NOTHING VENTURED

Vikram Punia:

Happiness is not about money

The story of 44-year-old Vikram Punia, President of Pharmsynthez, is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s surprising Bollywood hasn’t made a movie about his life in Russia yet, but who knows what the future holds!

We met with Vikram Punia in his Moscow office, which is located on the 42nd floor of the Federation Tower and has a phenomenal view of the capital. All of Moscow is right in front of you! Our lively discussion lasted for over an hour. Vikram talked about himself and the pharmaceutical business that has become his life’s work. He started from scratch and managed to establish Pharmasynthez - a huge company that is now worth about one billion dollars. He used the word “decisiveness” over a dozen times throughout the interview, emphasizing that he would not have been able to get anywhere without it. After all, it was decisiveness that brought him to Irkutsk 25 years ago.

Vikram, could you please tell us how an 18 year old boy from India ended up in Irkutsk in the early 90s?

A government contract that existed between our countries at the time. It was a mutually beneficial exchange. Russia sent us their experts to work on various joint projects, while India sent students over to Russia to get an education here. I didn’t come to Russia right away. After finishing up school in Delhi, I was accepted to a prestigious medical university there. But then I thought it doesn’t really matter where I go to get a medical degree, so I made a decision that came as a surprise to many of my friends and relatives – I decided to study in Irkutsk.

What did you know about Russia back then?

Not that much. Everything I knew about Russia I learned from a Soviet magazine called “Sputnik,” which I started reading when I was in the eighth or ninth grade. It was printed in English, on good paper, and had a ton of beautiful photos. I was especially impressed by the photos of Russian winter. You know, I’ve had health problems since I was a kid. This may seem odd, but I didn’t deal with heat well and was sick a lot during the summer. I always wanted to go some place cooler, with snow and ice! My relatives even joke that I must have been Russian in a past life. In any case, I made the decision to study in Russia very quickly – I only thought about it for an hour! My parents were surprised, but didn’t object.

How brave!

Yes, today I can definitely say that my decisiveness is a big asset. While I was in Irkutsk, I also decided that, even though I respect the medical profession, being a doctor is not for me. I decided to go into business. By the way, I could have asked my dad for help with starting my business, since he is a successful businessman. But I didn’t want to ask him for money, because I wanted to do everything myself. So I established a company and started selling English beer, Indian tea, and Vietnamese shirts in Irkutsk...I sold just about everything!

This went on for a year. In 1995, I started selling pharmaceuticals, which mostly came from India, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. I started making good money, and I signed contracts for millions of dollars. However, after some time I understood that depending on different suppliers is not a good idea. If you want to do business, it’s best to make the pharmaceuticals yourself. So in 1997, I took all the money I had earned, made arrangements with the bank and the administration, brought in project planners, and started building a pharma plant in Irkutsk. It took us two years two build the factory, and then we started to make drugs for treating tuberculosis. I made my money back fairly quickly, and now we have five plants in Russia. Of course not everything went smoothly, we lived through several crises over the past eighteen years, encountered a lot of problems including disassembly, racketeering, kickbacks ...

Where exactly are the company’s plants located?

From Petersburg to Primorsky Krai. We have plants in St. Petersburg, Tyumen, Bratsk, Irkutsk and Ussuriysk. By the way, the official opening for the plant in St. Petersburg is going to take place in the beginning of June, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

How many people have you employed so far?

Our plants currently employ about 2,000 people.

How many different types of drugs do you make today?

We produce 150 different types of medications. In some categories – anti-tuberculosis drugs and antiretrovirals – we account for 50 percent of the Russian market. Our plants produce a total of 50 million packages every year, which means that every third Russian consumes some kind of Pharmasynthez product. In three years, we hope every Russian will be using out products.

Where do you get the raw materials to make medicine?

 Eighty percent comes from China, ten to twelve comes from India, and the rest we get from all over the world. But this is the case for now. Next year we’ll start manufacturing our own raw materials at our plant in Bratsk.

Do you only operate in Russia?

No, we export our products to CIS countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan… We plan to enter the market in countries like Vietnam and Latin American countries as well. In 2020, we’ll start to sell our products on the Indian market.

By the way, is Pharmasynthez technically and Indian company or is it a joint venture?

Pharmasynthez is a Russian company. I became a Russian citizen in 2008.

