Saturday 16 December 2017

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

Irishwoman Avril Conroy has a huge task to maintain Russian oil giant Rosneft's prominence. She tells our reporter why Russia and Ireland actually have a lot in common

Simon Rowe

Fresh off an early-morning flight from the Caucasus in southern Russia, Avril Conroy bounces into the lobby of a central Moscow hotel with enough energy and enthusiasm to power the national grid, which might help explain how the Irish-born businesswoman has climbed to the top of Russia's corporate ladder over the course of a 20-year career in the country.

Two years ago, Conroy was appointed vice-president of retail operations at Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil firm and the world's largest publicly traded petroleum company - a remarkable achievement for a woman and a foreigner in what is seen as a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Since her appointment, the Athlone-born businesswoman has criss-crossed the country's vast territory a number of times, managing the oil giant's roll-out of new outlets and overseeing a programme of upgrades to its massive retail portfolio.

The scale of Conroy's job spec is enormous. Rosneft is a giant in global forecourt retailing. Conroy manages more than 3,000 petrol retail sites, covering 66 regions, with responsibility for more than 50,000 staff. To put the operations into context, Rosneft's retail arm is seven times larger than Topaz, Ireland's largest forecourt retailer, which owns 430 stations across the island of Ireland.

And the Russian oil giant is about to get even bigger. A recent $12bn deal between a Rosneft-led consortium and India-based Essar Oil gives Rosneft access to 2,700 petrol pumps across India's largest private fuel-retailing network. India is the fastest growing major economy and third-largest oil consumer in the world.

Conroy declines to comment on the specifics of this latest deal, but it is clear that Rosneft's global ambitions won't stop with India.

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

Rosneft is a publicly listed company, majority-owned by the Russian state. But the oil giant has weathered the sanctions crisis and the global dip in oil prices surprisingly well, with oil production actually rising by 10pc between 2013 and 2016.

In fact, rather than dampening Rosneft's expansion 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."

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