Stenbeck transforms Swedish family firm into major online investor

Sun Jun 22, 2014 9:12am EDT
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By Mia Shanley

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedish-American heiress Cristina Stenbeck's bet on the red-hot e-commerce business has caught the eye of investors, although doubters question the future of her Kinnevik group in a sector where new players emerge almost every day.

Shares in Kinnevik, which Stenbeck inherited at 24 on the sudden death of her father Jan, have more than doubled in half a dozen years and outstripped some of Sweden's other renowned family investment firms under her leadership.

Yet some critics regard Kinnevik's investment shift into online retailing where entry barriers are low as foolhardy. They question the team Stenbeck has built, saying that while it is strong on banking and financial experience, it lacks the operational ability to build long-lasting web businesses.

In its nearly 80-year history, Kinnevik has made a habit of leaping from one growth sector to the next.

Jan Stenbeck had already transformed what was once an industrial group into a telecoms and media giant when he died in 2002. Cristina, who is now executive chairwoman, eventually made her own strategic shift and steered the family firm into digital businesses.

"For us it was absolutely the next big thing," Stenbeck, 36, told Reuters in an interview at her London office. "It was a continuation of what we were doing in mobile telecommunications."

This turning point came about six years ago when German entrepreneur Oliver Samwer made his way to Sweden to ask Kinnevik for cash for his venture Rocket Internet.

With a roll of the dice, Stenbeck and the board backed Samwer and his brothers - Marc and Alexander - investing 35 million euros (now $48 million) in their start-up selling everything from stilettos to furniture online.   Continued...

Swedish-American heiress Cristina Stenbeck, executive chairman and principal owner of Investment AB Kinnevik, looks on in Stockholm, May 12, 2014.  REUTERS/Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency