Dawn’s first light is an hour away, but Mikhail Radul and 100 colleagues are already in full sweat after their daily run across a snow-covered field.
Stripping down to his green underpants, Radul stands ankle-deep in fresh snow and pours a bucket of cold water over his head, sending wisps of steam rising from his pink skin.
“It’s the best part of the day,” he claims.
Radul and his buddies are not hapless army conscripts or members of a fanatical exercise cult. This is a business school, Russian style.
New Business Technologies is a no-nonsense training ground created by Vladimir Dovgan, 33, a multimillionaire and evangelical capitalist whose relentless self-promotion has made him one of Russia’s best-known entrepreneurs.
A bear of a man who seems to run on pure adrenaline, Dovgan made a fast fortune with a very simple idea: selling his face and name to manufacturers as a guarantee of their products’ quality.
Many consumers feel products he endorses are good and reliable, so many are willing to pay extra to buy items with the Dovgan seal of approval. He’s a fixture on more than 200 products on supermarket shelves across Russia, where you can buy Dovgan toothpaste and pasta, shampoo and sausages, tea and vodka - none of it actually made by his company.
His firm, Dovgan Product Quality Corp., says it had $400 million in revenue last year. Yet Dovgan felt his weekly television show, his promotional videos and his autobiography were not enough to spread his message on how to succeed in business.
He decided he needed a school.
“When I started my business career in 1990, you couldn’t find a single book on advertising or marketing in the Soviet Union,” said Dovgan, a man so energetic he can’t remain in his chair for more than a few minutes. “This country has never had proper managers, and I decided the only way to develop them was to build my own school and teach these skills.”
New Business Technologies, which opened in November, preaches hard work and discipline around the clock. The 101 students, all men ages 17 to 22, live in tightly supervised dorms, adhere to a strict schedule and are in coat and tie by the time they hit the cafeteria for breakfast.
There are no women because school officials contend the physical aspects like jogging are too difficult for them.
In the five-year program, the students never will be required to open a dry, Soviet tome on socialist economics. In their first semester, the essential reading includes the autobiography of Lee Iacocca, the brash American car executive, and “The Alchemy of Finance” by billionaire investor George Soros.
After classes, students focus on practical projects, such as canvassing food stores to conduct market research on Russian buying habits.
Dovgan had no trouble finding eager recruits for his school, which he finances out of his own pocket and which charges no tuition.
With jobs scarce everywhere, particularly outside cities, young Russians have been hit hard by the country’s transformation to free markets just like everyone else.
But the flip side of the upheaval is that young people also have been the most nimble in adapting to the market economy. Many of Russia’s most innovative companies are led by executives in their 30s, or even their 20s. Youth and energy tend to count for more than experience.
Back in the Soviet era, bright university students gravitated toward subjects including literature, science and engineering. When they graduated, the reward was a secure, if uninspiring, government or teaching post.
Today, they want to study economics, master computers and learn English. They plan to start their own businesses, or perhaps join a multinational company doing business in Russia.
A recent survey reflected the spirit of the times.
When 1,000 high school seniors were asked what they wanted to be, the top three responses were accountant, economist and banker. Teacher, doctor and civil servant fared poorly, and only one person aspired to be a cosmonaut, the glamour job in Soviet days.
In establishing his school, Dovgan and his associates interviewed thousands of candidates around the country, picking those who appeared to have exceptional drive even if they didn’t have the best grades.
“I looked for people who wake up in the morning and can’t wait to go to work,” he said. “I want people who would rather die than take a day off and sit around idly.”
Dovgan’s school rents space from the much larger Moscow Economic Statistical Institute, a traditional school dating to Soviet times. In that part of the school, young men and women in blue jeans and sneakers hang out in the lounges, smoking, drinking coffee and flirting.
Dovgan’s crewcut students attend separate classes and are effectively segregated from the others. They always look as if they’re late for an important meeting.
“It was difficult to adjust at first,” said Alexander Aichgorn, 17. But then he clenched his fist and said, “We shall overcome.”