Driving home for Christmas takes on a different dimension if you live in Moscow, but distance or difficult terrain has never been an obstacle for outdoors fanatic John Mark Clancy.
The affable engineer, who hails from the village of Batterstown in Co Meath, has taken the scenic route home every December for the past seven years – with his wife and kids in tow.
"It's a great way to feel the connection across the whole of Europe, between Russia and Ireland, to see the different changes, climate and culture and also to detox from work," says Clancy (41), who racks up more than 50,000km a year in his Land Rover.
The only problem he encounters is explaining to Russian border guards on the return journey why they have 25 kilos of sanctioned Irish butter in the car.
“It’s a very enjoyable experience because I give it five days to get there and five days to come back and I always go a different route,” says Clancy. “Some years I have gone via Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Holland and the UK and other years I have gone through Norway. This year, we went via St Petersburg, Finland and across the Baltic Sea.”
Building and design are in the blood. His father was an architect and his brother and sister are architects, while other members of the family are involved in construction and carpentry.
During his teenage years, Clancy got into farming and tree surgery before taking a course with Coillte in forest maintenance.
“I always had a great love of the outdoors and the wilderness,” he says. “During our childhood in summers and holidays, we spent a lot of time in the west of Ireland which gave me a love of the lakes, the mountains, the ocean and being in open spaces.”
While studying at UCD for a degree in engineering, Clancy took off for the summers to the Yukon and British Columbia in Canada to make use of his forestry skills as a lumberjack.
Upon graduating in 1998, he worked in Dublin as a civil engineer for O’Connor Sutton Cronin. However, Clancy never lost the thirst for adventure and took an 18-month career break to Australia, where he was employed as an engineer in Darwin and a tree surgeon in Queensland.
While in Australia, he made some friends from Finland, who invited him to visit their homeland – and that’s where he met many Russians.
“They invited me to visit them so, in 2003, I took off a few months to travel right across Russia on the Trans-Siberian and then up to Murmansk and then south on my own,” he says. “Outside of Moscow, it was a very different country to now as people were only opening up to outsiders.”
Clancy, who didn’t speak any Russian, used a notebook to draw pictures of what he needed and carried a photo album and an atlas to show people where he was from.
“I was attracted by the expanse of the country and the fact that it was a place that nobody really wanted to go to,” he says. “Sometimes you are better off going down the road that nobody else wants to go down because there will be opportunities.”
Clancy returned home but continued his growing love affair with Russia, including spending several weeks one winter living on an island on the Volga river near Samara.
In 2007, Clancy was working as on a number of housing development projects during the Celtic Tiger. Frustrated by Irish developers’ lack of appetite to develop overseas projects, he quit to join Buro Happold in London as a senior engineer.
“This was a company operating in many parts of the world and they had lots of projects in Russia but not many staff available to go to Russia because the Olympic Games were happening,” he says. “So I took on those projects and went to Russia.”
However, Buro Happold didn’t have the appetite to set up a full-time Moscow office so Clancy set up his own in 2009 with the backing initially of several Irish partners. His first clients were Belgian investors seeking to develop shopping centres in Russia and then his practice was asked to redevelop Moscow’s outlawed casinos into luxury shopping malls.
He started to prosper as other prominent Irish firms, such as Mercury Engineering and Murray O'Laoire architects, began pulling out. The practice has gone on to work for international retailers like Ikea and for many Russian clients, including major residential developers.
“What I learnt from the market in Ireland was that it’s best not to borrow to grow, so we have never taken a rouble in credit,” he says. “A lot of foreign companies had a smash-and-grab approach in that they wanted to make fast money in Russia without trying to develop something long-term and invest in the market. That’s a pity because Russia is an open country for foreigners to live in and for companies to develop, despite the unfair stereotyping.”
Today, his company, Clancy Engineering, has about 50 employees working on projects, including Russia's biggest theme park and the largest wood processing factory in Europe.
“We looked at setting up a Dublin office but it’s too expensive and too competitive right now, he says.
“Unlike in Russia, clients in Ireland take too long to pay and the market here is much safer and much more understandable.”
Clancy has now lived in Russia for 10 years and is planning to stay for another decade. Apart from his Christmas expeditions, he travels home frequently and takes his employees to Ireland every summer for a holiday.
“I don’t miss Ireland because I get home often due to the very generous public holidays here,” he says. “Sometimes, we drive to Europe for holidays the Alps or the Baltics. Even on business trips, I will drive a lot of the time across Russia to see the landscape and to see what’s happening in the regions because you can get a real picture of the infrastructure, housing and if there is money and investment happening.”