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I had the opportunity to travel to the Russian far east to the city of Vladivostok in November of 2000 as a consultant to a pet shop and local resort.  It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.  I met a lot of great people, and was introduced to a culture that was foreign (and almost alien) to me....and won't ever forget.  (Not to mention, I also learned a few things about different areas of aquarium keeping, species breeding, and the tropical fish trade.)

The job assignment was to consult  two different companies to improve their overall knowledge, and economic well-being.  The first job involved areas of aquarium keeping, aquarium maintenance, fish disease diagnosis/medicating, compatibility, filtration, lighting, aeration, electrical, heating/cooling, and other various areas.  This assignment was with the retail pet business "Fauna", and took up about two of my three weeks in Russia.  The second assignment involved pond improvement, restoration, and general care; took up the other week, and was with the management of the resort I stayed at, called "Sedanka".

Getting to Russia was the first mission, however.  The flight schedule was from Kansas City to Chicago to Tokyo, Japan to Seoul, Korea to Vladivostok with substantial layovers in between.  I stayed overnight in Seoul both on the way there and back.  This gave me time to "go out and have a look" at a really interesting and massive outdoor district called I'taewan Market where you can find everything from Korean spicy tempura soup to Korean seaweed wrapped nuts, traditional and modern clothing to medicine---not to mention everything in between, and goods from all over the World.

Outside view of Fauna “Zoocenter” retail shop

 

By the time I got to Vladivostok (about a 2 1/2 day trip), it was then time to experience jet lag for the next few days, which of course, is common for most after  international travel.  Up all night, sleep all day, up all night, sleep all day.  The Russian far east is 16 time zones ahead of Kansas City, and incredibly 7 time zones away from Moscow, within Russia's huge land mass.  After the trip back to the states it took me over a week to recover from the time difference, and jet lag, but it was all worth it.

It also took a few days to get used to the new landscape and people in Russia due to the broad cultural and economical differences.  Basically, few people spoke few words of English, if any.  This was an interesting experience for me because I got to brush up on my sign language....and experience the true meaning of "Englussion."    Though I did learn the necessary words to get around without getting killed, and most of the time I did have a translator or two present with me.

Vladivostock is a city of about 750,000 residents in the far southeast region of Primorski Krai in Russia.  It is the capital city of this region, and a major seaport for the country because of it's strategic location by the Asian countries such as Korea, China, Japan, Philippines,  and Taiwan.  It's also a military stronghold with one of Russia's largest fleets in it's harbor.    The city is very hilly, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, and lies amidst three connecting bays.  The lie of the land is similar to that of San Francisco, California.  However, most of the high-rise buildings are apartment rather that landmark commercial business, primarily to conserve on cost and space.  The Russians are a proud people and honor their history and heritage, so there is an abundance of really beautiful Russian architecture/monuments in the downtown Vladivostok area.  There was also a substantial amount of boat traffic, which kept the city's bays busy, not to mention military activity.

Assignment 1-Fauna

The first assignment specifically involved: 

¨      Training staff of current pet retail business (Fauna, LLC) in current products and trends in the aquarium industry.

¨      Training staff in areas such as aquarium maintenance, livestock compatibility, testing, lighting, filtration, plumbing, heating, and electrical subjects relation to aquaria, tropical fish disease and diagnosis, sales of current aquarium related products,  and other knowledge they could get in the area of service/sales.

¨      Implementation of a preliminary plan of starting a wholesale business in areas of: packing and shipping live tropical fish, the art of keeping large quantities of tropical fish, and again areas of facility filtration, plumbing, electrical, lighting, testing,  medications, oxygenation, and maintenance on a broader scale than retail.

¨      Creating diagrams, schematics, and instruction of plumbing, filtration, tank location, size, and function of the wholesale business proposal.  I also provided documentation of lectures and discussions for the "End of Assignment" reports that were provided to the funding organization, Winrock International, Fauna ownership, and staff.

Fauna’s business office where I did much of my work

Host Organization Description:

Fauna (LLC) is the oldest, largest, and well known retail pet business in the Vladivostok, Russia area.  There was much potential going  into this project, aside of the language barriers (my translator could not be with me at all times.)  The store was often found extremely busy with customers, keeping the staff with plenty of work to do.  I found the employees and management very responsive to me, and genuinely respected my advice and opinions.  It was interesting to me the size of the staff they had for that size of a store.  They had two accountants, two business managers, an office manager, other office personnel, a commercial director, an in-house cook, and one to four staff on the floor at any given one time, not to mention the owners, who performed all of the above.  They also have a small pharmacy where drugs, medications, and foods are sold for many small animals. This is all stuffed into about 1000 square feet of store space.

