March 2, 2012 2:13 pm

Oil trader Gunvor buys Petroplus refinery

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Oil trader Gunvor said it had bought a Belgian refinery from Petroplus, the Swiss refiner that filed for insolvency in January, in the latest example of commodities trading houses diversifying away from pure trading operations.

Geneva-based Gunvor said it expected its purchase of the Antwerp refinery, which closed down in early February, to be completed within six to eight weeks and that it intended to restart the plant as soon as possible.

It said the deal was in line with its recent investments in oil infrastructure and its “stated strategy to become vertically integrated”. “We are confident we will be able to integrate [Antwerp] fully with our trading operation to ensure it becomes a profitable and sustainable part of our infrastructure portfolio,” said Gunvor’s chief executive Torbjorn Tornqvist.

Petropolus was a casualty of the sharp downturn in the European refining industry, which has been hurt by weakening demand for transport fuel as a result of the economic downturn, overcapacity and growing competition from super-refineries in Asia. Its large Coryton refinery in Essex is currently in the hands of administrators PwC.

The Antwerp refinery can process more than 100,000 barrels a day of oil, and has storage capacity of more than 1.2 million cubic metres. Though not the most valuable of Petroplus’s refining assets, it is strategically located in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp oil trading hub.

But Gunvor’s move comes with the European refining industry still under pressure. “Last year was a reprieve, because we didn’t see any net capacity additions,” said Francis Osborne of KBC Energy Economics. “But the outlook for refining margins remains bleak.”

Gunvor has climbed from niche player in 2003 to become one of the world’s largest independent commodity trading companies. It is co-owned by Gennady Timchenko, the Russian tycoon with longstanding links to Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who has in recent years expanded his empire into natural gas production, sea ports and coal mines.

Gunvor’s move reflects a broader trend in the industry, as trading houses diversify into the “downstream” part of the oil business. Oil trader Vitol bought a refinery in Fujairah, in the UAE, in 2007, and another Antwerp refinery from Petroplus in 2009. It also owns terminals in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Argentina.

Last year, Vitol teamed up with Helios Investment Partners, an Africa-focused private equity group, to buy into Royal Dutch Shell’s oil products, distribution and retailing businesses in Africa.

Gunvor itself recently agreed to build an oil storage and trading terminal in São Tomé and Príncipe, which it hopes to turn into a regional hub to transport oil to Africa.

“Traders like refineries because it gives them storage capacity, jetties and terminals, to support their trading operations,” said KBC’s Mr Osborne.

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