From TV Plant to Secretive Business Empire

www.payer.deSuleiman Kerimov
Billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, who was seriously injured after crashing his Ferrari in France last Saturday, went from balancing the books at a television factory in Dagestan to controlling an intensely secretive business empire in a decade.

But now his plans to transform that empire, the sprawling Nafta-Moskva holding, into a Western-style investment group may be up in the air.

Kerimov, whose fortune is estimated at more than $9 billion, has been described as the country's version of Warren Buffett, with investments in sectors as varied as energy and metals to hotels and banking.

He is also a State Duma deputy for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and is deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sports and Youth. He is rarely seen in Duma debates, however.

Kerimov, 40, suffered serious burns when his car spun off a road in Nice and burst into flames. According to some reports, he was still in a medically induced coma Thursday, while associates said he had been conscious since at least Wednesday. His purported companion in the car, television star Tina Kandelaki, 31, escaped the crash without serious injury.

Kerimov has been moved from a Marseille clinic to a location kept secret by his family, Itar-Tass said Thursday.

The news agency quoted the Russian consulate in Marseille as saying that his relatives and associates had asked that the location not be disclosed.

Since the crash, Kerimov's associates have been scrambling to deal with the media frenzy at a time when at least one of his companies is preparing to go public and several major investment deals are in the works.

Senior executives at Nafta-Moskva said its operations would not suffer during Kerimov's hospitalization, however, as a team of senior managers were in place to run the business.

"He's not involved in operations management," one of Kerimov's top business associates said from Marseille on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Kerimov is not directly involved in the group's day-to-day, or even week-to-week, activities, the associate said.

Officials at the Marseille hospital referred all inquiries about Kerimov to a Moscow-based company called Millennium Group. Nafta-Moskva declined to comment on that group's link to Kerimov and said it did not comment on Kerimov's activities.

As a Duma deputy, Kerimov is barred from directly conducting business. Many deputies are linked, however, to large business interests.

Deputies and parliamentary aides say Kerimov has been only an occasional visitor to the Duma.

"I've only met him in the Duma very rarely," an aide to a federal lawmaker from Dagestan said on condition of anonymity.

A native of Dagestan, Kerimov was born in the coastal Caspian Sea city of Derbent, where he was an honors student in high school. After serving for two years in the Strategic Missile Forces, he joined the business department at Dagestan State University and graduated from there in 1989.

While at university, the future billionaire married a fellow student, the daughter of a mid-ranking former Communist Party boss. Kerimov and his wife, Firuza, have three children.

Kerimov's first job was as an accountant at a television factory in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. By 1995, he had risen through the ranks to become the factory's deputy general director.

That year, he moved to Moscow and was appointed to head Soyuz-Finans, a banking and trading company.

According to Forbes Russia magazine, which profiled Kerimov's business career in June, he made some of his money through corporate raids, including the takeover of Smolensky Passazh, a business center, and AvtoBank.

Kerimov bought into Nafta-Moskva after the 1998 economic meltdown, Forbes reported, and later increased his control to 100 percent.

Pavel Pokrovsky, head of consultancy Rosrazvitiye, which advises on mergers and acquisitions and corporate conflicts, said Nafta-Moskva under Kerimov did take part in a number of hostile takeovers, but not "outright criminal acquisitions."

Forbes linked Kerimov to last year's takeover of real estate developer Razvitiye, which occurred after 150 men attacked its offices wielding baseball bats and metal rods.

The bulk of Kerimov's wealth, however, derives from his 4 percent stake in gas giant Gazprom and a 6 percent stake in state-controlled Sberbank, which he began acquiring in 2004, Forbes said. Kerimov's combined share in these two companies was worth $9.5 billion after the shares tripled in value over the previous two years, the magazine said in June. The shares purchase was made possible by a Sberbank loan of $3.2 billion, the magazine said, speculating that the well-connected Kerimov might be managing other people's assets as well as his own.

