Friday, June 7, 2019

From Russian oil to rock’n’roll: the upward thrust of Len Blavatnik

Striding the halls of an English stately domestic, dressed in full costume as Victorian major minister Benjamin Disraeli, Len Blavatnik changed into celebrating his 60th birthday. Grammy-winner Bruno Mars sang. visitors — some in frock coats, others dressed as Leo Tolstoy, Rasputin or chinese emissaries — combined with rock stars, celebrities and enterprise tycoons. 

Themed as an imaginary convention chaired with the aid of Disraeli, the June 2017 birthday celebration become emblematic of Blavatnik's amazing upward push from his beginning in Soviet Ukraine to one of the vital UK's richest americans.

Clues to his success lay in the guest record that night. Pillars of the British establishment rubbed shoulders with Russian oligarchs. American leisure executives mingled with former Kremlin apparatchiks as film stars sipped champagne.

Straddling these worlds was Blavatnik, an entrepreneur who reaped extra special riches from the chaotic world of Nineteen Nineties Russian cowboy capitalism, and who cashed in that wealth in favour of western investments and a spot in British and American high society. 

Over two many years, he extracted more than $14bn from Russia's natural elements industry, the greatest fiscal gain of any individual foreign investor within the country and the bedrock of his approximate $25bn net wealth these days, as estimated by Bloomberg. 

Len Blavatnik together with his wife Emily Appelson, at an event in big apple in October 2016 marking his donation to Carnegie corridor © Clint Spaulding/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

"He made his cash [in Russia], just about all his money here, after which simply made investments backyard," says Viktor Vekselberg, Blavatnik's school pal, with whom he partnered to own essential stakes in Russia's greatest aluminium enterprise and its third-greatest oil producer. "I don't see that he made some huge cash outside Russia, sorry. All his main funds, he made here in Russia, with me." 

below a year after the birthday celebration, Vekselberg and the aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska — two men with whom Blavatnik had made billions of greenbacks — would be sanctioned through the USA, excluded from the western financial device and made foreign pariahs. In stark contrast, Blavatnik turned into named Sir Leonard in the days after the birthday celebration, knighted via the Queen for his philanthropic work just seven years after obtaining British citizenship. 

How did Blavatnik convert his Russian-made billions right into a seat at the accurate desk of the British institution while fending off the destiny of many contemporaries? The reply lies partly in assiduous acceptance management. Few in the west, outside elite enterprise circles, comprehend of the Siberian aluminium deals or court docket battles for control of oil assets that built his first fortune. and that's how he likes it. 

Blavatnik's certainly massive gifts to revered western associations, from Tate to Harvard, have earned him admiration as one of the world's most generous philanthropists. at the identical time he has maintained an obsessional degree of privacy around his personal lifestyles, fending off the pitfalls of oligarchs similar to Roman Abramovich or Deripaska.

possibly most importantly, unlike his friends who made similar fortunes from the former united states of america's big herbal substances, Blavatnik instructed away from the Kremlin, leaving it to his companions to address the political ties required of large Russian companies. He therefore prevented a Faustian pact that offered budding oligarchs asset coverage in trade for loyalty: it changed into to turn into a critical difference, given today's western backlash in opposition t President Vladimir Putin and his court.

Blavatnik's business companion Viktor Vekselberg with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi, 2014. Vekselberg says of Blavatnik: 'He became a companion with whom I could discuss and attain the right determination. If I had been alone, for sure i would have made blunders' © AFP

Blavatnik's pivot to western investments and excessive-profile philanthropy changed into exquisitely timed. In 2013, a year before Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow's overseas attractiveness begun to plummet, he very nearly totally cashed out of Russia and refocused on a world conglomerate that spans chemical substances massive LyondellBasell, Hollywood films, luxurious motels such because the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, and Warner tune community.

"He saw his enterprise in Russia as working in an rising market," says Mark Garber, a close chum. "Like an American businessman who invests in Africa, as an instance, but doesn't dive in fully. He was very smart to take all his money out, invest it, and keep it safely hidden away."

