On a frosty Moscow evening in December, Alisher Usmanov is wearing a boyish grin. Russia’s richest man, who rarely smiles in public, has been elected to a second term as president of the International Fencing Federation, which is holding its annual congress in the Russian capital for the first time.
Usmanov, a two-time Uzbekistan fencing champion in his youth, says the sport develops skills that have helped in life and in business. “The main thing in fencing is to score a touch without giving up a touch in return,” he says. “The sport teaches you to be patient, waiting for the right moment to attack.”
He’s picked his moments well as an investor, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its October special issue on the 50 Most Influential people in global finance. In the late 1990s, with Russia’s economy in turmoil, Usmanov began to assemble a metals conglomerate that thrived when demand for commodities boomed and prices soared a few years later.
Then he shifted money to technology companies such as Mail.ru Group Ltd., the largest social-network operator in Russia. With his partner, Mail.ru founder Yuri Milner, he bought a $200 million stake in Facebook Inc. in 2009 that was worth about $2 billion when the company had its initial public offering three years later.
While many Russian billionaires have seen their fortunes shrink as raw materials prices have slid over the past two years, Usmanov has become the country’s richest man on the strength of his tech investments. He’s worth more than $20 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Close to Power
Usmanov, 60, is one of a small circle of wealthy men who dominate Russian business. He has a lot of talents, says Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and founder of the Institute for National Strategy, a Moscow-based think tank. “He reached the top thanks to his relations with people who were close to power,” he says.
Usmanov’s connection to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is an example, Belkovsky says. The businessman got to know Medvedev at OAO Gazprom, where both of their careers took off. In the 1990s, Usmanov and two partners set up an investment company, Interfin, that acquired stakes in Russia’s biggest iron ore mine and a steel plant, both in the Belgorod region. Gazprom bought a 20 percent stake in Interfin, and Usmanov in 1998 took a post with an investment subsidiary known as Gazprominvestholding. He also became an aide and confidant of Rem Vyakhirev, Gazprom’s then-chief executive officer.
Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, succeeding Boris Yeltsin, and installed Medvedev as Gazprom’s chairman and Alexey Miller as CEO. Usmanov was one of the few people not replaced as Gazprom’s new leadership purged the old. Instead, he worked on getting back a stake of about 5 percent of Gazprom held by a company affiliated with the Yeltsin-era management. His success in that effort helped return control of Gazprom to the government, which had seen its ownership stake in the company drop to as low as 38 percent.