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About the project «Success Builder»

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.

In order to manage a company successfully, one has to truly love what the company does. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Victoria Ryndina, the head of the communications division at AgroTerra Group and a graduate of HSE’s MBA programme, talks about the charm of agriculture, the secrets of ‘non-GMO’ labels, a healthy corporate lifestyle, unmanned combine harvesters, and agronomists with tablets.

Why did you decide to get an MBA from HSE?

I analysed the current situation on the MBA market, which took half a year. I was considering MGIMO, MIRBIS, RANEPA, and Moscow State, but HSE offered the most in a number of areas: the programme, the teaching staff, time, and class length. The deciding factor, though, was the time it took them to respond to my letter. I applied in April, and HSE wrote me within two weeks to collect more information from me. Other universities ask you to get back in touch with them at the end of summer closer to the start of the semester. I had gotten used to planning everything in advance, which is why the choice was obvious.

Why did you need the knowledge that comes with an MBA?

An MBA is a ‘package’ of knowledge, or maybe a filing cabinet. It enables you to compare, analyse, and forecast, and the knowledge you gain at the university becomes a tool that can be put into practice. An MBA is mostly needed to manage your knowledge and experience, and you arrive at this at a specific level in your career.

Which specialisation did you select for your ‘filing cabinet?’

Political and business communications. My undergraduate degree is in journalism, and I also studied law. I’ve worked in communications for 13 years already and have managed the editorial team at a newspaper and a media website. I’ve carried out projects and established communication systems in the corporate sector as well. Overall I wanted to reach some sort of conclusion in my work and master specifically communications management practices, an area still lacking in established norms. In Russia, this field has only begun to be regulated, so there’s not yet anywhere to find a single standard for understanding the basics. I do really like what my colleagues from RASO are doing in this area, however.

What is communications management really?

It’s the configuration of a system that helps the company achieve its goals through communications. Good management exists when there is an understanding both in communications and in the area in which you work. In order to maintain the system of communication between projects, departments, employees, and objectives – and in order to conduct a deep analysis of data, delve into a situation, etc. in the agricultural realm – it’s necessary to understand the unique characteristics of the agricultural business. I am very thankful to my colleagues from the industry for being patient and helping me gain a general understanding of the field.

A tool that helps me synch with the team is book club. If the company has a new area of development, then my division reads the same book as management in order to speak the same language and be on the same page. For example, we are now studying the 14 principles of the Toyota Way. Though I’ve already read this book, discussing it with my colleagues opens up something new and gives rise to new ideas for putting the principles to use at AgroTerra.

How did your receiving an MBA impact the company?

After each bit of knowledge I acquired, I’d come to the office and tell my colleagues and other department chiefs about the interesting practices discussed during my lecture. And we would implement and test them. The biggest changes, though, are related to my confidence and approach towards leadership. The MBA taught me to be brave and act decisively under conditions of uncertainty. Our teachers have a colossal background and have built some of Russia’s biggest companies from the ground up. This inspires you and gives you a concrete set of tools.

What brought you to an industry as specific as agriculture?

Agriculture is just incredible.

My work has always been connected to industrial fields, and I genuinely love manufacturing

It’s a tangible and rewarding field. As if out of thin air, a completely new product can suddenly appear on the market, a product made by human hands. For example, I was incredibly impressed the first time I saw a blast furnace. I thought, wow, how could people construct such a thing? As a university student, I always valued professions in which people invest their energy and soul. Agriculture is a shining example of such a lively field of work. When I was still doing triathlons and going on business trips, I would run alongside fields and think about how people work there and how happy they must be seeing such beauty every day.

Wow, do you still have time to do triathlons?

You need a lot of strength for triathlons, so for now only regular classes at the gym. Running, cycling, and swimming are more like weekend sports. At AgroTerra we have a triathlon team called IronFarmer that participates in competitions.

It’s rather strange to spiritualise manual labour. This was acceptable in the Soviet Union, but now it’s somewhat ‘unfashionable.’

I believe in it, and for me it’s not just someone’s job, but a mission. In the MBA programme, we were taught how to formulate a mission so that it becomes a foundation and source of motivation for the team involved. This is the basis for all strategic planning. At AgroTerra we take care of the Earth. This is something we believe in and build all processes around. And of course we want to feed everyone healthy food as well. This might seem naïve when viewed from an urban point of view, but if you go to the countryside you see that nothing has disappeared and that people love the land and enthusiastically talk about their business. Besides the fact that feeding people is a dignified mission, the agricultural industry is a priority for Russia.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev, HSE

How did you come to work at AgroTerra and where did everything begin?

The company is young and will soon be turning 10. I came here three years ago when the process had just ended of merging several companies into a single group. Processes were starting to be unified so that people who work in different regions can speak the same corporate language and understand the company’s objective and strategy as a whole. The company had to unite all ideas and general rules, as well as build a brand.

Now we’ve moved onto a stage of external integration, which is when, alongside bringing everything into order within the company, we begin building up effective communications with partners, farmers in particular. For example, last year we launched the project AgroTerra Integrator. The idea was to help farmers use the best standards to produce goods with a subsequent repurchase option. This is profitable for them. We provide the farmers with financing, consultations, money for production, and land for rent before subsequently buying their harvest from them. It’s profitable for us because we can buy goods of the needed quality without expanding our own production.

What is Russia’s current image on the world agricultural market?