 The company has been in business in Vladivostok since the late 1970’s, but turned from a publicly owned to commercial business in 1993, and was all but put out of business as a result of the crisis of 1996.  However, it did survive, and is thriving in one of the largest seaports in Russia.  It’s also an obvious strategic location for the wholesale pet supply/livestock trade because of its location. 

Issues/Problems:  There were some problems with regard to both the retail business and wholesale plans.  They are:

¨      Lack of training in aquarium maintenance, tropical fish disease diagnosis and treatment, as well as other areas of the aquarium hobby.

¨      Lack of know-how in setting up and maintaining a wholesale fish depository.

¨      Lack of information of new trends and ideas in the aquarium-keeping hobby.

¨      Lack of know how in the area of filtration, and schematic diagrams.

¨      Lack of know-how in implementing an aquarium maintenance service into the current pet store, and the hiring/training of qualified staff.

Stocked 10 gallon aquariums with fish, plants, and reptiles.

Recommendations/Actions:

The retail shop isn’t as big physically as most pet stores in America, which initially was a concern of mine, but I got the opportunity to see some of the competition’s operations, which surprised me at how tiny some businesses really are over there.  There are no large-scale, commercially owned businesses, but rather smaller, locally owned "mom and pop" type stores.  Some businesses were very surprising to me, as there was an overall lack of inventory, and shelf space in many shops (four walls, one clerk, two shelves, a dozen items).  At a few places I saw stores with lots of open shelf space.  Once I returned to the retail store from visiting its competitors, my concerns diminished.  There were no marine fish sales in any of the stores we looked in, which surprised me because the American pet market is saturated with saltwater fish, invertebrates, and the sales of dry goods for marine aquariums.  I did recommend the implementation of marine fish sales for future business, especially at the price that they could be sold at.  However, the sales of freshwater fish are good at the present time, and overall knowledge wasn’t as bad as I expected.

The appearance in the store was refreshing, like many well kept pet stores are, and there were a few employees in particular that surprised me with the knowledge they did have, particularly with regard to aquariums.  Most employees were in need of some training, especially in the areas of disease diagnosis, medications, and new methods of filtration. Tropical fish and aquarium goods comprised the majority of sales in this particular pet store, so any help they could get in this area was greatly appreciated.    

It was interesting to me that all aquarium water used for both new setups, and water replacement was spring water that was physically brought back from a nearby freshwater spring with a water tank/truck.   Tap water quality in the Vladivostok area was terrible and absolutely could not be used in the facility, or drank.  Occasionally, this water came out of the tap opaque or even rust colored brown, which was surprising and appalling.

The store did have adequate room for aquarium displays, and room for more displays.  Therefore additional aquariums were recommended to be set up for the housing of new species for a broader selection.  I also recommended to management that they consider an air blower for aeration of the aquariums in the store to increase efficiency and lower costs.  The blower could also be mounted in another room, away from the water source, and out of harm’s way, and reducing the risk from several electrical sources to one.

I held three different training seminars in the evenings with the management and the staff about various aquarium topics such as aquarium care, filtration, aquarium maintenance tricks, and fish disease diagnosis/medications.  Each session lasted about 4 hours.  These sessions were video taped by the owner, and seemed to go very well, and I was repeatedly thanked for them.  I made it a point to make the sessions dynamic and interactive, encouraged 'on the fly' questions about anything aquarium related and about the latest products and trends in the aquarium keeping hobby.  We discussed topics such as: oxygenation, climate control,  ozone, ultraviolet sterilization, chemical/biological/mechanical filtration, water pumps, maintenance tools, basic and advanced filtration techniques.    I left feeling satisfied that these sessions were very worthwhile, and that the we all learned a lot.

The long term goal of the company was to expand business to open a wholesale trade business in Vladivostok.  The main revenue thrust would come from importing fish from the Asian countries, which are major players in the tropical fish exportation industry and fish farming trade (i.e. China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Philippines, Korea,) then to sell and ship to the other Russian pet centers in various cities. (i.e. St. Petersburg, Moscow, Omsk, Yekarintaburg, Tjuman, Novosibirsk, and to other retail pet stores in Vladivostok.)  

I visited the building that was purchased for the wholesale operation, and it needed work such as aesthetic renovations, electrical, plumbing, painting, and general space management.  The building was not so large, which could have been be a problem for trying to facilitate large amounts of fish.  To offer diversity and adequate water conditions for this trade, large amounts of water are often required to maintain the large amounts of fish to be sustained at any given time.  Room for filtration, plumbing, and hospital facilities also needed to be accounted for.  This influenced my recommendation of closely considered space management, and suggested to keep total water volume relatively small, and concentrate on the local sales of wholesale freshwater fish in the Vladivostok area.  The company should grow with demand to the point that more square feet of wholesale space may be purchased to expand it’s potential and to accommodate larger volumes of trade.  Schematic diagrams were also prepared for the filtration recommendations, tank location, and major aquarium related equipment required to run the facility.

