22 сентября 2008

Alexey Mordashov: `You see a lot of rhetoric but I don`t see any deterioration between Russia and the West`

Alexey Mordashov, the owner of Russia`s biggest steel company, is in London to talk to investors about its move into goldmining. Despite booming profits from SeverStal - the latest profits rose by 69 per cent - those investors have been unnerved by its recent pursuit of gold.



It is an opportunity to use his undoubted charm, for London to see at first hand the man who is, for some, the acceptable face of oligarchy, a pleasant, unassuming, English-speaking multibillionaire, Russia`s second-richest man, with an estimated wealth of £12 billion.

Not that gold is the only thing worth talking about. There is business: SeverStal has bought several steel plants in the United States over the past year and plans to spend $10 billion worldwide.

Mr Mordashov recently raised his personal stake in TUI, the European travel business, to 15 per cent. He also owns a company that makes generator turbines, a forestry business and a stake in Moscow`s equivalent of Ocado. He is toying with a move into agriculture.

And there is wider, national interest, where business mixes with politics: the SeverStal chief, reputedly close to Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, represents the country at a variety of international organisations, for example, including heading the industrialists` group responsible for Russia`s entry to the World Trade Organisation.

He is doing so in increasingly testing times. The Russian markets went through more turmoil than many last week, spooked not only by the global financial crisis but also by the drop in the oil price, upon which Russia is so dependent. The markets were already in a battered state after Russia`s hostilities in Georgia last month.

Then there is what is seen (in the West, at least) as the Government`s interventionist role in the economy, with the protection of some strategic assets from foreign investment and its public unease on the price of some commodities. Last but not least, there is the increased general political tension between Russia and the West.

Is business now, as a result of all this, more difficult both in and with Russia? “You see a lot of rhetoric around, but in my experience I don`t see any deterioration of business relationships between Russia and the West,” Mr Mordashov said.

“We made recently several acquisitions in the US, but we didn`t have any difficulties. We bring jobs and investments and it seems to me that Americans appreciate it.”

He is equally convinced that the impact of the upheaval at TNK-BP, a power struggle that has been rumbling for some months between BP and its Russian billionaire joint-venture partners, is not as important in “real life” as it has been to the business media.

“TNK-BP was seen by some people as a terrible case,” he said, “but did it stop BP from investing? Did it stop Chevron? Talk to any oil industry executive: all of them are keen to invest because Russia provides great opportunities.” He views TNK-BP as a straightforward shareholder tussle.

“Will there be more cases in the future? No doubt about it, but if you look at the UK you could find cases of conflict of shareholders and of tax investigation. But no one says that the UK is a bad place to do business. Of course, Russia is not perfect, but it is improving.”

Mr Mordashov, 42, mounts a heartfelt defence of his country and what he sees as misunderstanding from those outside it, something he is used to given that the Government frequently relies on him to promote international trade.

With more than a hint of nationalism, he describes such work as his duty: “I believe that all people should do their best to facilitate contacts between their country and the rest of the world, especially in the special situation of Russia. which has been moving through a transition from a difficult past to a bright future.”

As an economist, he is equally passionate about the free market, despite the recent turmoil. He also seems to be sanguine about the Russian Government`s recent moves on the economy, including legislation to limit foreign involvement in strategic assets and the public call for steelmakers to reduce their prices to the automotive industry.

“Our price-setting is free,” he said. “No one asked SeverStal to cut prices. There has been some discussion elsewhere about coal prices and about a high level of consolidation, but I don`t see any meddling from the Government. We have a free-market economy. It is very, very important.”

He views the reaction of the Government over strategic assets as a response to public concern. “When the prices of natural resources go up, all national governments become very keen to control them, not only in Russia,” he said.

“Whether that is good or bad, to me it is just reality and I understand why it happens. A lot of people are afraid of globalisation. A lot of people in mature markets are concerned about their jobs, despite the fact that a big part of the quality of life in the West today was contributed by free-market economy and globalisation. I think it`s important to distinguish between an economic view and a market view.

“The Russian economy is doing well overall, based on solid fundamentals and impressive annual growth. It`s a different story with the Russian financial market, when indices have halved since the spring and banks have stopped lending to each other.”

Consumer growth, pushed by double-digit economic growth, is hard to argue with. The country has, for example, become Europe`s second-biggest car market.

The Russian economy has also propelled SeverStal to big profits and rapid expansion. Its recent half-year profits jumped by 69 per cent to $1.9 billion (£1 billion). Its overseas acquisitions are also increasing, in spite of a setback two years ago when it lost the battle to take over Arcelor. The steel business, founded as part of Stalin`s industrial policy of the 1930s, is targeting Asia in addition to America. However, Mr Mordashov does not have his own five-year plan growth.

“I don`t know how far we will grow,” he said. “It will depend on how smart we are. My ambition is to create value, however big we are.”

For a man who has more economic power than some countries, he is also uncomfortable about taking SeverStal, or Sever, as the wider group is coming to be known, to dizzy heights.

“I like to develop the business as much as I can, but I don`t like some consequences of it,” he said. “For example, if you become too successful you can become too visible, and I don`t like to be No 1. To be No 1 doesn`t always trigger positive attitudes of others.”

His wariness of visibility, along with other factors, mitigates against Mr Mordashov following the well-trodden tycoon path of buying a football club.

“First,” he said, “I am not a fan of football. Secondly, I don`t like to waste money. And, thirdly, I hate the symbol of `Russian oligarch buys football club.` I don`t blame anyone. They know better what to do with their money, but I don`t like it. We have an ice hockey club in Cherepovets. That`s enough.”

From The Times
September 22, 2008
Christine Buckley


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