Oh, congratulations! Vikram you are a unique person. I think there should be a Bollywood movie about your life!

(Embarrassed) That’s a bit much, I’m just trying to do something good...I have to admit, when I left medical school years ago and started my own business, I wanted to make a lot of money. At the same time, and this is true, I really wanted to do something that’s good for society. I could have invested my money into something else: real estate, for example, which I could have rented out. But I decided to make medicine that so many people all over the country need.

I never thought that I’d become the person I am now, I never thought I would be rich.

I’ll tell you something that happened to me recently. I came to Irkutsk, where we have an apartment in a house that is located next to the dorm I used to live in when I first came to Russia from Delhi. One evening, I was standing on the balcony, looking at my former dorm, and I caught myself thinking I was happy when I lived there, even though I didn’t have any money. I’m happy now as well. Happiness is not about the amount of money you have. It’s what you have inside. You have to focus on the positive. Thoughts turn into reality, at least this is definitely the case for me. You can’t get yourself down or think negatively. Happiness is positivity. You can’t get anything done in life with jealousy or ill will.

Have you ever had the desire to quit everything and leave Russia?

Not once. Not even when I was a student in Irkutsk and spent four hours in line to get butter once. It was freezing outside. I didn’t get any butter, they ran out! Who knows, that could have been the moment I thought to quit school and start doing business? But I did end up finishing university. I transferred to Primorsky Institute of Economics, where I graduated with a degree in economics.

Yeah, I already understood that decisiveness is one of your prominent character traits...

Right, I make decisions quickly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not it will work out. But I do consider the pros and cons.

Do you think your case is unique?

I can’t think of another example like this for an Indian citizen, in terms of business.

What are the reasons for your success – personality, luck….

I think that I have a lot of good ideas. That’s the first reason. My decisiveness is the second reason. Third – the desire to follow through with my plans. And fourth, luck. I think these are the main reasons for my success.

Do you feel more Russian or Indian?

It’s hard to say. I definitely know that Russia is more comfortable for me right now. I have a Russian wife, we met back in Irkutsk, all of my friends are also Russian. I’ve already said that I’m more comfortable in cold temperatures (Smiles). But of course I’ll never forget that I have Indian blood in me. Nonetheless, I am definitely integrated into Russian society. I think like a Russian and even eat like a Russian. For example, I have porridge, eggs, and sausages for breakfast, not rice with spices.

Since you know Russia so well, could you give foreign businessmen some advice on how to do business in Russia?

First, you have to come to Russia with a good idea. That’s the foundation of any business. You can’t say one thing but plan to do something completely different. Second, you need to be open. Don’t try to cheat your partners or go behind their backs. Third, pay attention to details. Fourth, don’t be afraid of challenges – there aren’t any more of them in Russia than in other places. Fifth, integrate yourself into Russian society.

What do I mean? It’s important to try to understand the Russian mentality. You know the old saying – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Russian people are open, straightforward, and sincere. It’s also important to build rapport with everybody you work with. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to spend your whole time here doing shots of vodka at the banya. (Laughs)

In your opinion, has the Russian businessman changed over the past twenty years?

Of course, and for the better. Suffice it to say that there are no more purple blazers and tracksuits, which used to be wardrobe staples for Russian businessmen during perestroika. That’s just the surface. If we go deeper, I’ll point out one thing: just try to avoid paying taxes here these days! Russia’s business climate is changing and people have become more law-abiding. I think Russia is closer to Europe in this sense now. All of this makes me optimistic about the future. Of course there are challenges, but you will encounter them in any country and any city. Today, it’s clear that there is no going back to the past.

Do you consider yourself to be the maharaja of Russian pharmaceuticals?

No, I don’t. I have a lot of competitors, including big foreign companies and new companies here. I don’t have time to relax like a maharaja, I have to work a lot every day. I have a lot of plans and ideas. You know, I got to meet with Vladimir Putin last February. I was invited to his country residence, along with other businessmen. At some point during the conversation, the President addressed me directly. I introduced myself and immediately suggested a specific idea. I told him that there is a problem with medication for people with hepatitis C – there are over four million of them in Russia. The available solutions are very expensive and not easily accessible. Vladimir Putin listened to what I had to say – we talked for 15 minutes! – and supported the idea. God willing, next year this idea will yield results.

 

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