Senior vice president Bank of New York Co.

Natasha Gurfinkel has been a source of amazement, if not shock, to those she meets.

In her frequent travels to Russia for the Bank of New York, she does business with people who are "not used to seeing women in banking."

"On the other hand, they're not used to banks -- period says Ms. Gurfinkel, 37, who last October became senior vice president and head of a new division focusing on Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states.

Until a few years ago, the former Soviet Union had just a handful of state-controlled banks. Since then, more than 1,500 private-sector institutions have sprung up. Bank of New York sees opportunities there for its correspondent banking, trade finance, and securities processing businesses.

For Ms. Gurfinkel, a native of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), the job requires not only a familiarity with the Russian language and various cultures, but perseverance and patience. With many countries in her territory dabbling for the first time in free enterprise, customers often need to be educated about international trade.

"Very often you have to start from zero," says Ms. Gurfinkel. "You have to understand [customers'] business needs and try to assess whether they will survive the coming years, often without the benefit of annual reports or any written material."

Bank of New York expects a significant payoff, especially in correspondent banking and trade finance.

Russia is "a very rich country, and trade will be huge," says Ms. Gurfinkel. "The prospects for business are very good, but the time involved in building relationships can be long.

Ms. Gurfinkel spends 20% to 30% of her time on the road and heads a staff of eight bankers.

She joined Irving Bank Corp.'s international division in 1986, and was quickly promoted to assistant secretary and later to assistant vice president. (Irving was acquired by Bank of New York in 1989). In 1990 she became vice president and relationship officer for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union -- the springboard to her present responsibilities.

Banking was not Ms. Gurfinkel's original pursuit. She graduated from Leningrad State University with the Russian equivalent of bachelor's and master's degrees in ancient Oriental studies. After emigrating to the United States in 1979, she attended Princeton University, concentrating on Near Eastern studies.

Though she found that subject fascinating, Ms. Gurfinkel wasn't sure where her specialization would lead. So after leaving Princeton, she entered a management training program at Irving. Her timing was perfect, given the economic changes that ensued.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.