Gulzhan Moldazhanova is annoyed at herself. She keeps losing her leather gloves. She takes enormous pride in her organizational skills and suspects anything that goes missing reflects badly on her. She did, after all, begin her career as a secretary, sorting out the daily routine of a young Russian businessman called Oleg Deripaska. He is now Russia's first- or second-richest oligarch and President Vladimir's Putin's favourite businessman. She, thanks in good part to her efficiency, is his CEO.
Her rise from secretary to the CEO of Russia's biggest and fastest-growing industrial conglomerate, Basic Element, took 10 years; she became Mr. Deripaska's top lieutenant in February, 2005. The next few years will test her to the limit because Basic Element is a company in motion. It's a big player in seven domestic industries, from aluminum and airports to cement and cars, and has 300,000 employees, up from 240,000 in 2006. Last year it had assets of $23-billion (U.S.).
At the rate it's growing that asset figure could soon double. A $1.54-billion stake in Canadian auto parts maker Magna International became part of the Basic Element portfolio in the autumn. A 25-per-cent stake in Russia's Norilsk, the world's biggest nickel maker, and a big oil producer called Russneft are probably next.
It's an open question within Russian business circles whether Ms. Moldazhanova, 41, will be able to cope with this multiheaded monster-in-the-making. But she has surprised her colleagues in the past with her ability to learn about new industries on the fly and please a demanding boss.
"I'm a results-oriented person and I'm not lazy," she says.
Some business associates think Mr. Deripaska would have trouble coping without her. "She's very tough minded and I think Oleg depends a lot on her," says Barbara Jeremiah, the executive vice-president of Alcoa, the American aluminum giant that has done business with UC Rusal, the aluminum maker that is the biggest company in the Basic Element empire.
Klaus Mangold, adviser to Daimler and head of the supervisory board of Rothschild Germany, has known Ms. Moldazhanova for more than five years and talks to her almost every week. He thinks there is little chance she will be sidelined as Basic Element munches its way through Russia. "Oleg is pushing her hard and she has a growing visibility in international circles," he says. "Oleg knows that he cannot do everything himself."
Basic Element, like many companies in the make-it-up-as-you-go world of Russian capitalism, is a mishmash of odd personalities. Georgy Oganov, Oleg Deripaska's chief adviser, was the media relations man at the Soviet embassy in Washington when the Soviet Union imploded. He speaks five languages, including Hindi, and is a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Alexander Lukin, Basic Element's chief financial officer, is 36 and was an executive in the media arm of Gazprom, the world's biggest natural gas company. Most of the executives and senior managers are in their 20s and 30s. Mr. Deripaska is 39.
Then there is Gulzhan Moldazhanova. The petite, soft-spoken woman is from Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan. She is a divorced mother of a three-year-old daughter, Alina. She lives in Moscow, speaks good, if not quite fluent, English and according to Fortune magazine, is the 20th most powerful woman in the world.
Still she is virtually unknown outside of Russia.
Ivan Glasenberg, the CEO of Glencore International, the commodities trader that controls 35 per cent of Xstrata and whose aluminum assets were rolled into the new Rusal, says Ms. Moldazhanova owes her rise to a combination of "strong loyalty" to Mr. Deripaska and keen intelligence.
"She can read a contract in 10 minutes," he says. "With Oleg moving at such a fast pace, he needs someone he can count on to keep up and get things done effectively. She's tough and takes no nonsense from anyone."
Ms. Moldazhanova had an unremarkable childhood in Kazakhstan, the oil-rich, central Asian country that was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence. Her mother was a pharmacist, her father a metallurgy student. Her parents separated and Gulzhan, an only child, was raised by her mother. The little girl found joy in mathematics, was awarded a gold medal in the subject and studied physics at Kazakhstan State University.
She received a doctorate from Moscow University and worked in the university's laboratory. After the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, laboratory workers struggled in underfunded research programs. Ms. Moldazhanova decided to get out.
A friend told her about a job at an aluminum trading company called AluminProduct, run by Oleg Deripaska, another Moscow State grad with a physics background. She became his personal assistant. "I simply saw it as a job that would allow me to buy meals," she says.
The rise to the top
Within weeks of starting the job, she was marked as an employee with a future. She was sent to the Russian government's Finance Academy, where she trained as an accountant.
Equipped with her number-crunching ability, her career took off, though she never imagined she would rise to the executive level. "My interests were still very narrow," she says. "My biggest dream was to make enough money to buy an apartment."