Many Russian-made billionaires have sought to construct a profile within the west, only to be caught out because the geopolitical faultlines between Russia and the united states have widened in contemporary years. folks that tried to preserve their have an impact on in Moscow whereas building new lives in Europe or the united states have discovered themselves shunned via each. 

To the tycoons with whom he used to associate, Blavatnik's place is a supply of jealousy and perplexity. "It's loopy how he has managed it, no person knows how and everybody wants to," says one Russian-born billionaire with a home in London. 

Of the dozens of Blavatnik's enterprise companions, friends, personnel and former friends that the feet spoke to for this article, just about all factor to his skill at exploiting his Soviet roots while always positioning himself as an outsider in Russia and a native within the west. 

Blavatnik declined a request for an interview with the ft for this article. His head of press members of the family asks newshounds to verify that Blavatnik aren't called an oligarch in any article before agreeing to organize competencies interviews. those that do use that be aware are left to face complaints from his legal professionals, who also protest when the fact of his Ukrainian beginning is publicised with out clarity about his US and UK citizenships.

Lincoln Benet, chief govt of access, the maintaining business that Blavatnik created in 1986, tells the feet that his boss may still be written about with "a combination of generosity and admiration . . . what number of americans do you know who can be engaged [sic] with Ed Sheeran, in addition to, you be aware of, being on the Harvard medical college, or with [former BP chief] John Browne?"

it's a excellent place to be in. it is additionally a case examine within the emollient vigour of billionaire philanthropy, during a period when western politicians of all stripes went out of their technique to welcome the global super-prosperous.

Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik was born in 1957 in Odessa, the Black Sea port in nowadays's Ukraine. His parents moved to Yaroslavl, a Russian metropolis north of Moscow, when Blavatnik became a baby. He and Vekselberg, an additional Ukrainian Jew, became shut pals at some of the best high-rating schools in Moscow to accept Jewish people, who have been then subject to common discrimination within the nation.

on the age of 21, Blavatnik moved to South Brooklyn, ny. Over the subsequent decade, he flourished in his new domestic: earning a masters in computer science at Columbia and an MBA at Harvard company college, falling in love with and marrying Emily Appelson, an American media executive he met at a residence celebration. Leonid became Leonard and gained US citizenship in 1984. He created access as an funding automobile. via the conclusion of the Eighties, he had made his first million dollars.

That CV would later be important to his success in Russia. There, very nearly the entire would-be oligarchs had been instructing themselves capitalism as they went alongside, and here became a Russian-speakme millionaire with an American passport. "Len become very a whole lot a person of the world, even back then," says one longstanding business accomplice. "He had been informed within the US, he understood funds and foreign finance as if it have been 2d nature. He had been informed. within the strange inequality of the Soviet Union, that made him diverse."

It became his historical chum Vekselberg, after a chance meeting within the late Nineteen Eighties at a US petrochemicals exhibition, who convinced him that giant riches were lying in wait in the former usa. 

"i was very sceptical. I'd been residing in the united states for a very long time and had a company," Blavatnik told a 2015 gala in Moscow celebrating 25 years considering that the founding of their partnership, in keeping with a video of his speech seen by means of the feet. "however Viktor's magnificent powers of persuasion prevailed."

quickly both guys have been huddled round a small desk in Vekselberg's cramped Moscow residence, the place he lived with his spouse, daughter and in-laws. ("these 23 square metres had been a key a part of why i needed to go into private company," Vekselberg advised the gala.) They install a company: Renova, a nod to the perestroika — renovation — initiative that allowed for personal company within the Soviet Union. 

"folks that remember understand how company become being executed at that time: morning, afternoon and night meetings began with a shot of vodka," Blavatnik told the viewers, describing how they'd drive round in a beaten-up Soviet Volga with a big briefcase filled with papers and a BB gun. 

