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Vitalii Sklyarov, top manager of PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy), speaks out on profession of a chemist, DNA of a manager, Roland-Garros tennis tournament and UK Prime Minister

April 2021 marked almost 10 years that Vitalii Sklyarov had been managing PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy). Today it is the largest enterprise in Cherkasy region. The plant is 100% loaded and is the largest chemical plant in Eastern Europe. On the eve of the professional holiday – Chemist’s Day – journalist of the publication “Cherkasy region” met with the top manager of the company. It was a very straight talk about the profession of a chemist, about sophisticated technologies and values. It was a conversation about victories and defeats, about human happiness and the ability to hold up. It was also an interview about people of honorable profession, their destiny and ordinary life stories. 

Vitalii Sklyarov

– May 30 marks the Chemist’s Day. Our congratulations! What do you personally remember about your first day at PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy)? What were your first impressions of the company and of the city itself? 

– Thank you so much for the compliments. I appreciate it that you, journalists, remember this holiday. My first working day… Let me remember. That was almost twenty years ago. I remember the yellow table at which Volodymyr Shender and I were sitting. He was then the technical director of the plant. A wise man who later became my friend. We talked with him for almost two hours. I told him about my work at “Styrol” (Horlivka), where I had worked before. He told me about the production I came to work for. The two companies have a lot in common from the technical point of view. It seemed to me back then that PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy) was an enterprise with its own soul and character. Cool people have been working here. Time passed quickly and we left. He came home and I went to a hotel. I did not even have a place to live in Cherkasy at that time… A more detailed acquaintance with the company took place when I started working as a deputy technical director at the plant. The production technology for mineral fertilizers was not new for me, because, as I said, before that I worked at a practically similar enterprise, i.e. “Styrol” (Horlivka).

It seemed to me back then that PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy) was an enterprise with its own soul and character. Cool people have been working here.

– What was your impression of the city?

– As for Cherkasy itself, at first I was a little disappointed, because in my imagination the regional center appeared as a big city with industrial enterprises and developed infrastructure. Almost like the capital. However, in reality it turned out not the way I imagined it. On the way to PrJSC “Azot” (Cherkasy) (I was driving on the main street of the city), the wheels of my car hit potholes. Old and unappealing private sector buildings were standing on both sides of the street. It really impressed me. After all, I used to see another regional center, i.e. Donetsk, near Horlivka. Prior to the Russian aggression, it was a developed metropolis, which concentrated high industrial and scientific potential, developed infrastructure and production base. It was a large industrial and financial center of Ukraine. In Cherkasy, it seemed as if I came to a large and neglected village. Then the picture of the city seemed to reset. The most important thing about Cherkasy are its people. People with open hearts. 

– What about now? In what way did Cherkasy change? 

– The city changed together with “Azot”. For some reason I have such an association. Over twenty years, Cherkasy changed and renovated. The city has always been lucky with the mayors. All of them were good at runing the city. Especially the present mayor. A lot has been done, in particular, with the participation of “Azot”. For example, «People’s Friendship» Palace of Culture and the square around it. Our shareholder invested several tens of millions of hryvnias to reconstruct it. This was done so that the cultural center could look like a European one and become Cherkasy city sightseeing. However, this is not the most important thing. The most important are the people of Cherkasy with their open souls. They are hospitable and kind. Cherkasy are about the true Ukrainian hospitality. It is the heart of Ukraine.

 – You have been working at “Azot” in various positions for almost twenty years: Deputy Technical Director, Technical Director. 15 April marked 10 years that you have been running the company. How did you manage to build such a successful career?

– I would not want to engage in self-publicity. It is not in my way. You are welcome to ask related questions… 

 – I still insist. They call you a very successful manager, a very successful executive. This is what your employees say about you; this is what the person from Group DF said about you… 

– You have to understand that being a manager is built into your DNA. Either you have it or you do not. For as long as I can remember myself, even as a child, I always wanted to manage somebody. In football, I tended to be a team captain. In construction, chief foreman. Even in the kitchen, I sometimes try to be in control when I want to cook something tasty for my family. As my mother used to say, I had ants in my pants. I was a tomboy. Got my friends united, organized excursions, parties and various trips. The sense of community never left me. This was the case when I was going to school and later at the institute. Maybe my zodiac sign plays a role here!

 – Sorry to interrupt you. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but let me guess. Are you the Lion? 

– Correct. Therefore, I believe that to reach success in business, knowledge, experience and aspirations are important. However, they must be congruent with the system of values in life. I mean individuality and constant self-development. I follow this principle when I am building a team. You see, management is, first and foremost, the science of managing people. Super knowledge and skills in chemistry come next. That is, if, for example, a young specialist comes to the company not for a year or two, but decided to spend his/her entire life in production, in chemistry, then we take a close look at how clearly he/she has defined his/her guidelines, in which direction he/she is moving towards his/her goal, what are his/her values. If he/she has the energy and desire, he/she will definitely achieve it. Energy, knowledge, experience and charisma are instrumental for any manager. If he/she has no such qualities, they would not deliver. They would go round in circles. As Mourinho, a football team manager, used to say, he did not just need a player on the field. He needed people who could score a goal. Take a project and manage it to the end. Make a project a success. Only at the expense of such people, business can gain momentum. This is the only way business can grow. Our business is about cutting-edge technologies and very high speed.

