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E. Dean Butler was a man with inside information. He had been inside Procter & Gamble for six years and had risen to a high inside position. The Wall Street Journal had a lady reporter who had been nosing around P&G for nearly a year. Her story, she hoped, would blow the lid off some popular misconceptions about and some nefarious deeds done by the famed “Soap Company”. After all, every decade or so, rumors would fly that P&G was the instrument of the Devil. Why else would its profiled “man in the moon” logo have 666 curled up in his beard? So Valerie Reitman was out to unmask the Devil. She was in Cincinnati where Procter & Gamble and Dean Butler lived.
She had been seeking out ex-execs and Dean was high on her list. When she approached him in February of 1993, it seems he promised to speak openly if she would consider covering what to him was an even more important story – the advent of free enterprise and modern marketing in the Soviet Union. She agreed to encourage her editors to let her pursue that immediately after the P&G wrap.
Dean called and informed me of the possibility of the Big story for Lenam. He appeared quite proud of his clever creation of a golden opportunity. Regardless of his Procter & Gamble experience and his Lens Crafters success, Dean was from Cincinnati. I was from New York City and had enjoyed a lifetime of media manipulation. I was not so impressed.
At the time, I was president of Eastern Holdings and Yuri Fainstein was Vice President. Yuri, a Soviet optical manager had emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1979. Ten years later, during peristroyka, he had approached Dean Butler with the concept of building out a chain of optical superstores in Russia. It was he who guided Dean and others on the first investigative trip and introduced them to Valeriy Solovyev who had recently privatized. When a year dragged on without Yuri seeming to move the project forward, Dean had hired me to either get the job done or close the effort down.
Yuri considered himself Americanized. But, he was first a Russian and always a Russian. That is, as soon as a deal seemed done, he tried to make another deal. In the short two years we had been together he had tried to lure me into more joint venture talks with government sewing companies, meat packers, pharmacies, distributors, publications, research firms and a number more. Yuri believed if he could talk marketing, that people would pay him money. But, he knew he needed me to close deals and do the work. Sometimes I would indulge him and attend a meeting. Most times, I would tell him we have a full time responsibility and a source of development funds. Everything else was pie in the Russian sky without funding. But, he never lost hope for the bigger and bigger deal.
Truth was, he was coming under a good deal of criticism at the management levels of Vision Express. He was also criticized heavily by Elena Drobiasko with whom he shared operating responsibility for Lenam. But, we kept grains of salt in our hands to take with Elena’s criticisms of fellow executives. Yuri was excited by the Wall Street Journal possibility and called Dean to promise him that he would personally escort her everywhere and provide excellent interpretation and translation as needed.
By March she had her trip approval and Yuri set busily about helping her with obtaining a 30-day visa and arranging hotels for Valerie and Dean in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Riga Latvia.
I was introduced to Valerie the day of her arrival and, being busy about my business, I did not see her again. Yuri occasionally reported to me that things were going very well. She interviewed our partners and visited their own, former government, stores as well as our joint venture superstores.
On May 27, 1993, The Wall Street Journal published Valerie Reitman’s report. I had a call late that afternoon from Dean Butler who was in Nottingham at Vision Express headquarters. He told me the article started on the front page and was “just great”. I received a call that evening from Yuri Fainstein, who was in Massachusetts at home who said “the story was the best thing could happen to us.” I told both of them to fax me a copy.
I had a call from Lenam the next morning saying that Valeriy Solovyev wanted to meet with me immediately in our offices. He was already there. I didn’t know his purpose but because it sounded so urgent, I skipped coffee, dressed quickly and walked swiftly to the Park Poebedo Metro station rather than wait for a driver. I was at the office in twenty-five minutes.
Valeriy was red faced. The veins in his neck pulsed visibly. He was breathing hard. He had his interpreter, Natalia, with him but he spoke the first words.
“What I? What I?” He turned to Natalia for further translation and said himself, “Some monkey in tree?” He lowered his arms towards the floor and bent forward like an ape and pushed out his lips and made hooting sounds like a chimpanzee. “Solovyev some monkey in a tree?”
I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I asked.
“What happened? What is going on here?”
Natalia answered. “He had a call from Germany. The article was read to him.”
“But, what article?”
“The one in your Wall Street Journal,” she replied.
“I have not seen it,” I said. “I was told it was a good article.”
Natalia told Solovyev what I told her. He calmed down just a fraction, realizing, I believe, that I had not even been mentioned in the article. Then he spoke more rationally through Natalia.
“It is a good article for Dean Butler. It is a good article for Yuri Fainstein. But Solovyev, he is a monkey in a tree.” He was deeply angered but, obviously, even more deeply hurt. “Dean Butler has to teach Solovyev how to eat at the table of western business. He teaches Solovyev it is not good to be greedy. It is lies he says about me. Lies. I never think or say what he says.”
I couldn’t believe that this was the same article that was reported by Dean and Yuri to me just in the last 12 hours.
But, Solovyev held special anger for his long time “friend” Yuri Fainstein.
“As for Mr. Fainstein, we now find he is the hero of Lenam. Elena Aleckseva is a bathroom attendant who won’t give toilet paper.” I was sure he had said “paper to shit in” but knew Natalia was defusing some of his tirade. “Yuri Fainstein works for you and Vision Express, but I have a letter for him from Solovyev. It is here.” He handed it to me. It said, “Dear Mr. Fainstein, You are not again to set your feet on Russian soil. Sincerely yours, V. Solovyev.”
Whoof! I was overcome by the dedication of his anger.
“Have you seen the paper yet, read the article yourself?”
“No. I don’t have to. I trust the Germans. They don’t lie. They are friends and honest men. Not like my partners from America.” He turned and beckoning Natalia to follow him, he hurried towards the door. Exiting he turned to face me and said. “Please send Mr. Fainstein the letter today!”