The market the younger pals were trying to spoil into in the early Nineteen Nineties changed into no longer for the timid. encouraged by way of western advisers, then-president Boris Yeltsin became promoting off scores of state-owned mines, refineries and factories in commonly dubiously administered tenders. 

Blavatnik had each the international cachet to appeal to overseas backers and the local smarts required to prevail. "He is familiar with Russian suggestions very smartly, and used these rules as an awful lot as some other. You have to be friendly with the authorities, and in case you can take whatever, you take," says a native businessman who become operating on the identical time.

A plant at aluminium significant Rusal. Blavatnik was a board member from 2007 to 2016 © Bloomberg

With Vekselberg coping with a whole lot of the local work and Blavatnik working international income from long island, their preliminary moves were in Russia's aluminium enterprise. The pair begun collecting shares in smelters during a length when violence, extortion and organised crime have been real threats. The period become later dubbed the "aluminium wars". but there become extra funds to be made in oil. 

In 1997, Blavatnik and Vekselberg teamed up with a different Ukrainian-born businessman, Mikhail Fridman, co-founding father of considered one of Russia's most critical and influential conglomerates, Alfa community, who would himself go on to amass a multibillion-dollar fortune. 

The trio launched AAR (Alfa, access, Renova) and acquired forty per cent of a struggling oil producer known as TNK for $800m. The smooth turned into run through Alfred Kokh, a executive reliable and chum of Blavatnik's (Kokh later joined the board of TNK). Working with Fridman's Alfa community took Blavatnik and Vekselberg, relative rookies among the many rising tycoons, to a different degree. "perhaps [Vekselberg] knew some governors the place the factories have been, however nothing on the degree of [the major oligarchs]," Kokh tells the toes.

Alfa owned one of Russia's biggest banks and had helped bankroll Yeltsin's re-election crusade. Fridman's associate was former privatisation adviser Pyotr Aven, who dealt with the community's govt family members. With Alfa as a accomplice, Blavatnik won the political clout he had previously lacked — and turned into averse to building himself. AAR quickly received full manage of TNK and began seeking to extend aggressively, through buying property from opponents. 

One such rival become Sidanco, part-owned by means of British oil major BP. through controversial bankruptcy complaints, it changed into systematically damaged up towards its homeowners' will and its premier property bought off, specially to TNK, for prices under the cost of their reserves. 

A 1999 lawsuit brought in big apple accused Blavatnik, access and its companions of getting "stolen" assets from Sidanco. Blavatnik's aspect sought to have the lawsuit pushed aside. It became later dropped after the corporations merged. 

The felony blowback to this audacious empire-constructing unnerved Blavatnik, in accordance with a couple of folks that worked with him on the time. whereas Fridman and Vekselberg became smartly wide-spread in the rough and tumble of Russia's early capitalism, Blavatnik sought a decrease profile — a intelligent approach that might later smooth his route within the west. 

"He by no means in fact tried to have any deep ties to the Kremlin as far as I may tell," Kokh says. "He didn't do any executive members of the family or administration. That changed into all his companions. He in no way received into it himself." 

Blavatnik's function lay elsewhere as the bridge to BP, which was still seething after losing more than $200m through Sidanco's dismemberment. When Browne, BP's chief executive, refused to speak with Fridman for a whole yr, Blavatnik carried out again-channel talks with Rodney Chase, Browne's deputy. 

"I labored here [in Russia], he became backyard," Vekselberg tells the ft. "He was a companion with whom I might focus on and reach the correct determination. If I had been alone, for bound i might have made blunders. he is a greater balanced adult, he included me from sharp statements. [He would say] 'Wait, don't try this.' i am able to fight more — he's a extra peaceable grownup, a communicator."

