About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
If you think all women in leather chairs are heavy-handed Miranda Priestlys in Prada heels, you might find yourself looking for a job your entire life. Over the last 100 years of women’s emancipation, the world has changed beyond recognition; being a mother, heading a large company, and looking good are all absolute norms for the 21st century. Anastasia Karpova, the CEO of the pharmacy chain Doctor Stoletov, tells Success Builder how she built her first business with the help of Saddam and Che Guevara, why the humanities need mathematical analysis, and why her pharmacies sell permanganic acid.
Your company is quite the anomaly – nearly all the directors are women, and all their deputies men. How do you deal with gender stereotypes?
You have to remember that pharmaceuticals have historically been a female-dominated world – after all, over 80% of pharmacists are women. They graduate from college, go work for a pharmacy, work their way up to becoming the directors of said pharmacies, and then move over to the office. For example, in our office, men only make up about 10% of employees, and this is not unique to our pharmacy chain, but to many others as well.
There are only a handful of men who study pharmacy. Maybe this is where the gender stereotype is most at play. And maybe this is why pharmacists are typically not the ones managing chains. I graduated from HSE’s Faculty of Applied Politics, and my colleagues who are managers at large chains are all financiers, doctors, or military people.
This is what's special about HSE – with its multidisciplinary approach, it gives you knowledge and skills not only for your major, but for related fields as well, so you feel like you’re a universal specialist.
About professional qualities. Why did you choose pharmaceuticals in particular if you could have gone into politics or trust management?
After graduating from HSE, I worked in various industries. I tried journalism, political consulting, and PR. I also ended up in pharmaceuticals because of my major. I started working in the PR division of the large pharmaceuticals company Protek. They then transferred me to their pharmacy network, where I stayed miraculously, and I worked my way up to becoming the marketing director.
What exactly from your professional knowledge helped as a manager? Politics? What about management and PR?
I decided two years before coming to HSE that I’m a humanities person. I was studying in what seemed like a strictly humanitarian faculty, and for my first three years I was perplexed – why am I studying micro- and macroeconomics? Why math, mathematical analysis, and statistics? I genuinely liked all of this actually, otherwise it would have been extremely difficult to learn it all. It’s interesting that my HSE classmates who studied management and economics studied the same subjects I did. This is what's special about HSE – with its multidisciplinary approach, it gives you knowledge and skills not only for your major, but for related fields as well, so you feel like you’re a universal specialist.
And this idea that if you study the humanities then you don’t have to be able to count or analyse and process information was completely destroyed. This also allows you to be a good worker, think outside your area of specialty and on a serious management level. Being able to think strategically and logically, and use numbers freely is one of the main skills that a manager can have.
What are the duties of a CEO, aside from having the pleasure of sitting in the softest chair in the office?
There are no standardised job requirements for a manager aside from maintaining credibility. Everyone chooses the appropriate level at which they want to immerse themselves in the business. I’ve worked at this company for six years, and served as director for three years. One of the first things I did after switching from a deputy to a director was drastically simplify the structure of the company. Now I don’t have any middlemen, and I personally involve myself in the work of each of the company’s divisions.
About creativity – you are also a professional PR specialist. Do you participate in the PR division's creative activities?
I whole-heartedly trust the advertising director, but everything concerning plans for promotions or campaign ideas are discussed jointly. This is because I love participating in this and I can be of some use. It’s something I’m familiar with, which is why it’s easy and enjoyable for me to work with advertising.
How much have you had to immerse yourself in the world of pharmaceuticals as a science and as an industry?
Over the course of 10 years, you can learn about all the problems in the industry both inside and out, and even more so if you like and are interested in your job. I can’t say that I’m going to be particularly useful in the sales area, though we hold an event twice a year where office managers head to the sales floor to talk with customers. This is like a competition – whose location has a large increase in revenues thanks to the new ‘salesperson.’ At the same time, it’s good to get a feel for the environment. If you spend all of your time in an office, it’s hard to understand how your solutions are being implemented and checked in reality.
This is the average check at Doctor Stoletov & Ozerki pharmacies. For comparison, the highest among pharmacy chains is 1,460 rubles at Samson-Pharma pharmacies.
On the one hand, we have a retail business, but on the other we have a product that is rather complex. Aside from our business’ high social responsibility, there are tons of rules and laws to regulate the pharmaceuticals industry, and there are a lot of restrictions. This is why we have people who are responsible for keeping everything in order, licensing the pharmacies, and this of course concerns people with a specialised higher education. Moreover, a degree in pharmaceutical science and experience working in a pharmacy are often necessary to make management decisions, which is why my deputy is a pharmacist.
Can you tell us why the pharmaceutical market ‘isn't easy?’
All market players are currently facing one key problem – intensifying competition amid a drop in demand. The market hasn’t grown in terms of size for three years in a row, while the number of pharmacies is increasing and serious consolidation is still underway. All key players are continuing to develop, and this is sure to become evident in the revenues of market participants since sales revenue is simply being blurred between new and old sales locations. In addition, marginality is falling because many are moving onto the discount format. They’re not only opening new locations as discount stores, but also reformatting existing ‘traditional’ pharmacies and markets.
