I found two good stories at the Russian Yellow Pages:
-Alex Mogilyansky’s story is the classic American immigrant story. Russian guy comes to America, works hard, figures out how to make a decent living by making life a little easier for his fellow Russians.
-Andrew Mogilyansky is Alex’s son, and his is more like the standard capitalist genius Bill Gates story. Alex, a top Russian checker player, brings brilliant mathematician son to the U.S. The son figures out business backwards and forwards and makes several million dollars from scratch before his 35th birthday through a variety of start-up ventures. He does this modestly and invisibly, working out of a dingy office park in Southampton with three employees. He also manages to use his computer programming talents to raise more than a million dollars for the victims of the 2004 Beslan hostage tragedy.
So. The offices of the Russian Yellow Pages are just north of the city on Industrial Boulevard in Southampton. They’re class B or C office space with low drop ceilings, fluorescent lights, and water stains on the walls. It’s 6pm and father and son both have a few more hours of work ahead.
Alex Mogilyansky, founder and publisher of the Russian Yellow Pages, is in his office playing checkers online. He is wearing suspenders, cufflinks, and a dress shirt with an open collar. He looks like a struggling publisher nearing the end of a long workday—his hair and desk are in complete disarray. He was born in Georgia, Russia in 1942 to a lawyer and a gynecologist. They lived in a one-room house without running water and shared a communal bathroom with three other families. In 1979, Alex won the champion checker player in all of Russia, and by 1988, the Soviet government was paying him to play checkers full-time. At one point he was ranked fifth in the world and he is presently the number one or number two player in the United States. Alex was divorced and living in Riga. Andrew lived with his mother in St. Petersburg. He was a “wunderkind,” Alex says, talking about the theory of relativity at age 10 and writing an article on theoretical physics at 16 that was later translated into English and published in an American journal. The USSR was at war with Afghanistan and had mandatory military service. Alex was worried that his son would be killed in the army, or that his “brains would be damaged” as life in the Soviet army is worse, he said, than any American prison. So he moved to Northeast Philadelphia to live near relatives.
In explaining this decision, Alex related a long conversation he had with his mother, who was worried he’d go broke in the U.S.
“Maybe you are right,” he told her. “Maybe I will die homeless on the streets of New York. But by that time my son will be Vice President of General Motors. Maybe he will forget me, and I will be lying on the streets of New York in the rain and rats will lie around me and someone will be passing me and will drop newspaper, and I will take newspaper and read it, and read the story of my rich son who has forgotten his father, who doesn’t care that he is lying among rats.
“And I told mother, do you understand what I will do when I read that?
“‘What?’ she asked me.
“I will raise my fingers like this.”
At this point he made the victory sign.
Alex is a very good storyteller, and he likes to go on about how the U.S. is a straight and honest country and democracy is the best of all systems. He was speaking very slowly and deliberately and at this point it occurred to me that he’s either the most sincere America-loving guy in the world or there’s something in his past that he doesn’t want to tell me, or he’s afraid that if he doesn’t come across as sufficiently patriotic in this article the Dept. of Homeland Security will pay him a visit. I actually got this same feeling when I was talking to Natalla. Who knows. Maybe I’m overthinking this.
But anyways, on with Alex’s story.
Alex gets a job in a candy factory, but his hands are too clumsy and he’s fired on his first day. His next job was as a substitute teacher in a public school. The kids, 11th graders, run around and talk to each other and don’t care about learning at all. This outrages him, so he gives a speech about how they’ll have plenty of time to talk after graduation, because they’ll all see each other again … in the line to pick up their welfare checks! “That is your fate,” he said, with tragic Russian gravity. This silenced the kids and Alex finished the day’s math lesson. But he was burnt on being a substitute and lost his subsequent job at a call center with the 1991 recession. When a doctor friend came back from a business trip to California with a copy of their Russian Yellow Pages, he knew this was his chance.