Then BP chief John Browne, Vekselberg and Blavatnik at a press convention in Moscow, 2003 © Getty

The outreach labored. In 2003, four years after BP had sued TNK and its homeowners for casting off its most reliable Russian asset, the British business spent $8bn to form TNK-BP in Russia's biggest foreign funding deal, giving Blavatnik, Vekselberg and Fridman billions of bucks, and the cachet of blue-chip western partners. 

"I knew that placing extra cash into a rustic where we had already had our fingers burnt changed into high possibility," Browne wrote in his memoir past business (2010). "[But] to me it was elementary to be there."

whereas his partners embraced their new prominence as Russian billionaires, Blavatnik moved in an additional path. A year after the TNK-BP settlement, signed all the way through Putin's state discuss with to the uk, Blavatnik spent some of his estimated $2bn proceeds on a £41m, 10-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens, bookended with the aid of the Russian and Israeli embassies. 

The circulate propelled him into London's elite. In contrast, and in a sign of their diverging priorities, Vekselberg splashed $100m on a group of nine Fabergé imperial Easter eggs, asserting he wanted to "give lower back to my nation some of its most revered treasures".

whereas Vekselberg oversaw the aluminium and oil assets in Russia, Blavatnik concentrated on putting down roots in London. He befriended Browne, a popular member of the British establishment, who begun introducing him in the social circles that might later toast his 60th birthday. He grew to become near Lord George Weidenfeld, the late publishing magnate, who inspired him to make donations to academic institutions, and he employed Sir Michael Pakenham, a individual former British diplomat, as an adviser. All three helped acquaint him with excessive society. 

Blavatnik owns several luxury motels, including the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat in the south of France © Getty

Blavatnik also varied his business away from Russia. In 2004, he bought a stake in Warner track, and a year later paid $5.7bn for Basell Polyolefins, a huge petrochemicals producer. those that worked, invested or socialised with Blavatnik within the US or the uk all through this duration say he very hardly referred to his Russian assets. 

"I knew next to nothing — maybe not even next to — about what he became doing in Russia," says Edgar Bronfman Jr, the us businessman who later offered him the leisure of Warner music.

by means of then, access was in impact two agencies, one overseeing Blavatnik's tremendously ecocnomic however low-protection Russian fortune, yet another for his chemicals and entertainment corporations. "He at all times told me that his claim to reputation became he made most of his funds whereas being a minority companion," says Alexander Akopov, Blavatnik's longtime accomplice in the Russian media trade. "Which skill that he's all the time a man who can find the appropriate individuals who're doing the right issues and turn into a part of it at a very good moment."

In 2008, long-simmering tensions between TNK and BP exploded into public view, when Russian armed police raided the business's Moscow office. Months later, Bob Dudley, the three way partnership's BP-appointed chief government, fled Russia claiming sustained harassment. BP claimed its Russian companions had been trying to take control of the total company. 

while the tycoons have always denied involvement in what a leaked US diplomatic cable described as a concerted campaign to "dispose of the western managers", Dudley become ultimately replaced as head by means of Fridman.

The tussle became a headache for Blavatnik, who, in contrast to his partners, had a profile in London and ny to agonize about. but he become rewarded for sticking with TNK-BP in 2013 when AAR sold its stake to Russian oil business Rosneft for $28bn. Blavatnik instantly invested his $7bn windfall within the west. "It was probably probably the most successful repatriation of assets from Russia in historical past," says one Soviet-born oligarch working at the same time.

Blavatnik succeeded in Russia while staying out of the highlight. His actions in the west had been more conspicuous. His buy of Warner music for $3.3bn in 2011 turned into the 1st step in what he mentioned turned into a mission to build a world media empire. "After he obtained into the music enterprise . . . he informed me, 'There won't be any cash, nonetheless it'll be fun,'" says Garber. "Now, a whole lot later, he says, 'There's funds, however it's no fun.'"

Blavatnik's chums say he is drawn to amusement through an inherent ability for the theatrical. "He loves performing a task . . . it enables him to calm down, de-stress," says Vekselberg. He had a cameo because the Swedish ambassador in a Russian mini-sequence about Ivan the terrible's grandmother. At a Nineteen Thirties-themed US embassy birthday party in Moscow in 2010, he regarded in a Soviet typical's tunic, notwithstanding none of the different guests become in costume. 

