Author: Mark Johnson

"As businessmen we are pretty young, and so we haven’t many traditions of corporate behavior as a country.”



Mikhail Fridman

From ‘robber baron’ to upright businessman in one sweeping move: That’s the trajectory the reputation of Alfa Group’s Mikhail Fridman seemingly described during just a couple of days in February. The catalyst for the reappraisal: the news that UK energy giant BP was cutting a $6.75 billion deal with TNK, the Russian oil company in which Fridman and his partner,Viktor Vekselberg, are the major shareholders.

So have Fridman and his fellow oligarchs changed their spots overnight? “Frankly, I don’t think it is changing so rapidly,” is Fridman’s disarming reply, delivered in an interview with Global Finance in his Moscow HQ just two days after the deal was inked.

To hear it the Fridman way,any change in the way business is done in Russia is due to a gradual accretion of experience; the excesses of 1990s Russia were due to youthful inexperience. “As businessmen we are pretty young, and so we haven’t many traditions of corporate behavior as a country,”he says.

Few who have crossed Fridman’s path in his rise to the top will entirely recognize any portrait in which naïveté plays too large a part.Fresh-faced, 38-year-old Fridman played hardball with the best as he assembled a business empire that now encompasses oil, consumer goods and banking.

Still, lumping together the 12 or so oligarchs who have planted their flags on the commanding heights of Russia’s new economy blurs important differences. Fridman kept his Alfa Bank paying its bills even during the depth of the Russian crisis and has married management professionalism to more traditional Russian business skills such as political clout and sharp legal elbows.“It wasn’t an easy task,” he says of resuscitating a relationship with BP that had soured over an earlier oil deal.That he did it—and garnered Russia’s largest-ever FDI bounty— shows this businessman, at least, has staying power.

Mark Johnson