In 2018, Russia was the world’s top wheat exporter, producing the most it had in a century. In 2013, Russia produced more wheat than the U.S. and Canada, and we are now returning to this historic norm. Despite the geopolitical situation, our products are needed abroad. Egypt in particular is becoming a big consumer of Russian grain. In May 2018, Egypt purchased 8 million tonnes of grain from us, which is what it had previously acquired from the United States. Additionally, the healthy lifestyle trend is winning and people are concerned with what they’re eating.

We are practically the only country that manufactures clean agricultural products without GMOs, and this is now in high demand on the global market

By the way, Russia is unique in that it has one of the largest volumes of black earth in the world. We can use wide-cut machinery, which allows us to cultivate farmland faster and more efficiently compared to the equipment some European countries use in large fields.

On the topic of non-GMO and organic labels – can those be trusted?

It is widely popular in Europe to use open ‘scenario’ production. Larger companies, particularly food establishments, came to this concept first. McDonald’s, which follows the principle of international standardisation, tracks the ‘biography’ of all of its ingredients. For example, the flour producer for this chain asks for documented confirmation from us on the wheat we produce and sell to them. Everything is checked – from the fields, fertilizer, and grain elevators down to the packaging. It is illegal in Russia to grow genetically modified plants, which is why when you see a Russian-produced product – for example potatoes, carrots, or buckwheat – and the packaging says ‘non-GMO,’ this is probably just redundant information and a marketing trap.

There’s also the organic food craze. Do such products really exist?

The law on labelling products as organic has only passed the first reading in the Duma, so in Russia the label doesn’t mean anything official. People are prepared to pay more for ‘beauty and health’ though, and a market has already formed for organic products. If you really need natural products, it’s best just to look at the contents, as the law requires producers to list all possible ingredients. I should note though that producers often change their ingredients to optimise processes. I regularly carry out revisions based on my favourite products, and I find changes once a month.

What about quinoa?

Oh, we are all fans of a healthy lifestyle and really love quinoa. People still joke about growing quinoa, but anything is possible. A crop requires certain conditions, with quinoa growing in the mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level. It’s mostly grown in South America, though quinoa consumption is rising each year in Russia. That’s why in 2017, Russia included quinoa on the national registry of crops for harvest. Our country produces just 200 tonnes even though it’s one of the most expensive crops with a high protein content.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev, HSE

How do trends affect processes within the company? For example, the marketing paradigm.

Because we are not a B2C company and we supply crops that are subsequently used to produce a finished product, we don’t need to keep up with short-term hype. A certificate of quality is our main form of advertising. A specialist can read our technical specifications and understand the class of the grain or how much protein is in the soybean. There’s no space here for emotions. It’s more important for the company to understand which crops will be in demand and which technologies should be used for an effective harvest. For example, when we were starting to harvest soybean on a larger scale, no one in Russia believed it was realistic. Now AgroTerra is a leader in soybean production technologies and is one of Central Russia’s top-three largest producers of high-protein soybean. This is testament to the quality of our systemic work.

Do you have your own research laboratories to find breakthroughs in biotechnology?

This is a necessary component of our operations. The company has a research and innovation centre, and each year experts conduct experiments and update crop production standards. Crop protection products, seeds, fertilisers, new technologies – these are all studied in order to strike a balance between cost and quality, as well as find completely new approaches towards growing what people need. The production staff definitely goes through trainings on updated standards, and they take exams before going onto the fields. Another part of our colleagues’ work is assessing the quality of harvested crops. For example, wheat can be high in protein or it can be suited for animal feed. There are a lot of different grades. To evaluate products, Infratec is now being used. These are grain analysers that we here in Russia were one of the firsts to use. They’ve been integrated into the international grading system as well.

Alongside technologies, new professions have arisen as well. For example, an agroscout is someone who monitors fields and sowing and then provides recommendations on corrective actions. If the agroscout sees something deviating from the norm, he or she quickly informs the production specialists through a tablet, and they correct their work. In their first year on the job, agroscouts helped the company increase crop yield by 15%. Specialists in the new profession conduct 26,000 audits each year. AgroTerra is now training specialists not only in crop farming, but in engineering as well. The company received the HR Brand Award in 2017 for creating this new profession.

What about unmanned combine harvesters?

They exist, but their use has not yet been put into legislation. You can use an unmanned harvester, but you still need a person capable of driving to sit inside. Regulation always lags behind innovation, and this concerns all technologies. There is no legislative reinforcement until an innovation is checked 100%.

New technology always requires that people be retrained. Today we are behind the wheel of a combine, but tomorrow we will sit behind a remote control and watch as an AI-controlled machine harvests crops and diligently stays the course. I don’t think people will work less because of this; the tasks will just evolve

Agronomists, for example, are becoming analysts who work with data on weather, fertilisers, equipment, and movement, and then draw conclusions on what and where optimisation is necessary.

How does the company support graduates and students in terms of internships and jobs?

AgroTerra has its own programme called New Generation, which is aimed at supporting junior specialists and college graduates. Right off the bat we show participates what their career and salary prospects are, and each candidate understands if our offer would meet his or her demands. We have a paid internship programme as well, which has given us many of our department chiefs. Now 30% of the company is made up of younger staff. We have offices in the Tula, Kursk, Penza, Ryazan, Tambov, Oryol, and Lipetsk regions, and junior employees have development opportunities all over. Our Moscow office is currently in dire need of analysts who like creating business models for a field as specific as agriculture. I know that HSE has such specialists, and we’d be delighted to have them here.