Go east, young accountant

Russia offers riches to Western expats who can take the hard-edged lifestyle. Paul Gosling looks at a great career option for the truly tough

Major corporations creating Russian subsidiaries are searching for accountants from the West to look after their money. Those who take the jobs can earn massive salaries and give their careers a boost, but they face a range of perils, from deadly boredom in almost forgotten towns in the middle of nowhere, to the risk of kidnap or murder at the hands of the powerful Moscow mafias.

Russia today is a cross between Chicago in the gun-toting, liquor-running, roaring Twenties, and the frontier territories of the Wild West, with accountants in the thick of it, says Hugh Everard, director of Michael Page's Eastern Europe division. Those who flourishhave got their careers made. "They either crumple quickly, or they make it," says Mr Everard.

And making it in the context of Eastern Europe can mean a tax-free salary, courtesy of an offshore account, well in excess of US$150,000. Accommodation will be thrown in, along with a chauffeur, car and personal security. Large hardship allowances will be paid for those who end up in an obscure Siberian town.

For the Michael Page recruitment agency, the Eastern Europe division has become an important element of its operations. "A lot of Western investment is going in," says Mr Everard. "When corporations make that investment they want to know what is happening to their money. Often it is a joint venture, hoping to gain control."

It is not merely that Western businesses feel more at ease trusting Western accountants. Few accountants in Russia have GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practice) reporting experience, or understand Western accounting practices. Lucien Bartram is group accountant for the Gunsbury pharmaceutical group, which is heavily involved in Russia, requiring Mr Bartram to visit Russia and the Ukraine almost monthly.

"The problems for accountants are focused on differences of reporting requirements," says Mr Bartram. "In Russia there is no requirement to produce consolidated accounts. A lot of normal expenses are disallowable, making the real tax rate a lot higher, at 30 to 35 per cent.

"The profit motive is a very new concept. Minds in the West are focused on short-termism, profits, return on capital, but the legislation in Russia still requires returns showing full employment. These were statistics that the former government used to throw out to the world as proof of their economic model. So there is a huge problem in bringing Russian companies into line with what the West expects," adds Mr Bartram.

Nor is this the least of the challenges an accountant may expect. Hays Executive has also been recruiting for posts in Eastern and Central Europe. "We had one person whose chauffeur was kidnapped twice," says Neil Holmes, business manager for Hays Executive. On the first occasion the ransom was for the car, and on the second it was for the chauffeur's life.

"He was based in Moscow, his employer was American and had a policy of employees integrating into the community," explains Mr Holmes. "Only he and his wife were placed in a housing estate and found it a very threatening environment. They ended up living in the compound of the company they worked for."

Problems are worst in Moscow, less severe in St Petersburg, and quite different in remote places such as Siberia. Despite the isolation of such communities, many executives enjoy themselves greatly if they can fit into small ex-pat communities, and develop a frontier spirit.

Attitude is the key to being successful in Eastern Europe, but knowledge of the region can be important in landing the jobs. "It is a bit of a catch-22," says Mr Holmes, "as many employers want previous Russian experience. The next best thing is fluency in Russian."

While speaking Russian is obviously a help in landing a job and coping with life when there, it is often not an essential job requirement. Russia's business lingua franca is English, and much investment comes from America. And, at least in Moscow, Westerners can become part of a large ex-pat community, with a vibrant social life.

Once the Navy told recruits they could see the world, gain new friends and find excitement. Now all that and more - a small fortune - is on offer to accountants.

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