By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
BOARDMAN -- The customer is always right.
It may sound trite, but Dmitriy Mikhaylov says that's the central idea he expects to take back to Russia after three weeks of visiting with Ohio business leaders, including seven days in the Mahoning Valley.
"Everything is for the people. Good quality, high efficiency and service, all for the people," the Russian wine importer said in a clear though heavily accented English he said he perfected by listening to National Public Radio and watching Jay Leno on late night television.
Jack Russell, a Boardman Rotarian who helped coordinate the visit this week for Mikhaylov and 12 other Russian business executives, said customer service is a novel concept for Russians who are still learning how to operate under a democratic, free-enterprise system.
Different focus: For hundreds of years Russian businesses were government-controlled, he explained. "It wasn't about pleasing the customer. It was about pleasing the czar, or the communist leader, or the Mafia guy," he said.
The customer service emphasis was a point driven home at the group's first stop Monday at the Kaleel Bros. Inc. distribution center on Bev Road in Boardman: The start of the tour was delayed several minutes while employees met with a customer.
The Russians, who arrived Saturday in Youngstown after two weeks in the New Philadelphia area, are participating in a U.S. State Department program called the Center for Citizen Initiatives, based in San Francisco.
The State Department pays their transportation costs to the area but relies on local sponsors to foot the rest of the bill.
Boardman Rotary is sponsoring the group here, housing the nine men and four women and paying for most of their expenses while they're visiting the Mahoning Valley. Howard Mettee, who chaired the Rotary project, said the visitors are staying in the homes of club members.
Mettee said the program usually groups visiting business executives with others in the same field so their visit to the United States can focus on that area.
Food business: Eleven members of the visiting group are in the food wholesaling business, so their tours here were to include visits to Canteen Food Service in Boardman, Nemenz Markets' central office in Poland, Second Harvest Food Bank in Youngstown and Chieffo Frozen Foods in Niles.
At Kaleel Bros., operations director Walter Kohowski explained details that might seem commonplace for American businesses, such as the computer coding on food cartons. In some cases, businesses in Russian are still marking their inventory by hand, said Russell, who has visited the developing country several times.
Company president Ron Kaleel explained the Kaleels' computerized billing and accounting systems and talked about the company's growth -- he said sales for the distribution business are 20 times what they were when his father, Tom Kaleel, founded the company in downtown Youngstown in 1956.
Success story: Russell said the Russian business people need to hear that kind of family success story, as much as they need facts and figures.
"If they can see what a family-owned business like this can accomplish, it helps them to visualize what they can accomplish in a democracy," he said. "But it takes time. This business didn't grow to what it is today in 10 years. They have to be patient."