DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Oleg Deripaska will remain chief of UC RUSAL (0486.HK) even after a $2.2 billion initial public offering (IPO) diluted his control of the world’s largest aluminum producer, Deripaska told Reuters.
“I know the company very well and have no plans to leave the position of chief executive,” said Deripaska, the physicist turned metals trader who emerged most strongly from the ferocious takeover battles for control of Russia’s aluminum industry in the 1990s. It was his first major interview since the group listed in Hong Kong last month.
Deripaska, once Russia’s richest man, spent most of last year clinching a huge debt restructuring deal with banks to be able to proceed with the Hong Kong IPO, which saw his stake fall below 50 percent.
Two legal cases hung over the listing: one a challenge by the outgoing government of Guinea to RUSAL’s ownership of alumina assets in the west African country, and the other a $4 billion-plus lawsuit brought by ex-associate Mikhail Cherney against Deripaska in London.
Deripaska compared the case in Guinea against his company to “extortion” and said there was little risk for UC RUSAL from the suit against him by Cherney.
“We understand that the country (Guinea) is in a difficult economic shape and the government has to look for ways out of the situation. We are ready for talks,” he said, also playing down risks from the Cherney case.
“There are no risks for the company because RUSAL is not part of that suit,” said Deripaska, who spoke in short sentences in his trademark low voice as he sipped tea with honey and lemon in an upmarket hotel in the Swiss resort of Davos, where he stayed during the World Economic Forum.
Deripaska, 42, grew his empire from a small metals trading operation, expanding rapidly in the often-violent consolidation of the sector of the 1990s.
He is still seen by many Kremlin watchers as the ultimate insider, married to the daughter of a senior official in President Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin, who managed to expand even when Yeltsin handed over power — a feat managed by only a few tycoons.
RUSAL, in its IPO prospectus, said the Cherney case could only affect the company should Deripaska lose the case and choose to use part of his stake to pay any costs incurred.
Retail investors, who usually swarm to Hong Kong listings, were excluded from the IPO before it traded because of RUSAL’s debts and litigation involving Deripaska.
RUSAL stock plunged at the start of trade and remains below its IPO price, but Deripaska said the firm would ultimately become a stock market favorite.
“Ask any taxi driver (in Hong Kong) what is RUSAL and he will clearly explain to you what it is,” said Deripaska, wearing a dark blue suit and no tie; he is not known for ostentatious displays of wealth, unlike many other Russian oligarchs.
The IPO was aimed at helping RUSAL raise cash as part of its more than $14.9 billion debt restructuring. Deripaska said UC RUSAL could list stock in Russia within 12 months, but added it planned no more share issues for the time being.
“We have obtained high-quality investors despite the fact that the markets have fallen by almost 18 percent since the pricing ... A new share issue now makes no sense. The market has not fully recovered and the price is not adequate yet,” he said.
“I think the firm is worth more,” he said, adding that RUSAL would focus on cutting power costs, already among the world’s lowest due to cheap Siberian electricity, and debt servicing to cut the leverage to an amount that would allow a dividend.
He also played down the chance of shareholder wars erupting after he lost majority control. RUSAL’s co-owners include tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, trading group Glencore GLEN.UL and the Russian government, which agreed to invest heavily in the IPO.
“We cannot have differences among the shareholders, as we have a joint understanding of strategic goals and tasks,” he said. “All our shareholders are reasonable people. They all want the company to grow.”
Asked about the reasons behind the Kremlin’s move to refinance $4.5 billion of RUSAL’s debts, Deripaska said he never saw it as a state bailout. “The VEB loan, which was lent to RUSAL, is one of their most commercially profitable.”
In the long term RUSAL did not plan acquisitions and would focus on expanding in Asian markets. “We have a basket of assets that will allow us to develop for the next 25 to 30 years. We do not need to acquire anything.”
Any decision regarding a long-discussed merger with Norilsk Nickel (GMKN.MM), in which RUSAL has a 25 percent stake, would be taken “based on the need to create long-term value,” he said.
Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by David Holmes and Rupert Winchester