Gunvor pins future on Swedish CEO after Russian co-founder exits

Mon Mar 24, 2014 12:05am EDT
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By Dmitry Zhdannikov

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In 2007, when Torbjorn Tornqvist first emerged from the shadows of the Geneva-based oil trading empire he helped build, he had one message to tell: Russian President Vladimir Putin has nothing to do with Gunvor.

"We don't deny we have excellent contacts," the steely-voiced Swedish oil trader told Reuters, in what was the first interview of his 30-year career. "To involve Mr Putin and any of his staff in this dialogue is speculation."

Seven years on, Tornqvist, 60, is still dogged by the same speculation, this time provoked by the United States slapping sanctions on his long-time partner, Gennady Timchenko, one of the most loyal businessmen to Putin.

The U.S. government says Putin has "investments" in Gunvor and may have access to its funds, an allegation Gunvor fiercely denies. Hours after the announcement of the sanctions - designed to put pressure on Russia for its annexation of Crimea - Gunvor said Timchenko had sold his stake to Tornqvist.

Now, with a majority stake and 100 percent of the voting shares, Tornqvist has much work to do to convince his trading partners that Gunvor can still grow and thrive without Timchenko.

"This is certainly the most challenging moment in Gunvor's history," Tornqvist told Reuters on Friday.

The imposing chief executive, an avid sailor with a shaven head, teamed up with Timchenko to form Gunvor in 2000. The firm has grown from a niche player in Baltic Sea oil exports into the No.4 oil trader, handling 3 percent of the world's oil.

Gunvor says 80 percent of its business is unrelated to Russia. It has poached top traders from firms like France's Total (TOTF.PA: Quote), bought refineries in Europe and expanded into coal, natural gas and key Asian markets. With annual turnover of near $100 billion, Gunvor has 1,600 employees in 20 offices.   Continued...

CEO of Gunvor Group, Torbjorn Tornqvist speaks during the Oil & Money conference in London October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor