A Russian tour de force

Twelve years ago Oleg Tinkov, the Russian businessman, set up an American-style restaurant and brewery. Its success persuaded him to open restaurants across Russia before selling the brewery for $260m in 2005, and the restaurants for an undisclosed sum four years later.

After agreeing to meet at Tinkoff Brewery (a play on his name) in Moscow, however, the permatanned entrepreneur manages just a few minutes in the midmarket restaurant before announcing he would like to eat elsewhere. Five minutes later, he is happily ensconced in a velvet armchair of an overpriced Italian restaurant next-door, a chandelier sparkling overhead.

A former miner, Mr Tinkov is not one to skimp on luxury. Yet he explains the decision to switch restaurants as a desire to move on from Tinkoff.

Brash and charming, the serial entrepreneur has made a fortune building everything from Technoshock, a chain of electronic stores, to Darya, a line of prepackaged pelmeni (a sort of Russian ravioli).

The 43-year-old typifies a different class of tycoon to Russia’s oligarchs – the stratospherically wealthy businessmen who built empires out of former Soviet state assets in the 1990s. Mr Tinkov, instead, is one of a breed of entrepreneurs who came of age during perestroika in the late 1980s, and seized opportunities provided by the growing market economy to build their own fortunes – a drive he sees lacking in Russia’s current youth.

“My generation, the one which matured during perestroika . . . we all did something with our lives,” he says.

Now Mr Tinkov’s attention is on Russia’s nascent credit card market. Tinkoff Credit Systems, which markets credit cards to people across Russia through direct mail and the internet, is now the second fastest-growing credit card service in the country after state-owned Sberbank.

“For six years I have been focusing on my financial business and I sleep, think and dream only of that,” says Mr Tinkov.

Mr Tinkov began his career working in the shafts of eastern Siberia before leaving to complete a two-year mandatory service in the Soviet army on the border with Japan. On his return, he deemed the mines “damp, cold and dirty”, and decided he would prefer to work in an office as the mine’s director.

In 1989, he enrolled at the Leningrad Mining Institute, but once there became distracted. In his dormitory were students from Tunisia and Singapore selling imported lipsticks and jeans. He realised that such goods would fetch an even higher price in Siberia, and struck up a deal, flying home to sell the goods to former classmates or on the open market with the help of borrowed money from family and friends.

Before long, he was flying to Singapore to bring back the goods himself. “In Russia, it was officially a crime. In reality, everyone did it.”

By his third year at university, in 1990, he was making as much money in a day as his teacher was making in a month, so he quit university. A year later, the Soviet Union fell.

Amid the turmoil, Mr Tinkov admits he did not always play by the book, borrowing money from known criminal organisations offering lower rates than the banks, and running up against local gang members.

Eventually, he was able to open Technoshock, a chain of stores offering legitimate imported electronics. By 1993, the St Petersburg-based company had annual revenues of $10m, affording the 26-year-old Mr Tinkov the chance to live the ultimate post-Soviet dream: emigrating to California. He was quickly disappointed.

“You watch the films and ... you think everyone there is a billionaire ... I realised America was a rich country but the people there weren’t very rich at all,” he says.

Within a year, he was back in Russia. And, after seeing the margins on his electronics business slowly decline, he decided in 1999 to sell the chain.

It was a chance conversation in a Russian sauna with a man who sold Italian ravioli processors that led to his next venture. By the time they were getting dressed, Mr Tinkov had agreed to buy 10 appliances and set about creating Darya, with the idea selling pelmeni in Russian grocery stores and outdoor markets. Within two years, Darya was the number one frozen food producer in Russia, enabling Mr Tinkov to sell the brand to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and owner of England’s Chelsea Football Club, in 2001 for $21m – the largest amount of money he says he had ever seen in his life.

“When I get the money [for selling a business], it compensates for the sadness [of letting it go],” he says. “I open my bank account and look at the money and go – wow, fair enough!”

Inspired by the brochures he received from Capital One, the US financial company, during a second stay in California at the end of the 1990s when he received a masters in marketing from the University of California, Berkeley, he set up the credit card company.

In addition to using direct mail, Tinkoff Credit Systems, which counts Goldman Sachs as a minority shareholder, relies on internet advertising. Dispensing with bricks and mortar outlets works well in Russia, where companies struggle to expand across the country due to the lack of infrastructure and the vast distances.

According to Euromonitor, the data agency, credit card ownership in Russia is expected to grow by almost 50 per cent over the next five years to 14.2m, as is the volume of credit card transactions.

“Banking. Plastic. It’s sexy,” Mr Tinkov says, switching from Russian to show off his self-taught English.

Today the entrepreneur splits his time between St Petersburg, Tuscany and Marin County, California, where his neighbours include the actor Sean Penn – a name he casually drops into conversation.

When not consumed by his credit card business, Mr Tinkov hosts Business Secrets, an online interview show, in which he quizzes his peers such as Yelena Baturina, the wife of the former Moscow mayor and Russia’s richest woman.

Mr Tinkov’s biggest passion is cycling. An athlete in his youth, Mr Tinkov picked up the sport again in his late 30s, creating his own team, named first after the brewery and then the bank.

He has also recently published a memoir, the modestly titled I’m Just Like Anyone, which contains many photographs of Mr Tinkov posing in both business suits and tight neon swimming trunks.

The book’s real purpose, he says, is about convincing the younger Russian generation to set up businesses.

“I want entrepreneurship in this country to advance so that fewer people work at Gazprom [the oil and gas monopoly] with fat faces and grey suits, and more people become young, innovative entrepreneurs,” he says.

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