A 125 gallon goldfish display in the store

Another problem with the facility has to do with the electrical brown outs common in this city.  In many buildings in Vladivostok, the power will be shut off for up to several hours at one time.  This could have major impact on a facility that is housing living specimens in a controlled environment such as this wholesale depository.  I recommended that they consider a backup generator for the warehouse building, for which I left several literature sources, which they took heed and were anxious to look into.  Equipment needed to be considered for the construction of this facility; so several literature sources were donated.

In addition to the wholesale business, Fauna was also interested in offering an aquarium maintenance service out of the retail store.  I consulted the management and prepared a test/answer key for hiring and training of potential employees for this service.  I also prepared, and trained on the area of aquarium maintenance service with the staff.   I had the unique opportunity to visit a handful of homes of aquarium owners in Vladivostok and consult the owners about their aquarium(s) and how to maintain it (who, apparently had been informed about me prior to my arrival…. which made me feel good.)  The Russians were gracious, appreciative hosts, and there was always some hot tea, food,  and good conversation awaiting me.

I also discussed with the staff, preliminary plans and cost structures/fund allocation in running an aquarium maintenance business out of the retail store.  We also addressed issues such as: hiring qualified staff, investments, tools needed to take care of tanks, water, pay structure, maintenance tricks, and even computer programs.  The store had much potential to make money in this area.  I was shown several aquariums that the store has sold over the past few years, and not only was I impressed by the displays, but was reassured that there is plenty of established business for Fauna's aquarium maintenance service in the city of Vladivostok, and a good source for increased revenue.  It’s also cost effective to start this type of business, as the main ingredients are knowledge and manpower to take care of the aquariums.  Although, I was shocked to find out the tax rates they paid, and customs fees for importing certain goods.  The store needed another truck or van, which would be the major financial expense of the program.   I believed the business can generate the money in relatively short order afford this expense…provided that there were no further unforseen exonomic circumstances.

Information was needed for new trends and ideas in the aquarium-keeping hobby.  Literature was left in three forms for this assignment including books, magazines, and catalogs.  This literature covers the full range of the aquarium-keeping hobby, and the latest product lines available through online sources and various trade publications.

Concluding, I believe I made an impact on the management and staff in their opinions about the business of fish keeping and sales.  There were many questions answered that were put to me, and I left with a strong feeling that much was taught and a much was learned, and their behalf and on mine.  We all wished that we could have had more time together, because those two weeks passed very quickly.  But I believe that the time was used wisely, and much was achieved.  I really think this assignment made a difference for all and was assuredly worthwhile.

Assignment 2-Sedanka

The second assignment specifically involved:

¨      Assisted in the Resort/Resthome "Sedanka" in a preliminary plan to renovate a pond system/entertainment park.

¨      Suggested new products and ideas in the pond keeping hobby in the areas of filtration, aerating, bacteria, stocking, flow rates, fauna, amongst other various subjects..

¨      Discussed suggestions in areas of using the pond for: a skating rink, a swimming area, a fishing deposit, the sales of pond fish, and a relaxation area.

Host Organization Description-The Open Joint Stock Company “Sedanka” is a recreational facility for both young and old.  The company’s core business is development and providing recreation and medical treatment programs for children, middle aged and senior citizens.  After reconstruction of the current hotel facilities, the company provides comfortable rooms for one, two, or three persons.  During the last few years the largest building of the center was repaired, and the boiler-house was bought.  During five years of successful operations the company gained a good reputation among it’s clients, and now is planning to develop and start an advertisement campaign for the promotion of the new direction of improvements and activities.  This project's goals are to improve the landscape, and aethetics of the resort's entire grounds.  Among other services, “Sedanka” organizes seminars, banquets, and parties.

Sedanka is located about 19 miles outside of the city of Vladivostok.  It’s up in the hills, away from the city smog, and amongst the beautiful pine tree forests.  The air is crisp and clean, and there is much wildlife on Sedanka’s grounds including native birds, squirrels, wild cats and dogs, and a mascot wild bear (that had his own viewing house/living quarters.)  It's a very quite and serene place, free from city smog, and noise.  Four different statue structures with smaller pools sit on the grounds; some apparently used as swimming baths.   There are several buildings on the grounds including the main hotel, a senior center, a camp retreat center, a sauna, the boiler-house, and the business offices.  There was also a playground, basketball courts and a soccer field.