"All of his money to the last cent has been made through connections," said Kirill Vishnepolsky, deputy editor of Forbes Russia. This year "was a good year for him."

"He's our Warren Buffett. Like priest, like congregation," Vishnepolsky said, referring to Kerimov's role in Russian business and society.

In the week before Kerimov's car crash, a company he was linked to, real estate firm Nafta Co., struck a deal to manage the Moscow city government's stakes in 20 leading hotels.

Kerimov's connections appear to reach right into the highest political circles, despite his own low political profile.

After joining Zhirinovsky's LDPR in 1999, he was elected that year to the Duma on the party ticket.

Zhirinovsky described Kerimov in glowing terms.

"He never stole anything, never cheated anybody," Zhirinovsky said by telephone Thursday. "He's a very intelligent, quiet, calm person."

Zhirinovsky said he first met with Kerimov in 1995 or 1996, when the Dagestani businessman helped fly an LDPR delegation to Taiwan.

"I've always wanted to have a deputy from Dagestan," Zhirinovsky said.

Zhirinovsky conceded that Kerimov did not appear in the Duma very often, but said he was fine with that.

He added that he did not know whether Kerimov was planning to run for a seat in the Duma again next year.

"We haven't discussed the plans yet," he said.

While Kerimov has taken part in some formal activities of the Duma and the LDPR faction, he prefers not to mingle with other lawmakers from Dagestan, the Dagestani lawmaker's aide said.

Eduard Urazayev, a spokesman for Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev's office, said Kerimov had helped Magomed Gadzhiyev, an old friend of his from Dagestan, get elected into the Duma in 2003. Kerimov appears to have close ties to officials in the Kremlin administration, Urazayev said.

"He is a different man, oriented toward Europe," Urazayev said. "He tries not to get involved in Dagestani politics."

This political orientation appears to be in sync with Kerimov's drive to turn Nafta-Moskva, the successor to the Soviet-era oil trading monopoly Soyuznefteexport, into a global equity firm.

Kerimov earlier this year hired Allen Vine, a former head of Merrill Lynch in Russia, to spearhead the transformation.

In a rare public comment, Vine told Forbes he was interested in the opportunity to work with "active, careful investors" willing to create a fund that would compete with the world's leading private equity firms.

Vine, a Russian-born U.S. citizen, declined to comment for this article.

Part of the plan to take Nafta-Moskva global is the forthcoming initial public offering of Polymetal, the country's No. 1 silver miner and No. 2 gold miner, which Nafta-Moskva bought last November from ICT Group. Albert Avetikov, a Polymetal spokesman, on Tuesday declined to comment on plans for the IPO, indicating it was a quiet period for the firm.

Merrill Lynch is the lead manager for Polymetal's London listing and three other Nafta assets -- National Cable Networks, Mosteleset and an unidentified real estate company -- are being prepared for similar listings, the Times of London cited sources as saying in August.

Spokespeople for National Cable Networks, 100 percent owned by Nafta, and Mosteleset, part-owned by Nafta, declined to comment this week.

The real estate asset may be Nafta Co., a firm founded last year to pursue real estate projects.

Tatyana Bashmakova, general director of Nafta Co., said by telephone Tuesday that FK Kapital was a parent company of both Nafta-Moskva and Nafta Co. She declined to name FK Kapital's main beneficiary, saying only that Kerimov had a stake in it.

Last month, Nafta Co. took a 51 percent stake in a hotels venture with the Moscow city government. The venture, United Hotel Company, will manage the city's stakes in 20 of Moscow's top hotels and build at least 10 three-star hotels. Nafta Co. is expected to come up with $2 billion for the venture. Another real estate project linked to Kerimov is the $3 billion private town called Rublyovo-Arkhangelskoye, whose construction is slated to begin this year. Every resident in the town of 30,000 will have to be a millionaire, real estate experts have said.

Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report.

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