At the time, Mr. Deripaska was on the verge of winning the so-called aluminum wars, the fight among the some of the country's wealthiest and most ruthless men for control of the aluminum smelters in lawless Siberia.
Rusal was formed in 2000 from the metals assets collected by Mr. Deripaska and Roman Abramovich. Three years later Mr. Deripaska bought Mr. Abramovich's Rusal stake and became the undisputed king of Russian aluminum. In 2006 Rusal surpassed Alcoa and Canada's Alcan to become the world's top aluminum maker after merging with rival Sual and the aluminum assets of Glencore. Today, Mr. Deripaska's holding company, Basic Element, owns 66 per cent of Rusal.
Ms. Moldazhanova's rise tracked the rise of the national commodities champion. Between 2000 and 2004, she had careers as Rusal's sales and marketing director and director of strategy and corporate development. She took part in the first meeting, in a London hotel with Mr. Deripaska and Glencore's Glasenberg, that contemplated the injection of Glencore's aluminum business into Rusal.
In late 2004, Ms. Moldazhanova learned Mr. Deripaska was thinking of appointing her CEO of Basic Element. "I was really surprised," she says. "My first thought was that this is going to be a big responsibility. But I also felt like I deserved it. I did a good job for all of the previous 10 years. I never failed to achieve all my goals. I was loyal."
A few months later she was the top female executive in Russia and the top executive to "Mr. D" or "Oleg," as she calls him.
Her title doesn't mean she's the ultimate boss. The company is clearly Mr. Deripaska's show. He relies on her to execute his plans. "Obviously he's the playing coach but he doesn't go into the day-to-day operations," she says. "He supervises the strategic decisions."
Tough and fair are the words most often used to describe her. Ms. Jeremiah, of Alcoa, which bought two Rusal fabricating plants in 2005, says Ms. Moldazhanova understands the concept of a win-win situation in a business market that often still thinks in binary terms - I win, you lose.
"She was clear about what was not negotiable with us, but she was tough with her own colleagues too," she says. "She knew Alcoa could walk away from the deal if Basic Element wasn't somewhat flexible."
'The perfect executioner'
An outside executive who has dealt with Ms. Moldazhanova calls her "the perfect executioner" but thinks she struggles with the concept of independent boards of directors and other features of Western-style governance. This, he said, may impede her progress as Basic Element gains size and taps capital markets to finance its relentless growth (group debt is about $7-billion). The executive also says her cool, hard-to-read demeanour can make business associates feel uncomfortable.
Ms. Moldazhanova is clear about her duties in the next few years. She is not there to run Basic Element's individual companies. She's there to give the companies in the seven broad sectors - energy, resources, manufacturing, financial services, construction, materials and aviation - the tools they need to fend for themselves and seek stock market listings. In short, she says, she's "responsible for finding and training the best people" for the companies and ensuring more co-operation among the managers who, she says, "tend to be one-man shows."
There is little doubt she will rise among the ranks of the world's most powerful women as Basic Element and its businesses expand. But the woman in the middle of the octopus isn't just thinking about empire shaping. She's thinking how she'll find time to spend with her daughter and how to solve the mystery of the missing gloves.
"I'm always in a hurry," she says. "I'm always running along the corridors trying to pick up my phone, talking to my assistants, putting stuff in my pockets. I guess that's why I keep losing gloves."
A brief biography
WHO SHE IS: Chief executive
officer of Basic Element, Russia's biggest industrial conglomerate, owned by Oleg Derispaska
BORN: Kazakhstan; mother was a pharmacist, father a metallurgy student
EDUCATED: Physics at Kazakhstan State University, doctorate from Moscow University
BEGINNINGS: Began as Mr. Derispaska's personal assistant, became his lieutenant in 2005
Russian bear hugs
Basic Element, Oleg Deripaska's ever-expanding industrial colossus, invested $1.54-billion (U.S.) in Canadian auto parts company Magna International.
Delivering Magna's auto assembly technology and expertise to Russia's car industry.The deal
Gazprom, the Kremlin-friendly natural gas monopoly, agreed with Eni, Italy's main energy company, to build a 900-kilometre pipeline under the Black Sea to pump gas to Europe; Gazprom is also gaining access to Italian gas distribution networks.
Controlling Europe's gas markets.
Transmashholding, the dominant train maker, formed two joint ventures with Bombardier Transportation, the train-making arm of Canada's Bombardier; a third joint venture, for bogie production, comes next.
Tightening the links and extending the global reach of the two train titans.