A small river that flows from the nearest hills forms a natural pond.  This pond, with total area of approximately 4.500 sq. meters, is located in the sanatorium area and surrounded with beautiful trees, and wildlife.  While constructing the sanatorium the management started the pond refinement process, that led to the construction of  a cascade fountain, and a small (about 200 sq. meters) artificial pond.  At the present time, there are two ponds:  one small, artificial pond with it's own standing fountain and special supportive service lines, and the other big and natural, where one could catch small local fish and could potentially be used as a "natural skating rink" during the winter months.  There were several attempts to stock the pond with fish for recreational purposes but they were unsuccessful, and many were lost in previous years.

Issue/Problems:  There topics I confronted when going into the project were:

¨      To develop a plan for renovating the pond landscaping, functionality and for the successful stocking of recreational fish.

¨      To size a proper aerating device for raising dissolved oxygen level, improving water chemistry, and to aid in keeping livestock alive and healthy.

¨      To discuss a plan for using the pond for multiple functions such as:  a swimming area, a fishing area, a rest place, and a skating rink.

The frozen waterfall at Sedanka Resort

Recommendations/Plans of action: 

The first plan recommended for the pond area was to decide which fish to stock the pond with.  Fish were then recommended to be added such as Crucian, Bass, Sunfish, and various Catfish.  It was also recommended they look for a reliable fish farm for the purchase of the livestock.  I gave the name of the pet store from my first assignment as a local contact for these services. These fish were recommended to be stocked in the springtime (March-April) and some may have to be restocked, or removed every year due to complete pond freezing.  A lake-grade aerator system would help in achieving this effect, in that it would disallow a pocket(s) from freezing due to large amounts of water movement and aeration.  An aeration device of no smaller than a 2 horsepower engine was recommended.  I also recommended the addition of various pond plants because the management was interested in the breeding of  fish and the aesthetics of the pond.  Literature was left with regard to aerators and similar lake maintenance devices.

We also discussed issues such as adding submersible lights in the smaller pond for appearance and night activity.  These were obviously recommended to be installed away from human contact with no electrical connections exposed, and installed by a well qualified electrician.  Otherwise,  they are fairly safe and create a nice effect on the water and adjacent fountain statue.  The construction of a few fishing docks was also recommended for ease in fishing and lake access..

The second plan considered was the addition of a properly sized aeration device to increase the amount of available oxygen for both the fish and biological filter.  Larger amounts of dissolved oxygen allow for larger amounts of life to thrive in a living ecosystem such as a pond.  If this is not achieved, stagnant, an overabundance of anaerobic pockets will build within the pond leading to numerous problems including nuisance algae, usually conclude with many fatalities within the pond, and a potential major declination in the ecosystem effect.  Natural aeration would occur with the water movement and splashing of the waterfall, but more oxygen would be needed for a moderate to heavily stocked pond, which was management's intent. Thus, a more serious aeration device would, again be recommended and considered.

The aerator would need to be serviced regularly (monthly) and may have to be removed in severe cases.  The problem here is that nothing is guaranteed through the brutal winters of the Vladivostok area.  However many of these devices do an excellent job of moving large amounts of water and providing more than adequate amounts of aeration, making it very difficult to completely freeze. A heating system was also briefly discussed with little interest.

After the aerator was to be installed, I recommended that the pond be stocked with water conditioners, and nitrifying bacteria to boost the ecosystem's growth process and overall water quality.  These “beneficial bacteria” aid in the breakdown of many potentially toxic chemicals produced in the ecosystem.  These would be added every few weeks before, during, and after the stocking of the pond with fish.

The large pond on Sedanka’s beautiful grounds

View from the waterfall to the smaller pond with statue (dry for the winter)

The last plan discussed was the usage of the pond for multiple functions.  The management wanted to keep fish in it year round, have up to 200 people swimming in it on any given day in the summer, use the area as a relaxation area, and a skating rink in the winter.  The main problem with using it for this many things is that the number of people using the pond for swimming could affect the health of the fish, and using the aerator would disallow an area of the pond from freezing which in turn would make it unsafe for skaters.  The second problem was the aerators ability to function throughout the winter months, enabling it to keep some fish alive, and the ecosystem stable.  

In conclusion, this project only needs a few items to make a big difference.  I think if the management of “Sedanka” will listen to the advice I gave they will greatly help the looks and functionality of the pond area.  I left management with my business card upon my departure, and let them know we could be in contact via email, and that I would help them out if they needed me for advice.  This gesture was warmly accepted and I believe they look forward to future relations.

Overall, I had an awesome experience in Russia.  It was a thrill and an honor to work with these people and experience their country.  I hope that I will someday return to see the plans I helped to create, being put to work, and that my Russian friends and I can reunite.  Special thanks to Winrock International, and Corps of Executives Far East Russia (CEFER) for making this experience possible.


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