Tycoon Suleiman Kerimov was named this week by Forbes magazine as Russia’s richest person despite media reports that he was out-of-favor. Kerimov pushed metals billionaire Vladimir Potanin into second place Wednesday as a sharp rise in the price of gold saw estimates of his wealth surpass $24.7 billion. The Dagestani-born billionaire has an impressive triumph-over-adversity biography: he suffered severe burns in a car accident in 2006, almost lost everything in 2008, and was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018.
- Kerimov’s entry into the world of big money was in 1999 with the purchase of oil trader Nafta Moskva, a successor company to Soyuznefteksport that exported oil for the Soviet Union. When Nafta Moskva was bought by Kerimov — for $50 — it was on the verge of bankruptcy, but Kerimov used its assets as collateral to raise loans.
- Later the same year, Kerimov entered politics as a deputy from the Liberal Democratic party, which is nominally part of the opposition but ultimately loyal to the Kremlin. Since 2008 he has been a senator in Russia’s upper house of parliament, representing the largely Muslim republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus.
- In 2004, Nafta Moskva began buying big stakes in blue chip companies, particularly state-owned gas giant Gazprom and state-owned bank Sberbank, at first with Kerimov’s own money, then using loans. The ability to raise loans on favorable terms has been Kerimov’s super power. Not only was this based on his knowledge of the financial markets and bluffing ability, but also ties to influential officials, according to Forbes. In particular, he was known to be close to former deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov.
- Kerimov was not content with a Russian financial empire, and in 2006 he began looking abroad. He was helped by the former head of U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch’s Russian office, Allen Vine, who was the de facto head of Kerimov’s foreign activities. But all of this was put on hold in November 2006 when Kerimov wrapped his Ferrari around a lamppost while driving through the French city of Nice with glamorous Russian TV presenter Tina Kandelaki. He suffered severe burns and was in hospital for months. When he returned to work, he wore skin-color gloves to hide the scars.
- By the beginning of 2008, Kerimov had sold almost all his Russian assets and, after paying off his debts, had about $20 billion in cash. He used this to begin buying shares in foreign companies, including BP, Boeing, and Deutsche Bank. He became the largest shareholder in U.S. financial giant Morgan Stanley. When the financial crisis of that year hit, Kerimov doubled down, continuing to buy in the hope of a rebound.
- He almost lost everything. According to Forbes, all he had left at one point was his houses, car and private jet. Forced to regroup, Kerimov concentrated on Russia, and gradually began to rebuild his fortune. He bought the heavily-indebted construction company PIK, and, in 2009, almost 40 percent of Russia’s largest gold-mining company, Polyus Gold. Kerimov got the loan for the Polyus Gold deal from state-owned bank VTB, and it was this investment that would prove eye-wateringly profitable 11 years later.
- Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kerimov’s fortune has increased by $14.7 billion to make him the richest person in Russia. His $24.7 billion fortune is almost entirely based on the 77 percent holding in Polyus Gold that he owns via his son, Said Kerimov.
- His success has not been hindered by U.S. sanctions (imposed in 2018 despite Kerimov not being particularly close to Putin), or being a suspect in a French money laundering investigation that was later dropped.
Why the world should care
For many years, Kerimov was one of Russia’s most secret billionaires. But his biography is an electric story that reads like an affirmation of the saying ‘never give up’. Either way, it deserves to be more widely known given his new status as Russia’s richest person.