– What do you personally commit to in a senior executive position? Can you say it simple? 

– Three things. Take responsibility for the production, people and their safety. This is the most important. I took my first senior management position when I was only 28 years old, and I became the top manager of PrJSC “Azot” at the age of 40. In addition, if you are a top manager, you have to constantly improve yourself, assess your strengths, knowledge, ability to manage this complex mechanism. I got used to having to work on myself all the time. Constantly! At the time when I was the Chairman of the Management Board, I received additional education in economics and management. On a separate note, I took a course in project management.

 – Do you have and MBA? 

– Yes, I graduated from Edinburgh Business School. This education was extremely necessary. You need to move fast. You can even say run. You cannot run a marathon if you do not have normal sneakers. New skills and knowledge are necessary elements to effective managements. Ongoing learning and improvement is my life credo. If you do not study, you will fall out of the race. Very dynamic changes are taking place in the global chemical industry. Here everything is like in sports. You need to keep fit.

 – Does sport help?

– Yes. Without sports, there would be nothing. Only the sport allows you to do a lot. Sport affects productivity. I will not reveal any secrets to you here. 

 – Let’s still go back to Chemist’s Day. In your opinion, did the prestige of the chemistry profession grow in recent years?

– We have not yet reached the level of prestige of the chemistry profession that it once enjoyed. As it is in the developed countries now. It is hard for me to talk about it, it hurts. Sometimes a young specialist comes to a chemical production and does not know the formulas of mineral fertilizers that we produce. That is why, they get educated at the company, learn from those who have been working in production for a long time. The quality of education, especially of chemists-technologists and those specialists who serve technological workshops, such as mechanics, instrument makers, electricians, leaves much to be desired. That “backbone” of specialists with knowledge and extensive experience in production is the most valuable thing that we have. In the future, the situation can only get worse. Therefore, we have to invest in staff and we do it. We have no other choice.

– What exactly do you do to develop your staff?

– It is not a secret. We cooperate in a systematic manner with many educational institutions ranging from vocational schools to universities. We restore the system of vocational schools that would engage in training workers for such enterprises as ours. Vocational schools used to educate good specialists, although their graduates did not have higher education. We are also beginning to work with them. It is necessary to resume on-job training for students of chemistry departments. Starting in their third year, students are trained directly in production facilities. We are happy to accept students from Cherkasy State Technological University for on-job training, but, unfortunately, there are few of them. Consolidation and application of theory in practice will significantly increase the understanding of what teachers teach them in the classroom. Teachers themselves would not mind being more often at the production. We keep our doors open! We are ready to show them the production, to present information on available vacancies and working conditions. In their 3rd or 4th year, students can decide on a future place of work. Only talented young professionals, who deepen their professional knowledge and gain practical experience in the process of production, have career prospects, in contrast to public agencies, where less capable young people break through to leadership, using their connections that hinder the development of the state. Chemical production does not tolerate such recruitment process. We want to take away the best, i.e. the most talented and the most promising. There is a shortage of chemists in Ukraine. We have to take the most talented to us. We have such an ambitious goal and it is real. 

There is a shortage of chemists in Ukraine. We have to take the most talented to us. We have such an ambitious goal and it is real.

– Why did you choose to be a chemist? Did you have chemists in your family? 

– No, we did not have chemists in our family. I loved chemistry at school, participated in competitions, won prizes. I was lucky with the teachers. The love for the school subject “chemistry” obviously became a decisive moment in choosing a profession. 

– If you were asked to make a list of the qualities you value most in people, what would it be like? 

 – Like I said, it is charisma. This trait is very important for a leader who must be able to talk people around, to convince. Surprising as it may seem, creativity comes second. I have always admired talented people. They see the world somewhat differently. They generate ideas; they are the driving force in business. Not only in chemistry. The third comes reliability. I bet on people I can count on. When you believe that they will not fail in a difficult moment. I appreciate in people such trait as responsibility. Responsibility for delivering on decisions made and, most importantly, for mistakes. You know that the man who never made mistakes never made anything. This is true. We can make mistakes, but we must have courage to admit and be responsible for them. Courage, perseverance, kindness and loyalty are the traits that, obviously, we value most in people. I value people who share the values of the company, who are 100% dedicated to what they do.

 – What is your personal secret to success?

– You want me to engage in self-publicity again … (Laughing, – author’s note). Although, as my friend says, modesty is the path to poverty.

 – You parry the question again…. 

