Teaching Executives to Talk Business

Paul Vera grew up next door to Hollywood, but he needed a five-year, 10,000-kilometer detour before he could take his first steps toward the bright lights of the American film industry.

Vera says that running the Linguarama business language school in Moscow for the past two years gave him the experience and belief in himself he needs to fulfill his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.

"I've always wanted to do it," said the goateed Vera, 30, looking every inch the professional with his slick suit and even smoother manners. "Managing a school in Russia has given me the confidence to do almost anything."

Like a lot of expats, Vera's possessions consisted of "a backpack, some pocket money and a r?sum?," when he hit Moscow in August 1995. By that stage he had already had about 18 months' experience teaching English, first to Slovenian children on the Croatian coast and then at a university of economics in the Czech capital, Prague. With his experience and qualifications, Vera found students easily.

Six months after he arrived in Moscow, Linguarama, a British educational firm that teaches in 50 centers across Europe, approached Vera. Linguarama, for whom Vera had free-lanced in Prague, commissioned him to design a writing skills course for USAID.

Vera's success led the school to hire him full time, although he wasn't working 9 to 5. The school had him teaching every day from 7 to 8:30 a.m., after which he had a 10 1/2-hour break until 7 p.m. that drove him crazy.

A promotion to manager in March 1997 saved Vera from distress.

Linguarama has more than 50 corporate clients in Moscow from business fields as far apart as chocolate manufacturing to auditing. The school, which is smaller than its main competitors, focuses on designing in-house training programs. Vera's latest project is an English course for oil-drilling specialists at Schlumberger, a New York-based oil field service company that has signed a billion-dollar deal with Russian oil major Yukos.

Like a lot of businesses, Linguarama has been forced to adapt to the difficult business climate after the August crash. Many of the center's clients slashed their language training budgets by up to 75 percent, Vera says. Although Linguarama managed to maintain the same number of clients, there has been a dramatic decline in the overall workload and Vera was forced to halve his staff to 15 teachers, each of whom now teaches 600 academic hours a month instead of the 2,000 they were teaching last year.

Vera makes no bones about the fact that he came to Moscow mainly for the money, but he will take much more away from Russia than just greenbacks.

"In L.A., everything is how it looks and there's presentation and hype and Hollywood. Down here I feel just human," he says.

But don't get him wrong: Vera loves Hollywood and plans to move back in May. He is following the trends in American cinema, reading the Hollywood Reporter and downloading movie information from the Internet every day - and working on the script for a detective film.