for computers - drastically needed but in extremely short supply. But the logistics of selling computers from Canada to Russia proved intractable and he decided instead to hook up with AlphaGraphics, a franchise run out of Arizona, opening his first print shop in Moscow in April 1989. It was a breakthrough in many ways - the first franchise in Russia, one of the first joint ventures, the first Western copy center and the first neon sign brightening up then-gloomy Tverskaya Ulitsa.
"Opening up a copy shop was a fairly radical thing to do in the late 1980s," recalls Carr-Harris, 46, looking a bit exhausted from the sleepless pleasures of having a 2-week-old daughter, Josy. He and his Russian wife, Marina, also have a son, Philip, 18 months.
"We broke 32 different laws," he said. Back then, every single photocopy required KGB permission, meaning that AlphaGraphics was under 24-hour surveillance from the vigilant and paranoid Soviet secret police.
Curiously, Carr-Harris looks back on those days - with their total lack of legislation to cover foreign investment - as a more welcoming business environment than the current one. Winning an exemption for every broken law was a simple matter, he says.
"Back then, bureaucrats actually cared," he muses. "In a couple of months, the process [of setting up the print shop] was over."
Nevertheless, he is doing his best to remain unfazed by the current difficulties. "I tell everybody that the crisis is a state of mind," he jokes, but then admits that, "unfortunately, it's a little more than that."
AlphaGraphics lowered its printing and copying rates per page as low as they could manage, but sales volumes still plummeted, with color copying the worst hit.
However, the printers have also benefitted from the crisis, which has motivated many companies to move toward cheaper direct marketing instead of more expensive indirect billboard and television advertising.
Conscious of the need for good friends in bad times, Carr-Harris in February founded an association for Western businessmen who have been here for at least nine years.
Some 70 expatriate entrepreneurs attended the inaugural meeting of the society, which Carr-Harris chairs. The society aims to meet regularly both for networking purposes and to lobby the State Duma for improvements to legislation on foreign business activity.