Blavatnik with Ed Sheeran at a party following the Brit Awards in 2015

With Rita Ora at a pre-Grammy celebration in la this year

With Chris Martin of Coldplay at a Grammy social gathering in LA in 2014

"The enjoyment company has given Len three issues: it has been [a] giant funding, it has given him loads of pleasure, and it has improved his visibility," says Bronfman. "however, visibility is a double-edged sword . . . With [his money] comes lots of scrutiny, which i am not certain is fully welcome."

Like many billionaire philanthropists, Blavatnik has channelled this scrutiny in particular approaches. whereas he is intensely private about his enterprise pastimes in Russia and barely offers interviews, he has ensured his identify is well known in a number of cultural associations across the world. encouraged by using Weidenfeld and masterminded by way of Browne, Blavatnik donated £75m to Oxford school in 2010 to installation the Blavatnik college of executive. 

A donation of greater than £50m — an amount "basically unprecedented in Tate's historical past", in accordance with its then director — helped finance Tate contemporary's Blavatnik constructing. That gift was also brokered by Browne, then chair of the museum's trustees (the position is now held by the toes's editor Lionel Barber). the new entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum is termed the Blavatnik corridor. A $200m donation to Harvard clinical school ultimate year install the Blavatnik Institute. 

Blavatnik donated £75m to Oxford college in 2010 to installation the Blavatnik school of government © Getty

"He naturally desires to be certain that there is a legacy of philanthropy that he can depart, in addition to a legacy of business," says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard business school, Blavatnik's alma mater and one other recipient of his donations. "He wants to do things on the way to have enduring have an effect on."

"He's like [oil barons] Armand Hammer, [Calouste] Gulbenkian: an historical-faculty foreign businessman," says Kokh. "each person has their own agenda. Blavatnik likes having his identify on buildings. So what?"

Yet Blavatnik's donations have met some resistance in the west. The 2010 donation to Oxford sparked a backlash from teachers and activists who said the tuition was "selling its popularity and prestige to Putin's pals" and may reject the money because of Blavatnik's involvement with the TNK-BP dispute. 

power improved after suspicions arose within the US that Russia helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. In 2017, a professor at Blavatnik's Oxford college resigned after it emerged that Blavatnik's company had donated $1m to Trump's inauguration committee. 

last December, Charles Davidson, director of an anti-kleptocracy programme at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think-tank, give up after Blavatnik bought a $50,000 desk at its annual gala. Davidson mentioned "the influence of Putin's oligarchs on the usa's political equipment and society [and] the importation of corrupt Russian business practices and values". Hudson back the donation. 

In an announcement, Blavatnik's spokesman alleged that Davidson's departure changed into "already planned and overdue" and that Davidson desired to "have it seem that he become resigning as a remember of principle rather than for cause". (The believe-tank and Davidson declined to remark.) 

In Russia, Blavatnik's charitable giving sets him apart from different billionaires general for splurging on football clubs and yachts. "at the least college campuses get constructed," says Alexei Navalny, an opposition chief and fierce critic of Putin's oligarchic entourage. "so far as Russia and that i are involved, he's now not a political oligarch. He isn't purchasing newspapers right here, he isn't intimidating journalists, he in fact isn't involved with Putin at all."

Blavatnik's repute within the west has evidently been blanketed by way of the concerted effort he made to distance himself from Russian politics and, in specific, from Putin. Blavatnik's representatives say he has no longer met the Russian president due to the fact 2000. Kremlin officials inform the ft that he was never a daily tourist. chums say Vekselberg often represented their shared pursuits.

