Herman Gref enjoys unique standing in today’s Russia. An outspoken advocate of economic reform in an increasingly authoritarian political environment, he’s the market-friendly chair and CEO of the nation’s largest financial institution, Sberbank, which remains profitable in the midst of a two-year economic crisis.

Gref rose to prominence in government and business by impressing future president Vladimir Putin during the 1990s, when both were ambitious junior officials in St. Petersburg’s municipal administration. In 2000, Putin, who had just succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president, appointed Gref minister of Economic Development and Trade. After presiding over an eight-year burst of economic growth, Gref took over as chief executive of Sberbank, then a stodgy Soviet-style savings bank, and turned it into a modern powerhouse offering the full range of retail and wholesale services.

Thanks in large part to its 40 percent market share, Sberbank continues to thrive despite the impact of global sanctions following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the price collapse of oil and gas, the country’s main source of revenue. During a recent visit to meet investors in New York, Gref, a youthful, gym-fit 52, sat down on a cold Saturday morning for a breakfast interview with Institutional Investor.

Can Russia’s economy grow if oil prices remain below $35 a barrel?

Last year the economy shrank by 3.7 percent, and this year our forecast is for another decline of 1.5 to 2 percent, which is more pessimistic than the consensus of –0.9 percent. Next year, if oil prices increase to $45, we may grow 0.5 to 1 percent. But we need reforms that lead to a diversification of the economy away from its dependence on oil and gas. We have to create a radical change in the investment climate. The first and most important measure is to protect property rights and to reform the judicial system involved with that issue. We also need tax reforms that encourage more investment. We must eliminate bureaucratic red tape, beginning at the top federal level. And these reforms must get under way within the next three years.

Do you convey these views to President Putin?

I speak out publicly about these ideas. I do not have frequent meetings with the president. But whenever I can, I convey my views to government officials, including the president. I see this as a first step in gaining acceptance for reforms.