“To be an immigrant means to work 24 hours a day,” Alex likes to say, and he’s built the RYP up into what he says is the biggest Russian publication in the United States. He has four editions: Philly, NJ, NY and Baltimore-Washington, with 115k total circulation. He also has two small free NE Philadelphia Russian language newspapers, 7k circulation. He’s currently trying to close a deal with the North Hampton City Council to produce his first English pub, a North Hampton Yellow Pages. He’s really excited to be publishing something in English for the first time. “It will be the major victory of my life to produce such a book,” he said. Business, he says, “It is like checkers. It is a game, a great fight, but with different prizes.”
Alex is worried about his son Andrew. Andrew works too much. “Europeans work to live and Americans live to work,” he says, and indeed, Andrew, working out of an office down the hall from his father, only got four hours of sleep last night and needs a shave. Beneath his slight build, schlumpy attire, and surface modesty lurks a deep intellectual confidence and will to power that reminds me of Russian. He fixes a cup of instant coffee to wake up for our interview.
After immigrating with his father, Alex got a degree in applied math at Columbia. His freshman year, he won $25,000 first prize of the William Lowell Putnam exam, which physics and math students from Canada and the U.S. compete for. He’s married to a Russian Temple MBA who works for the Russian Yellow Pages. They live in Richboro.
Alex wanted Andrew to become a scientist after graduation, but Andrew chose business, because “I wanted full freedom.” He uses his math skills as a serial entrepreneur, building models, analyzing markets, and exploiting inefficiencies. In the past, he’s traded electricity contracts and financial instruments in Eastern Europe. For a time he was one of the most prominent businessmen traveling through the Ukraine, which won him a meeting with the country’s president and a side gig advising the chairman of Crimea, a Ukranian province, on foreign affairs. Right now he exports about $1.5m in used cars every month, buying them at auctions and shipping them overseas to Eastern Europe. This makes him, he says, the region’s largest exporter of used cars. The business made “his employer” a comfortable seven-figure profit last year, his employer being himself, Andrew Mogilyansky, in the guise of IBEX Global, a shell company at an offshore tax haven. His revenues are doubling every quarter. He buys the cars sight unseen with the help of two employees and a computer database system of his own design, which he’s constantly tweaking. His buyers and customers can do deals automatically by logging into a server and checking off little boxes—a process that would normally require five times the number of employees and much more overhead. “My specialty is systematizing and creating tools of analysis. If there is a machine that prints money and business is that machine, I know how to attach an electric motor to the machine so it spins faster.”
Andrew also owns the rights to sell high-tech German-made firefighting equipment to the U.S. and Eastern Europe, which he’s been doing for three or four years now. But revenues from that business have topped off at about $500k a year, so he’s focusing on the used cars.
Andrew’s other big achievement is MoscowHelp.org, which raised $1.2 million for the victims of the Beslan terrorist attack (1,200 hostages taken, 338 killed) and won Andrew accolades from the New York Times and the Russian ambassador. The Red Cross, by comparison, raised only $600k. MoscowHelp became the charity of choice because of its transparency and low overhead—so Andrew’s spent less than $7,000, or less one percent of monies raised, to file corporate charity paperwork. He started the charity the night after the attack from his apartment. “When it happened I knew that if I don’t do this than nobody will. I was able and it was my obligation.” This is how he explained it to his father.
SO WHAT’S THE STORY HERE?
-The story here, as I see it, is a story on the father and the son, pegged it to the large number of highly educated Russians moving into the NE, who as a group make more per capita than the U.S. average. These guys seem to be exemplary and unusually talented Russian immigrants as opposed to the average Russian immigrant who starts a small business and buys an ad in Alex’s Russian Yellow Pages.
-I could also try to broaden what I have by meeting more successful Russian business owners in the NE. I asked Alex if he knew of any others like him. He mentioned Fresh Made, a dairy company that makes the thick Kefir drink sold at Super Fresh, and said he’s try to come up with some others.
Let me know if you have any questions on this. This restaurant called the Golden Gates seems to be the epicenter of the whole NE Russian scene. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go on this trip as they’re only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It would be fun to take Andrew and his wife out to dinner there and see what they have to say. I left the office at 9 pm because both men clearly had a lot of work left to do, but after three hours most everything they were saying was still fascinating, so I might need to talk to them some more before I figure out what the best story is here.