What are discount pharmacies?
These are pharmacies that differ by their low retail prices. They have traditionally been fairly ascetic as concerns layout and service. This is generally a closed sales format done through a window, and discount pharmacies are not always close to a metro stop. People go to discount pharmacies specifically for cheap drugs, and comfort isn’t really an important aspect. For service, sales, product assortment, and medical cosmetics, people typically go to drugstores like our own – Doctor Stoletov at the corner of Maroseika. Everything’s changing now. Discount stores have improved their overall look tremendously, and the product assortment has grown. People are getting the same service, but at a great price, and the market has turned towards this format. Everyone has been forced to lower their prices. Our chain includes a large discount store in the northwest region – Ozerki pharmacies. These make up around 30% of the pharmaceutical market in St. Petersburg and have the highest per store revenue in Russia – over 35 million rubles a month. The main strategy in our chain’s development over the next three years is further expanding the Ozerki format. This is because incomes are falling rapidly, and the need for cheap medicine is rising. Last month, Ozerki opened up in Moscow as well.
To make clients as comfortable as possible, we are installing queue management systems and benches at our discount stores, and this year we launched the project Looking After Your Health. We offer additional discounts of up to 20% for essential medicines.
Some people like having their own business, but I'm just great at managing other people's money.
Is it only chains that compete on the market?
The top 100 largest pharmacy chains make up around 50% of the market, while the rest is made up of single pharmacies and smaller chains. Chains grow from year to year and swallow up smaller players. You have to understand that smaller companies get serious tax preferences compared to large chains. Regional pharmacies, for example, have the right to use the single tax on imputed income and not pay VAT or profit tax. They also have a lower payroll tax. If a store has a good location and is able to offer competitive prices, a wide assortment, and top-notch service, it will be successful irrespective of whether or not it is part of a chain.
Why do you manage someone else's business instead of opening up your own chain and avoiding VAT?
My first and in fact last business experience was at HSE. Students were very much into the political events going on at the time. My had a friend from school worked at the newspaper Kommersant, went on a business trip to Iraq, saw a portrait of Saddam there, and realised that he reminds him of Che Guevara – half-turned, in a beret with burning eyes. There had just been a wave of ‘I’m a NATO target’ stickers that a lot of students wore after America had bombed Yugoslavia when the war in Iraq was brewing. Anyway, we decided to make T-shirts with Saddam depicted as Che Guevara and print them at the university. In the end, all of my relatives wore these T-shirts, and I find them at home from time to time. We liked the idea itself and its realisation much more than the profit.
Some people like having their own business, but I'm just great at managing other people's money. Our chain is ranked third in annual sales; the company had turnover of more than 20 billion rubles this year and we serviced more than 1.5 million customers.
Managing a company that is a leader on the retail pharmaceuticals market – a company whose turnover grows year by year and has some of the best financial performance of the entire industry – gives me a deep sense of fulfilment. But I have no interest in creating my own business.
How psychologically and physically challenging is the work of a director?
A very important, albeit complicated, aspect of a CEO's work is communicating with employees. Employees come to me not only to share their successes, but people have breakdowns as well, and you have to find the strength to support them as their manager or simply offer them a shoulder to cry on. The ability to serve as a buffer comes with time; colleagues say that I was more emotional five years ago and reacted more sharply to unpleasant news. Now I’m able to remain calm in almost any situation. It’s important for a director to be able to switch off or else you’ll lose your head. I have a lot of other interests in life.
Has anything changed with the notorious crisis or sanctions?
In overall sales volumes, more than 70% of medicines in Russia are imported. As a result, drug prices have increased by an average 20% compared with last year. I can also say that the majority of producers are trying to keep prices down. Almost no one has raised prices by as much as the ruble has fallen. Pharmacy price tags also fall in times of crisis as many people turn towards the discount segment.
Why don't pharmacies sell manganese and other simple, cheap, and incredibly necessary products?
Manganese is a type of precursor to narcotic substances; that is, it can be used to prepare drugs. This is why it has to be stored in a metal safe, and records have to be kept on it. As concerns revenue, manganese isn’t worth it, which is why a lot of pharmacies don’t carry it. But we’ve created the conditions for this and we sell it because I believe that it’s a traditional part of a pharmacy’s assortment that our customers need, particularly our young parents.
Can you tell us how a CEO unwinds?
I swim. Water is the best way to discharge emotionally. I have a 1.5-year-old son. When I found out that I’d be a mother, I couldn’t imagine how to combine this with my job, especially since we had just begun integrating the Ozerki chain. As a result, my newborn and his nanny accompanied me on a long business trip to Petersburg. Fortunately my husband is from St. Petersburg, which made things much simpler. It certainly wasn’t uncomfortable though; on the contrary, it seemed like this is how things should be.
A happy baby is a happy mother. Spending time at home isn’t my thing. I can’t live without work. Even if I didn’t have Ozerki, I would think of something else. And even though I haven’t set up a nursery in my office like the president of Yahoo, I am still all for the Western model of motherhood. There, women take this step at an age when they are already secure in life and in their profession. This seems right to me, and this is exactly the kind of mindset I’ve always had.