The 25th floor of the Sberbank Tower offers a gloomy view on a foggy day over Moscow City, the banking district of Moscow. The buildings housing the competition are hardly visible from the top floor, symbolic since Russia’s largest bank is in decent shape while the competition is licking its wounds, half-hidden in the mist. The Russian central bank owns 50 percent plus one share of Sberbank. It is the largest bank in Eastern Europe and the fourth largest in all of Europe.
In the bank’s library room we meet with CEO Herman Gref. Born in 1964 into a family of ethnic Germans living in what is now Kazakhstan, Mr. Gref is considered Russia’s most outspoken business executive. And he can afford to express critical opinions; Sberbank, which he has headed since November 2007, is still profitable today. A lawyer by profession, he has known President Vladimir Putin since the 1990s, when the two men lived in St. Petersburg. Mr. Gref later authored President Putin’s economic program, and he was the country’s economy minister from 2000 to 2007.