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November 16, 2012 8:08 pm

Alisher Usmanov: Uzbek eyes a prize listing

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The billionaire businessman reflects the new style of oligarch that puts a premium on loyalty and predictability
Person in the news

When Alisher Usmanov met Lloyd Blankfein on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum in June, the two men appeared to strike up a rapport. The Uzbek-born billionaire and the chairman of Goldman Sachs discussed the planned initial public offering of Megafon, the mobile phone company owned by Mr Usmanov, say people familiar with the conversation. Mr Blankfein courted Mr Usmanov, one of Russia’s most powerful and best-connected businessmen, for an insight into upcoming deals.

Within months, everything had changed. By early October, Goldman had dropped Mr Usmanov and the Megafon deal, throwing a spanner in the company’s IPO plans and launching a storm of bad publicity around Mr Usmanov personally.

Goldman declined to comment on its reasons for quitting the IPO. Morgan Stanley, Sberbank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse and VTB are still working on the deal, which began formal marketing on Thursday after receiving delayed approval from the UK regulator, which appeared to have been shaken by Goldman’s exit.

Should the deal, which could raise as much as $2.1bn, go through, it would be the biggest flotation by a Russian company in nearly three years. If it flops, it will be another setback for Mr Usmanov, a symbol of a class of powerful Russian businessmen who work closely with the state, and his plans to take his empire public.

Businessmen close to the 59-year-old oligarch say he was dumbstruck by Goldman’s move. In his world, loyalty and predictability are prized above all else, and it is partly because of his strict adherence to such a code that he has risen so far in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin.

Today’s oligarchs are not the brash, buccaneering variety of the 1990s, who wielded both wealth and influence in Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin. Putin-era billionaires such as Mr Usmanov are expected to respect state power in order to thrive.

It was in this context that Mr Usmanov – worth $18bn, according to Forbes – bought the art estate of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and then donated it to the state. It was also for that reason, analysts say, that he agreed to take a stake in Megafon, interceding in a years-long shareholder feud that was damaging Russia’s investment climate.

“Usmanov is known as a person able to resolve delicate situations to the satisfaction of all the parties,” says Ivan Streshinsky, a long-time associate.

That is not all he is known for. The 45 pages of Megafon’s IPO investor prospectus entitled “Risk factors” includes “media speculation” about Mr Usmanov’s alleged mafia ties and the six years he spent in an Uzbek jail in the 1980s, along with more media speculation that the real owner of a large share in Megafon might be Leonid Reiman, a former communications minister.

This week it also emerged that a public relations firm had tampered with Mr Usmanov’s Wikipedia page to remove mention of an incident in which the billionaire had allegedly threatened bloggers who repeated allegations that he was a “gangster and racketeer”, and also edited out mentions of his jail term.

Mr Usmanov and his partners deny issuing such threats, deny having any ties to organised crime groups, and he and Megafon’s management deny Mr Reiman is a shareholder. Andrei Skoch, a long-time friend and business partner, blames Mr Usmanov’s fraud conviction in 1980 on enemies of his father, a local Uzbek prosecutor. The criminal charges were overturned in 2000.

The criminal conviction did dash Mr Usmanov’s dreams of a career as a diplomat moving between the world’s capitals, an ambition forged in a remote corner of central Asia in his native Uzbekistan, where he was born in 1953 in the small city of Chust, a place renowned as home of the traditional Uzbek skullcap.

Once out of jail Mr Usmanov built up a number of small businesses before consolidating some of Russia’s biggest metal and steel holdings into holding company Metalloinvest in 2006. Since then he has expanded outside Russia: acquiring stakes in internet groups such as Facebook and Groupon, and buying properties and trophy sporting assets in London as well as some of Russia’s most prestigious media properties.

Some international ventures have been less than happy. At Arsenal, the English Premier League football club in which he holds a near 30 per cent stake, he has waged a running battle with the board, criticising strategy and complaining that the best players have been let go.

Football is one of his passions, along with opera, ballet and fencing.

His approach to business involves close attention to detail. Despite poor eyesight, he is said to read up to 300 pages of analytics, reports and news items a day that are tirelessly rewritten into Russian by a retained group of round-the-clock translators.

Close links to the Kremlin have not harmed his prospects, say analysts. In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, Metalloinvest received Rb61bn in bailout loans from state bank VTB, allowing Mr Usmanov not only to emerge from the crisis unscathed but also in the same year to spend $200m on a 2 per cent stake in Facebook through Digital Sky Technologies, a company in which he is a shareholder.

Associates say any political connections are normal. “With the scale and size of his business it would be misleading to say he has no relationship with the authorities – just like any major business leader in the world,” says Mr Streshinsky.

But Mr Usmanov’s political allegiances came under scrutiny last year when he fired two executives at his news weekly Kommersant Vlast because of a cover, published at the peak of mass anti-government protests in Moscow, that featured an obscene comment about Mr Putin.

Critics saw this as trampling on editorial freedom. Friends say he acted for reasons of taste. “He’s an old-fashioned guy. This overstepped the bounds of decency,” says Mr Streshinsky. “This has nothing to do with freedom of speech”.

Additional reporting by Roger Blitz

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