Bernard Sucher has been part of Russia’s capital markets since their beginning. As the leader of Alfa Bank’s client portfolio management business, he takes on the challenge of helping build a savings industry central both to the long-term health of Russia’s economy and civil society.
– from capitallinkrussia.com
Bernie Sucher seems younger than he is; a tall, fit, shaved-bald 45, he looks perhaps 10 years his junior. Yet at the same time, to hear his story, it seems that lifetimes beyond 45 should be required to live his life. It reads a bit like an epic child’s bedtime story, one which teaches that morals and vision are rewarded and that, as Bernie says, “nice guys can finish first too.”
The tale begins long ago. One side of his family was Jewish, living in Austro-Hungarian occupied Poland. They fled to America as the Czar’s army advanced during WWI, fearing persecution. The other side, Karellian Finns, fought as soldiers and partisans against the Red Army and emigrated to America only at the end of WWII, when it was clear that their homeland was lost.
Advance a few years and Bernie, the American teenager, has been raised on stories of resistance. He began studying Russian to “know his enemy,” as he felt, amidst the parties and girls and bumbling of American adolescence, that the world would be better without Communism and maybe he could do something about it.
In 1980, he went to Rhodesia, where the Marxists were fighting for power. However, he arrived in the midst of a ceasefire and no one seemed willing to sign up an idealistic young American as a mercenary against the Reds. Very soon, the British brokered peace there and Robert Mugabe was elected president. The threat, Bernie says, became the establishment; the people had spoken. So, without a uniform or gun to his name, armed only with a camera and Sony walkman, Bernie left for new adventures.
Thumbing and “train-ing” his way across Africa, he landed himself on a Soviet boat and sailed into the port city of Odessa. His mission would be to meet the communist people, determine how best to undermine their ideology and to bring down America’s hulking enemy. But here he encountered another setback: Russia was an enemy more in theory than fact as the Soviet economy was in shambles. The people he met were not participants in an “evil empire” but rather just good people living very hard lives. Bernie was heartbroken not only for the Soviet people but also because the mission he had set out for was already being completed by the ebb of time.
He returned home and majored in business, as many business majors do, because it was “practical.” But Bernie’s business experience would prove anything but ordinary. He landed a job with EF Hutton as a cold-calling stockbroker. One of the clients he made cold-calling was so impressed with the call that he invited Bernie to join his firm in London to “sell Japan,” the 80’s hottest market, in the form of bonds and other enigmatic financial paraphernalia. Four years later Bernie moved to yet another firm, Goldman Sachs, who was also involved in Japan. He was transferred to Tokyo and then to the New York offices. Bernie made a million dollars.
But still strong within him were thoughts of Russia, of adventure, and of changing the world for the better. Furthermore, there was much to be done in Russia. Russia had only a few years before been thrown into capitalism with no idea of how capitalism worked. A few made fortunes, but the majority suffered, perhaps even more than they had under communism. So, when it was time to pull out of the Japanese market, Bernie entered the Russian, on tourist visa, looking for “good works” to commit.
He had a friend who ran a small law firm in Moscow and who had some spare space in his laundry room. Bernie looked for soup kitchens to volunteer in (though never found one, they were oddly scarce in Moscow) and took some time to relax from his decade of wall-street work, meeting new people and shooting darts until late at night. It was here that his new career as an entrepreneur would unexpectedly start; a career that would teach the value of the old adage that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish.
His first investment started as a gift, because it was to a business he thought would never work. A doctor friend told him the story of post-soviet medicine: that after the old system fell, so did the printing subsidies. Up-to-date information was so impossible to find in Russia that doctors were quitting because it was next to impossible to practice effectively. The friend proposed a business that would buy the rights to English language medical textbooks, translate them, and sell them to Russian doctors. The problem, of course, is that textbooks are fabulously expensive and Russian doctors quite poor. Where is the profit? His friend didn’t have an answer, but Bernie admired his vision and so handed him the money. The resulting publisher, Praktika, is still publishing with small but surprisingly present profits and Bernie is still part owner.
His other investments were also made, one might say, by accident. Coming home from a late night of darts, Bernie would lament that there was no place to grab an early breakfast. His answer to the problem, of course, was to build a restaurant. He gathered a few restaurant professionals (he knew nothing of how to run a restaurant) and began the Starlite Diner, which is still one of very few places in Moscow where real American-style pancakes can be found. There are currently two Moscow locations with a third planned. Those opened in America were recently sold.
The morning after shooting darts, Bernie would usually want to work out. But gyms in Moscow were either collapsing soviet-era facilities or expensive and under- equipped facilities in western hotels. The solution? Build a gym. The Moscow Beach Club was a success and later sold to a growing chain.
There were other investments as well, but Bernie was never interested in being an entrepreneur. The day-to-day operations of restaurants and gyms are of little interest to him; he founded them more to facilitate his lifestyle than fund it. What he was soon interested in was bringing the power of Wall Street to Russia and enabling common people in Russia to invest successfully while creating the capital to build “islands of sanity:” well-run, honestly-run businesses to provide jobs and products to Russians and “grow the Russian pie” as the saying goes.
This vision was to be made flesh when Bernie met Ruben Vardanian, whom Bernie describes as a “bear” of a man with puppy-dog eyes and sincerity in his every word. Rueben had the same vision as Bernie and had to do little arguing to secure Bernie’s help as a founding member of Troika Dialog. Bernie taught the new firm everything he knew about investment banking for the nominal salary of $500 a month (when he had made $500 an hour in America). But again it wasn’t the money he was interested in; it was the vision. The two men ran Troika Dialog with integrity, a trait rare in the “wild west” days of Russian capitalism, but a trait that would allow theirs to be one of the few firms to survive the economic crisis of the late nineties and grow even bigger with fewer competitors. Bernie has since, however, left Troika for Alfa Capital, an asset management firm focused on Russian pensions and mutual funds, which is now another growing “island of sanity.”
More than a quarter-century later, Bernie sits comfortably behind his desk, surrounded by pictures of his wife (a beautiful Adegyei woman), his two children, and his employees. There is one picture of Bernie looking important on the telephone. It seems in Russia important people are always photographed looking important on the telephone. Who knows why. His story is an exceptional one, but a true one. And, as the Russian economy continues to grow, and continues to support a larger middle class with money to invest, his story will most likely continue and his “islands of sanity” will continue to grow and help others.