Analysis: Combative oligarch who stays out of politics

Russian billionaire with instinct for survival increasingly looking to invest outside country

Mikhail Fridman, co-owner of Alfa-Bank and a partner in TNK-BP Holding, has eschewed sensitive sectors such as the media

Mikhail Fridman, co-owner of Alfa-Bank and a partner in TNK-BP Holding, has eschewed sensitive sectors such as the media

 

Julian Horn-Smith is the common denominator between Denis O’Brien and Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman. For most of the last decade, the former Vodafone executive has served on the board of O’Brien’s Caribbean outfit Digicel, as well as the telecoms arm of Fridman’s Alfa group.

Born in 1964 in Lviv, western Ukraine, Fridman began his career by reselling rugs and theatre tickets before founding Alfa-Eco in 1989.

This developed into the Alfa Group, which has interests ranging from banking to energy and telecoms. It became one of Russia’s largest privately owned investment groups after securing $14 billion in 2013 when Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled energy group, bought TNK-BP, an oil explorer in which Alfa had a big stake.

Unlike many other oligarchs, he has largely stayed out of Russian politics and sensitive sectors such as the media – and this may have helped him to so far avoid the US and EU sanctions that have targeted Mr Putin’s inner circle since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Debt obligations

His Alfa-Bank distinguished itself by securing depositors’ funds, paying staff and trying – wherever possible – to honour its debt obligations.

Other oligarchs simply ripped off customers and creditors, knowing they would have no recourse in Russia’s lawless business environment.

The telecoms side of Mr Fridman’s empire, Altimo, was launched in 2005, and is the largest shareholder in VimpelCom, one of Russia’s largest mobile phone operators. It is also a shareholder in Turkcell, the leading Turkish mobile operator.

Altimo’s history has been marked by repeated and often acrimonious legal disputes with its partners. In a ruling on a 2008 motion filed by Telenor, the Norwegian telecoms group that is a shareholder in VimpelCom, an American judge described Altimo as having an “extensive and brazen history of collusive and vexatious litigation”.

Mr O’Brien has also previously clashed with Telenor, the Norwegian company that was his partner in Esat Digifone, where the two sides had several high-profile disagreements.

In addition to LetterOne Technology, the creation of L1 Energy, LetterOne’s energy-focused investment vehicle, is the latest indication that Mr Fridman is increasingly looking outside Russia for new business ventures.

It recently announced it had acquired RWE Dea, the oil and gas arm of Germany’s RWE, for €5 billion. But the UK government is unhappy about the deal and has threatened to stop it, fearing Mr Fridman might be hit by future sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

This could affect the operations of Dea’s 12 North Sea gasfields. Mr Fridman has threatened legal action against the UK. – (Additional reporting: The Financial Times service)

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