– Let me try. (Pause for a minute – author’s note). “Success is the ability to move from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” These are the words by Winston Churchill. It is difficult to disagree with him. Being at the highest levels of power and in the most difficult times, Churchill betrayed neither his country, nor himself, nor his ideals, nor his values. He used to say that failures make a person stronger and more confident. Failures add to determination to move forward. This is, in my view, the secret of success. No pain, no gain. This is the essence. Hold up well, stand up and keep on doing what you started. This is the main thing in business. Ignore the defeats. Go all the way. 

– For many people, the achievement of material prosperity in life is of great importance. What does this mean for you?

– Having worked in the chemical industry for more than thirty years in various management positions, I cannot complain about poverty. However, I also do not consider myself a person of too much wealth. Material benefits are not the end in themselves for me. I run the large enterprise. My income earns me a normal life. I feel secure about my family. However, there is always something higher and more important in the work. It is a certain state of your soul, a feeling of self-realization, a feeling of victory. When there is a desire to change people’s lives for the better. When you go to bed and automatically keep on thinking about the production, about people, about unresolved issues. You can’t make your brain not think about it. As a leader, I also care about the social issues of our employees. I believe, they are quite well protected by the Collective Agreement. 

– Does it mention great social benefits? 

– We never hid it, that the average salary at “Azot” is higher than in the city. Each employee receives a material allowance during the annual leave. We have a cash allowance for those who have worked in our production for 25 years. This is not all. We take care of our veterans. It is with their hands that a solid foundation for the development of “Azot” was laid. We have created a special fund to support veterans. We also provide assistance to the city, support medical and educational institutions. We want our country to have as many wealthy people as possible and as few as possible of those who would need basic things for subsistence. 

 – What do you think needs to be done to this end? – To implement reforms and raise the economy at the fastest possible pace. It is very important for the Government to support its own producer, to create additional jobs, to develop science, to improve medicine and the quality of life in general. The current situation with the coronavirus pandemic has shown weaknesses in the country’s medical sector.

– Could you specify what kind of support should the Government provide to the domestic producers? In particular, companies like “Azot”? 

 – First, freedom of enterprise. Fewer checks, fewer hints of bribes and more support. Support to businesses as taxpayers. Respect for the taxpayers. You understand what I mean. The second is a “healthy” protectionism. Without it, the prospects for the development of the industry are hazy. If the officials of the Inter-ministerial Commission for International Trade protect the sector and it could make profits, only in that case there will be the opportunity for investments and major modernization of the core productions. Only in that case the entire industry will be more competitive. Only then, we can implement the large-scale plans that we developed before 2013, i.e. before the war between Russia and Ukraine.

   The plans were grand, but they could not be realized. Over four years since the beginning of the war, we have invested little in production and, in fact, barely survived because the Government could not protect the Ukrainian market from cheap Russian fertilizers. The embargo on the import of fertilizers from Russia has been in force for two years now. We increase the output, carry out capital repairs, invest in fixed assets. If the government can protect the Ukrainian market, there will be no Georgian or Belarusian ammonium nitrate; Ukrainian chemists will be able to keep on investing in expansion of production, new technologies and research. This will allow the country to remain a strong and competitive manufacturer. 

  Strategically, the Government should not stand aside, but, for example, together with Ukrainian Chemists Union, propose a development strategy to support domestic producers, which would be aimed at domestic consumers and producers and interests of the entire country. 

  The strategy is on paper, but the Government does not yet have enough motivation to help Ukrainian chemists. I have a simple question to you. If Ukrainian companies are able to supply the entire Ukrainian market with nitrogen fertilizers, then why do they sell fertilizers from Georgia, Poland, and Latvia here in Ukraine? Why do they trade in Russian fertilizers despite the embargo? Go to OLX, look up and make sure that fertilizers from Russia are being sold in Ukraine. You see, there should be no “band aid” approach. Embargo on the import of fertilizers from Russia should be coupled with the import in general. Alternatively, as the Ukrainian Chemists Union proposes, 25% of the market should be given to importers, and Ukrainian companies should take the rest. This is what we call a “healthy” protectionism. This is what all other countries do. However, for some reason our big lobbyists have made sure that any foreign fertilizers are imported to Ukraine without any problems. Do you mind killing Ukrainian production with all that import? Do you mind killing jobs with all that import? I understand that the success of the Ukrainian agricultural and industrial sector depends on the chemical industry. All farmers are interested in being supplied with fertilizers in full. I am convinced that Ukrainian chemists can provide all Ukrainian farmers with nitrogen fertilizers. This is the “win-win” situation. 

 Reliable operations of agricultural and industrial complex is, in a broad sense, a matter of the national food security. Agricultural sector is key for the country and the gross national product. Look at it all from the global perspective. The world will not survive without food. Therefore, when carrying out reforms, the Government must take into account the interests of domestic producers. Only domestic producers will work in the interests of its people and country.