Russell Johnsen, Provident Financial Romania: It has been hard work here, the hardest I have ever worked

Russell Johnsen, the general manager of  Provident Financial Romania, has been attracted to bringing change in the organization ever since joining it 28 years ago. A Jack of all trades, as he says, he has been at the helm of the Romanian subsidiary since 2009. The most intense activity so far, he tells

By Corina Saceanu

When Russell Johnsen started out with Provident Financial in UK in 1982, the company was not handing out cash directly to customers, as it does now. Instead, it was offering them checks which they could cash in at the bank.

Russell, who started out as development manager with the company- low in the hierarchy, where people were not often heard- proposed a change stemming from what the team of agents had been telling him, which eventually lead to a shift in the way Provident Financial was doing business. Based on his proposal and on a successful pilot project, the company started to take the cash repaid by its clients on a weekly basis and offer it to new customers directly, instead of sending them to cash checks from the bank.

This is the thing Russell Johnsen is most proud of, he says. Not the promotions. “Promotions have been great, I had lots of promotions along the way, but that really changed things.”

Jack of all trades

“As I have evolved I have done lots of different things – in the UK you call this ‘Jack of all trades and the master of none,” Russell says.

He has held several positions with the organization and has made sure to change tracks from time to time. At 24, he was managing a team of 14 agents in his home city Liverpool and the accounts of several thousands customers. He went up the ladder to cover more of the country, up to divisional manager. He then switched to something new – managing security for the group, at the company’s headquarters in Bradford. Then came another change – he switched to managing finance. It has never been boring for Russell – IT and business change followed. The latter proved to be the most productive period. “I was able to make quite a few changes in the organization and I got qualifications in project management,” he says.

With no background in IT or finance, Russell chose positions in these areas to develop himself, as opportunities came up.

“Opportunities presented themselves in time; the organization was looking to develop me and round me and I was also very keen to pick up new knowledge. I wanted to develop in the organization within the hierarchy. The GM role was what I had fancied for a long time.”

He has enjoyed a lot of these jobs for different reasons.

“I enjoyed being the area manager, the guy leading in my city. I was really successful, maybe I was lucky. The area was a problem when I got there but we managed to turn it around. I enjoyed the success maybe.”

Going international

International expansion followed soon after and this is how Romania got into the picture, although not from the beginning. Russell was asked to manage the international expansion and has done so in Eastern Europe – Prague, Warsaw. He had the opportunity to start greenfield projects in the new countries and put all his experience in the company at work, while making some changes too.

Russell, who is the father of three, had long before decided, together with his wife, to postpone the family moving to work and live abroad until their children finished school. So he commuted to the countries where he and his team were setting up new business, until his time in Mexico, where he has lived for two and a half years.

“Mexico started out really well and then struggled because of the personnel we had there. They didn’t conform to the correct business model. I was asked to go and repair the Mexican operation, which I did together with the country manager there,” he says.

The implementation of best practice was not perfect in Romania

That lasted until 2009, when he was asked to lead the operations in Romania.

“There were two things: the business wasn’t growing as fast as we wanted it to. 2009 was the first time we started to experience difficulties with the external environment. Not hugely, but there was an impact,” he says.

In Romania, he ensured people followed the correct business model and changed the team a bit.

“Coming here was about understanding what the problem is, understanding the team here and ensuring that the basics of the business were in place. There is one right way to do things. You only change it if there’s a local reason to do so. Here the implementation of best practice wasn’t perfect. We had to reinforce it and get people to do the right things. I changed the team around a bit, brought some new people in,” he says, emphasizing that most of the existing team stayed in place.

His objective is to get Romanians come through and take charge of this business.

To Russell, leading the Romanian subsidiary is the most intense activity he has had so far.

“We have had some successes but it has been hard work here, this is the hardest that I have ever worked. It is tough, I am carrying the business around with me in my mind constantly. I never clock off. It is intense. Not too stressful, but it is intense,” says Russell.

It was not without success.

“We have doubled in size in these difficult economic circumstances. Things right now are particularly difficult, we see the impact of austerity measures, but it will normalize,” he goes on.

Living the expat life in Romania

Unlike his time in Mexico, where there was not a big expat community and where he had to mingle with the locals more, Russell Johnsen feels more like an expat here in Romania, where he lives with his wife.

“There is a big expat community in Bucharest. Now my life includes barbecues and dinners; I meet lots of nice people with whom I have this thing in common- being away from home.”

“While in Mexico we just got on with it and integrated in the Mexican community. The expats here are slightly isolated, they tend to focus on their own community.”

He likes to play tennis, football, squash and golf, but hasn’t done much of these in Romania. Free time during the week-end is usually used to simply relax.

On the professional side, Russell says he looks at the company’s financials every week.

“We collect the credits weekly, so our performance is reviewed weekly. I also get some information on a daily basis, we manage this business very tightly. Time is a key ingredient.”

But mostly his job involves talking to people, he says.

“It tends to be about shaping people, encouraging them, coaching them, trying to stop people make me make every decision. I would rather have them make their own decisions and then tell me about them. I don’t want them to come to me for constant approval, I want them to be empowered. That was quite a task when I first came here. Culturally, here the boss decides everything,” he says.

The main thing he applies when working with people?

“From the start I knew the secret was very simple – get bright people around you and make sure you don’t demotivate them. Reward them appropriately, empower them. That was the secret of whatever success I had.”

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