Targeting Russia – Leadership connection

By Todd Cohen

MADISON, N.C. — A local retiree’s humanitarian work in Russia has spawned a charity and a company in the Triad that aim to help Russian communities and companies operate in free markets.

Charlie Rodenbough, a retired travel and tourism executive, first visited Russia in 1992, when he and Suzanne Stafford of Colfax arranged for a group of North Carolina Methodists to go to Armenia to help establish the first United Methodist church there.

Working on that project and others led Rodenbough and Stafford to create the U.S./Russian Mayor to Mayor Program in 1997.

The Colfax nonprofit, which connects business and civic leaders of Russian cities with their U.S. counterparts, already has paired Kernersville with Kasimov, and Enid, Okla., with Tutayev. Other partnerships are in the works, including one involving Mount Airy.

The Mayor to Mayor Program also will hold a charity auction Oct. 27 at the Russian Culture Center in Washington, D.C., to sell 214 art works by 42 Russian artists.

And the nonprofit plans to sponsor a conference next spring in Kasimov on organizing and operating small businesses.

To help support the work of the Mayor to Mayor Program, Rodenbough in February joined Pleas McMichael, president of Custom Screen Print in Madison, to form The Russian Merchant, a firm that aims to help Russian companies market their products.

Through its Web site, the company will buy and resell products from Russian companies.

The company, which plans to donate 10 percent of its sales revenue to the Mayor to Mayor program, initially will market suede and linen products.

Both the nonprofit and the company are designed to give Russians access to expertise and markets in the U.S.

Because Russian cities and companies are rooted in the controlled economy of the former Soviet Union, Rodenbough says, they have little experience in merchandising and marketing, and few Western commercial contacts.

The Mayor To Mayor Program works directly with the Russian Small and Historic Cities Program, a joint project of the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church that helps Russian cities find resources to strengthen their local governments and economies.

The Russian Merchant likewise aims to tie Russian industries into Western markets.

Initially, the company is “not trying to reinvent the market,” Rodenbough says, but rather plans to resell existing products.

The company is targeting both the retail and wholesale markets, and its Web site will be designed for online sales.

“One of the things that makes this conceptually feasible is the Internet,” Rodenbough says.

While the Internet in Russia is not as advanced technologically as it is in the United States, he says, “it has transformed communication and continues to transform it.”

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