Blavatnik has been less guarded when it comes to US politics. whereas he has donated to each Democrats and Republicans over the past decade, within the lead-up to the 2016 election he and his organizations donated more than $6m to Republican campaigns. As smartly as the donation to Trump's inauguration committee, Vekselberg instructed the feet he sat on a table paid for by way of Blavatnik at the inauguration birthday celebration. (Blavatnik's spokesman denied this and observed in an announcement that Blavatnik "did not meet or communicate with Viktor Vekselberg" at the inauguration.) 

Blavatnik shakes Donald Trump's hand at an exclusive pre-inauguration adventure in January 2017 © Clint Spaulding/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

In April 2018, the USA sanctioned Vekselberg — plus Deripaska and 5 other Russian oligarchs and their businesses — for "malign actions" in guide of Putin's regime. along with having to surrender manage of his organizations to keep them working, Vekselberg is banned from doing business with any US citizens, including Blavatnik. "Of route, last yr it became delicate for all and sundry," Vekselberg tells the ft. "Legally, [Blavatnik and I] cannot speak. sometimes, he gets a licence [from the US Treasury], we are able to talk."

When requested if he may think about doing company with his former companion once again, Vekselberg pauses. "here is not an easy time, emotionally. It is not convenient. pretty much, it can be elaborate [to work with him again]. make sure to take note our relationship. Len is my buddy. he is very active in Russia, but very hardly asks me to assist him in Russia, as a result of he has his own connections. i'm energetic within the US, however hardly ever ask him for assist there. here's our relationship."

There isn't any point out of Russian company actions in Blavatnik's biography on access's web site, nor hint of its last Russian industrial asset: its stake in Sual companions, the automobile nevertheless collectively managed with the aid of him and Vekselberg. Sual owns a 26.5 per cent stake within the aluminium huge Rusal, where Blavatnik became a board member from 2007 to 2016. 

Rusal turned into taken off the sanctions record in January this yr after Deripaska reached an agreement with Washington to give up handle of the enterprise. Days later, Democratic lawmakers accused Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin of cutting Rusal a beneficial deal and alleged he had a conflict of hobby after entry bought a stake in a movie company linked to Mnuchin in 2017.

each entry and Mnuchin deny that Blavatnik's business got any shares from Mnuchin. In a press release, Blavatnik's spokesman talked about: "Neither Mr Blavatnik nor any entry-related particular person or representative has ever engaged in any lobbying activities with regard to Rusal."

The decision to lift sanctions on Rusal nonetheless boosted Blavatnik's wealth: the shares entry holds in Sual provide it an indirect stake in Rusal of lower than 10 per cent within the $5.5bn business.

It has been very nearly three decades considering that Blavatnik and Vekselberg sat on a brand new York rooftop and mentioned the riches on offer in Russia. nowadays, thanks partially to the money they made collectively, Blavatnik owns property value more than $250m in long island, whereas Vekselberg is banned from visiting.

"Len and Viktor selected distinct paths. there's a fight between Russia and the west. It is not a really wise battle. but Viktor selected the incorrect aspect. And Blavatnik chose the appropriate aspect, the more desirable facet," says the Soviet-born oligarch who made his fortune on the identical time. "[Len] grew to be Lord of the Dance . . . a Sir, a noble person. Viktor is the area's enemy."

simply as there will likely on no account once again be the sort of wonderful shift of wealth from public to private hands as he and his friends enjoyed after the crumple of the Soviet Union, there'll additionally likely in no way be another Blavatnik. The gates by which his fortune handed from east to west have slammed shut. His rise took region during a period of late-20th and early-21st century capitalism when money flowed with mind-blowing freedom across borders and oceans, and when the western establishment eagerly welcomed the homeowners of that cash.

"i want to congratulate Viktor, and additionally thank him for persuading me to delivery a joint enterprise decades ago," Blavatnik mentioned at the 2015 gala in Moscow. "Thanks again, that you simply persuaded me on that roof." 

Henry Foy is the toes's Moscow bureau chief. Max Seddon is an toes Moscow correspondent

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