Seated in her plush apartment in one of Moscow's Stalin skyscrapers, Yelena Andreyeva, in her 30s, hardly projects the image of a tough, self-made businesswoman. Her appearance would never suggest that she is in charge of an army of men.
Andreyeva, however, is the mastermind behind the Bastion network of security service firms, the iron hand in charge of more than 1,000 male guards.
The fact that she's a woman at first a shock to colleagues, partners and employees is not an issue when it comes to business and does not interfere with her success in running Bastion, one of the largest of Moscow's 3,000 security firms.
For Andreyeva, it all started with a feminine-enough profession. A graduate from a college of light industry, she set up a clothing-manufacturing company in the early 1990s, with high-priced furs as one of her products.
But that was at the start of newly capitalist Russia's Wild West era, and Andreyeva realized she would have to hire guards to protect the valuable furs. She soon saw how many other companies were hiring their own armed protection which helped give her the idea to create her own security firm.
The resulting company, started from her profits from the clothing business, at first took losses because of the hefty sums required to obtain licenses, hire guards and buy their guns. But with armed security in such demand, the company eventually turned profitable, even eclipsing the clothing enterprise.
Andreyeva said she now devotes 80 percent of her time to the security business, although she still continues to run a scaled-down clothing business, gives lectures at Moscow's design and technology university and studies at the State Law Academy.
Bastion, with approximately 50 permanent business clients, offers not only bodyguard services but also financial consulting to building companies, banking groups, oil companies, hotels, nightclubs and individuals in a tight spot.
In sticky situations, Andreyeva helps her clients keep their heads on their shoulders literally, sometimes.
"We often deal with situations when people seem to have run out of resources and are on the verge of collapse," Andreyeva said.
She recalls one incident in which a business client hit by the 1998 financial crisis was unable to pay off his creditors. The client himself was acting aggressively with the creditors, said Andreyeva, who added that immediate action had to be taken to rescue him from a potentially dangerous situation of his own making.
"When he told me how he'd behaved, I was surprised to see he was still alive," Andreyeva said. "He was threatening his creditors. In many cases, that kind of behavior would have led to the creditors simply killing him and taking over [his business]. We sat down and worked out a way to deal with the situation."
She said she has continued to build up her clientele by helping to sort out and sometimes prevent financial disputes among former partners, protecting them from criminal interference.
Bastion also helps Western businesspeople by checking out the legitimacy of Russian partners-to-be, looking into their financial backgrounds and possible criminal records.
Andreyeva, however, insisted that her business has nothing to do with the notorious Russian notion of "krysha," which translates as "roof" and is slang for shady protection by the mafia. She said her company keeps fully abreast of Russian business and criminal law and solves all cases legally.
"We have been asked to help one company sort out a conflict with their partners with threats and force, but this is illegal and something we will never do for any sum of money. Krysha is extorting money for a service that you don't provide," Andreyeva said.
She said that in her line of business, it does not matter if you are a man or a woman, you just have to do your job well.
"At first sight, even for people who come to us on recommendation, it is still a shock to see me when their business is at stake and their life and their family are in danger," she said. "Looking at me, they see a soft woman and think that their burden is too heavy for female shoulders."
At the beginning, she acknowledged, "they just wrote me off as a woman who had a powerful man supporting her. They were not prepared to face the fact that the whole business was my own doing."
But, later, "When we sit down, talk, outline all the plausible ways out of a deadlock and analyze their case in minute detail, they gradually come to grips with the situation," she said.
In fact, having a woman deal with such problems also can produce a sedative effect, Andreyeva explained. "They might think, well, if she's not afraid, maybe I shouldn't be either."
As part of her law studies to obtain a PhD, Andreyeva has been preparing her thesis on methods of preventing organized crime in the sphere of the economy and a new concept for national security.
Andreyeva's satisfied clients would doubtless say it would be hard to find a better writer on the subject than someone who's been putting those theories into practice for the past seven years.