I went to the phone as the door slammed behind him.
It was now 10 o’clock on a bitter Russian morning. Bitter in temperature. Bitter in spirit. That meant it was only two in the morning in Yuri’s house in Massachusetts. I felt I couldn’t wake him that early with such bad news even though I was anxious to know what was in the paper that so embittered Solovyev.
I decided to call Dean in Nottingham instead. It was already five in the morning there.
“Dean, this is Jack. Sorry to wake you but there seems to be some crises.”
“Crises? What crises for goodness sake?”
“About the Journal article. Solovyev heard about it from Germany. Says it made him look like a monkey from a tree. He’s livid. Said something about you teaching him how to eat with a fork, he gave me a letter telling Yuri never to step foot in Russia, again.”
“Wow. Hold on, Jack. I have the article. Everybody thinks it’s great for the business. He’s crazy. Maybe some trick from some German trying to make us look bad..” He told me to wait while he went downstairs to his desk to get the article.
I waited, hoping that he was right that it was some trick or some mistake.
Dean was back on the phone, “Here’s what it says,” started to read from the top:
“To Succeed in Russia, U.S. Retailer Employs Patience and Local Ally. Cincinnati Eyeglass Vendor Has Partner Who Helps Line Up Crucial Contacts. Teaching the Notion of Profit.”
” Those are the headers, Jack,” he explained. Then he continued.
“Let’s see. Dean Butler’s entrepreneurial flair isn’t easily discouraged – not even in a place where consumers survive on monthly salaries that won’t buy a tank of gasoline and mail letters from five locations in the hope one will get through.”
I interrupted, “That’s a bit derogatory.” But as he read on the tone carried was lots of praise for the combined wisdoms of Mr. Butler and Mr. Fainstein with quite an opposite tone for the Russian partners. Mr. Solovyev, as “A 54-year old former Olympic class wrestler… who sports two Mercedes and … is a product of the Soviet military-industrial complex and … originally got into optics on Communist Party orders”
Then, Dean read the block-buster line.
“But cultural barriers exist. Meeting quietly with Mr. Butler to review financial results, Mr. Solovyev proposed splitting the profits between them.”
I said one word, “Jesus!”
Dean barely noticed and went on.
“Mr. Butler tactfully expressed pleasure that the profit motive was alive, but he suggested they ought to declare a dividend for the handful of major investors in Vision Express. Mr. Solovyev’s response: “We are doing all the work. Why should we give them the profit when they are getting something else back: a good business?”
I said, “Holy shit!”
Dean said, “What?”
“Dean, for God’s sake, when did Solovyev say that to you? And, why did you report it? Jesus! That does make him sound like ‘a monkey from a tree’.”
He said, “Jack, you were there. It was in the Lenam conference room when we all met in October last year. He said it right at the table and I explained to him our way of doing things right there at the conference table. You were there, I am sure of it.”
I replied, “I’m sure I was at that meeting, too, and I remember it very well and I even remember the interplay between the two of you. It went like this. Yuri and Elena as co-General Directors reported the profit. We were both delighted. Solovyev then said, I think we should give a bonus to those who have done the most to get Lenam built and started in gratitude for their hard work. I am not sure whether he named names, but it was obvious he meant Elena, Yuri, me and, perhaps, Barenberg. And, he expected your immediate approval of this gesture.” I paused. “Do you remember that?”
“And, Dean, your reply at the time made me a little ill. You said,
‘In the western democracies, Valeriy, we make sure the profits are returned to the stockholders for they gave the company the money to start up in the first place.’
“Frankly, I thought he had made an offer more democratic than you had.”
“Gosh, Jack,” answered Dean with a touch of concern in his voice, ” I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure he was indicating that he and I should cut up the profits. But, you know what, I don’t think I even said anything about that meeting to Valerie Reitsman. It must have been Yuri or Gary. Gary was with her for some time also and he was at that meeting.”
Then, he continued, “But, it’s really not that important. Nobody notices those things. Valeriy is upset now, but he is already a famous man in the world of business because he has gotten mentioned in a major Wall Street Journal article. It’s not the St. Petersburg Press.”
“I don’t think it is his idea of how to get introduced to the world, Dean.”
“Well, you know what Hughy Long said, ‘just spell the name right'”
“Yeh, they spelled the name right.” I answered. “He got his first report his business associates in Germany where he’s trying to make the largest business loan in Russian history. They made us look like real heavies. I only wish we had gotten to him first to try to defuse the situation.”
“I think you’re exaggerating things, Jack. I’ll get in touch with Valeriy and calm him down. It’s really good for him and he will realize that very soon.”
“Do you think The Wall Street Journal might make a retraction or a correction?”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary. They hate to do that, you know.”
“Fuck them,” I replied, “Valerie Reitman should have the sense to know that’s defamatory about a corporate executive in any nation.
“Well, I can’t fault her, Jack. She showed us the article before it ran.”
I was more pissed than ever. Dean and Gary saw the article and didn’t see the burning fuse. “Why didn’t you fax a copy my way?” I knew why, because although I had been the driving force of the whole business, I was not even mentioned in the article.
“Wasn’t necessary. I forwarded her draft to Yuri and he checked it out form the point of operating accuracy.” Dean seemed not the least perturbed.
I said, “What about Solovyev’s letter to Yuri?”
He answered, “Do we still need Yuri?”.
“That’s another story. For the moment, I believe I should call him and explain the situation. Then, I think we may want to get together in Nottingham in a week or so if things have not been quieted.”
“Good idea, Jack. I’ll call Yuri, too. Thanks for calling, Jack” and he hung up.
Dean was always polite and cheerful Often for no good reason.