As the Russian economy has boomed on the back of oil and gas revenues in recent years, it has also rapidly risen up the league table of significant markets for Scots exports
Handing over a business card to a Russian business prospect may prompt a surprising response, according to international trade veteran David Cant.
"The first thing they'll probably do is flip it over to see who your Russian partner is or where your offce is there," says Cant, originally from Glasgow and who now runs a consultancy which aims to help SMEs succeed in what is the world's largest country. "In my experience it is important to try and establish some kind of presence in Russia as trying to do business there remotely from the UK tends not to work," he adds.
As the Russian economy has boomed on the back of oil and gas revenues in recent years, it has also rapidly risen up the league table of significant markets for Scots exports.
A growing middle class among its 140 million citizens has led to particularly impressive progress in sectors such as food and drink, where exports from Scotland now total more than £90m. Russia is Scotland's third largest market for seafood and exports of Scotch whisky there rose to over £131m last year compared to less than £1m in 2001.
The potential for further links led to the first direct discussions between the Scottish and Russian governments on trade and investment earlier this year. "While Scotland and Russia may be vastly different in terms of geography, our economic ambitions are the same," stressed finance secretary John Swinney following the meeting. He highlighted areas such as energy, consumer goods, renewables and life sciences as offering clear potential for further collaboration.
Although it is a market of significant opportunity, Cant says companies looking to make inroads there need to understand the unique nature of the market and - perhaps most importantly - the sheer scale of the country. "You can fit 70 United Kingdoms into the Russian Federation, there are nine time zones and you can fly for hours without crossing a border," points out Cant, who recently returned to Scotland to speak at a series of Scottish Development International seminars aimed at encouraging more Scots companies to consider the Russian market. "I think the scale of it is something people just don't appreciate."
Cant estimates companies need to budget for costs of around £34,000 - including management time - in their first year of trying to break into the Russian market. "You need to build relationships there and to do that I think you need to go a minimum of four times. But you will probably get a pretty good idea of whether it is going to work out well before the end of that year," he says.
According to Oliver Platts, London sales director for cashmere group Johnstons of Elgin, businesses looking to break into the Russian market need to focus on quality and value for money as well as have a flexible approach to the market.
The company has successfully exported its products to Russia - which is a ready market for cashmere and woollen spun products given its climate - for the past decade and is currently enjoying a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in sales. "Russia is an obvious choice for a brand such as Johnstons of Elgin. It is an emerging economy with a vast amount of wealth from oil and gas exports as well as a newly educated and burgeoning middle class," says Platts.
He adds that understanding the nature of the market and the Russian people is crucial and that Johnstons has benefited from help from Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Development International, who subsidised trips to meet potential partners and customers as part of that process.
Platts says issues such as distribution and the language barrier mean having some form of representation or translation service available is invaluable. "Unlike the EU area there are few Russian business people who speak English, particularly in the fashion and retail industry."
As well as the consumer goods sector, the expansion of Russia's oil and gas industry has thrown up significant opportunities which a number of Scottish companies are already benefiting from.
Wood Group has established several offices across the country and employs more than a hundred Russian engineers for design, operations and maintenance work carried out for oil and gas majors.
Renfrewshire-based engineering group Howden has had an office in Moscow for five years, employing more than 10 staff, and supplies the mineral, oil and gas and chemical industries.
Drilling contractor KCA-Deutag, headquartered in Aberdeen, has also been extremely successful in Russia, with its offshore division supporting the Sakhalin 2 project since 2004 and its on-land division also active in Western Siberia.
A number of Scottish universities also enjoy strong links with Russian partners including Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which runs a successful MSc in Petroleum Engineering in conjunction with Tomsk Polytechnic University.
Despite the progress already being seen by a number of Scottish firms in Russia, Charles Cormack, founder of Peebles-based trade consultancy CCB, believes it is a market wrongly overlooked by many businesses.
"There is a huge amount of focus on China and India but despite Russia being the only European-based BRIC country, it also seems to be the one British companies shy away from most," says Cormack, who has worked with firms to help them exploit opportunities in the Baltic States for the past 11 years. "I think it gets a disproportionately bad press. Yes, there are challenges working there, but no more so than working in China or India."
CCB has recently established a joint venture operation in Russia with Edinburgh-based, Russian businessman Maxim Tereshchenko to help more firms exploit opportunities there. According to Tereshchenko, the image of Russia being a difficult place to do business and corruption being rife is very wide of the mark. "As in any market, there are issues you need to be aware of and corruption is one of those but it is reducing and for SMEs the reality is just not an issue they are likely to come across.
"I've known many UK companies who have been surprised at how easy and uncomplicated it has been to do business in Russia."
Russia is the UK's fastest-growing major export market, and the third largest outside Europe and North America. UK-wide exports to Russia increased by 39 per cent to s4.78bn in 2011. Since 2001 UK-Russian trade has been growing by an average of 21 per cent per cent a year.
Major sporting events will provide significant additional opportunities in Russia. As well as the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi and the FIFA World Cup in 2018, the Formula One Russian Grand Prix will be staged from 2014 onwards.
More than 600 UK companies currently have a presence in Russia, including Pilkington Glass, AstraZeneca, Kingfisher, GlaxoSmithKline and KPMG.