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When Viktor Vekselberg, one of the main shareholders in United Company Rusal, noisily announced he was resigning as chairman of the board of the world’s biggest aluminium producer this week, the move shocked investors used to much lower profile manoeuvrings from the Russian tycoon, writes Catherine Belton in Moscow
Known for his reticent, mandarin-like manner, Mr Vekselberg is rarely a frontman in any of the bruising corporate clashes that dominate Russia’s business landscape.
Mr Vekselberg, 55, ranked by Forbes as Russia’s eighth-richest man with an estimated fortune of $12.4bn, is often seen by investors as a consummate diplomat. He won favour with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in early 2004 by purchasing nine Fabergé eggs from the Forbes family and returning them to Russia.
He strengthened his Kremlin standing during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, by heading its Skolkovo high-tech initiative, seen as Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley.
But Mr Vekselberg’s climb from a small city in western Ukraine reveals a quiet toughness. He made his first fortune in the takeover wars in Russia’s aluminium and oil industries. He first formed the Siberian Urals Aluminium group, or Sual, in 1996, together with former classmate Len Blavatnik. At the same time, the two went into partnership with Mikhail Fridman’s notoriously hard-nosed Alfa Group, becoming big shareholders in Tyumen Oil Company, or TNK.
Together with Mr Fridman, Mr Vekselberg has several times warred with BP, the UK oil group, with which TNK formed a 50-50 joint venture in 2003. But in these bitter disputes, which led to the forced departure of Bob Dudley, then TNK-BP chief executive and current BP chief executive, from Russia in 2008, Mr Vekselberg has stayed in the background, leaving Mr Fridman and his partner in Alfa, German Khan, to lead the charge.
“He’s always played much further below the radar than the other guys. At TNK-BP he took a back seat,” said one associate. “He’s never been outspoken or made a lot of noise.”
When Mr Vekselberg agreed to merge his Sual group into Oleg Deripaska’s Rusal in 2006 to form the world’s biggest aluminium producer, United Company Rusal, he was also seen to take a back-seat role, compared with the more aggressive Mr Deripaska who controlled the merged group.
The two businessmen had agreed that Mr Vekselberg would chair the merged company’s board, while Mr Deripaska would run the company. But Mr Deripaska’s relentless battle with rival metals tycoon Vladimir Potanin for control of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s biggest nickel miner, may have proved a battle too far. Mr Vekselberg backed accepting an offer from Norilsk to buy 20 per cent of the company from Rusal, which owns 25 per cent. The $12.8bn deal would have allowed Rusal to pay down its hefty $11bn debt load and start paying dividends. But Mr Deripaska flatly refused.
Unlike Mr Deripaska, for whom battling for empire is a reason for being, Mr Vekselberg is a financial investor, who has sought to monetise his assets in recent years. “If he’s offered a decent price he’ll sell,” said one banker with knowledge of the two men.
While many are at a loss to explain what exactly caused the disagreement over Norilsk to escalate into the recent public bust-up, one thing is clear: “They haven’t liked each other for a long time,” said another banker. “This is just typical Oleg,” said a well-connected western businessman. “He is never going to compromise with anyone, and it seems Vekselberg just reached the end of his tether.”