How Britain’s richest man made his £13bn pile – and got a halo in the process

Len Blavatnik is Britain's richest man, according to The Sunday Times Rich List. But relatively little is known about the 'house-trained oligarch'.


Len Blavatnik: Britain's house-trained oligarch

"Every rich man must have a back-up aerodrome" is a saying among Russian oligarchs, says The Sunday Times. The wise oligarch needs "a friendly place to land the private jet in times of political crisis". But he should also spread his assets around safe jurisdictions, ideally achieving a "halo effect".

Len Blavatnik, 57 last week named Britain's richest man, worth £13.7bn is an exemplar of the breed. Already a US citizen and prolific philanthropist, Blavatnik moved to London ten years ago, gazumping Roman Abramovich over a trophy £41m house in Kensington Palace Gardens. He has since donated a fortune to British institutions most munificently, the futuristic Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. But while "Blavatnik's gilded reputation is everywhere", relatively little is known about "the nature of the man behind it".

There's another Russian saying, says The New Yorker: "never ask about the first million... even longtime friends say they aren't exactly sure what he did in the 1990s". The casual observer would never surmise that the amiable, art-collecting owner of Warner Music ("a man who has truly lived the American dream," says the Oxford University vice-chancellor) made his cash from the "tumultuous privatisation of aluminium and oil" in the Soviet Union. Blavatnik and his American wife, Emily, are renowned for their Gatsby-esque parties. But there's always a wariness. Blavatnik's "owlish expression... moves easily from warmth to suspicion".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik was born in 1957 in Odessa, Ukraine, the son of Jewish academics who later relocated to the Moscow area. In 1978, the family emigrated to the US, settling in Brooklyn. After studying at Columbia, Blavatnik took an IT job at Macy's, later joining Arthur Andersen. In 1986, he formed investment company Access Industries and began studying for a Harvard MBA. His early investments were in New York property, says The Independent.

"But it was the collapse of communism that gave him his opening." Teaming up with Moscow school chum Viktor Vekselberg, he provided financing for the takeover of state enterprises (see below). The pair survived the aluminium wars with Sual which they profitably merged into the world's largest firm, Rusal before allying with Mikhail Fridman and German Khan to grab Russian oil group, TNK.

The latter's embroilment with BP first as rival, then wary collaborator "turned into one of the longest-running soap operas in the oil industry". But a $7bn pay-out from the 2013 sale of TNK-BP to Rosneft freed Blavatnik to pursue "the profile of a media investor", says The New Yorker. Warner Music is now at the centre of an empire whose fast-growing offshoots include stakes in the Berlin-based internet upstart, Rocket. In a 2010 interview Blavatnik acknowledged that even the savviest can lose their shirts in media. "I don't want to be the next victim." Not much sign of that, yet.

A 'house-trained' Russian oligarch

Outside the country, Blavatnik was the acceptable face of Russian capitalism. "I think the word we used was house-trained'," says one BP executive. These days, Blavatnik and former antagonist, Lord Browne, are firm allies: the ex-BP chief is a co-chair of the Blavatnik School of Government's international advisory board, along with Bill Clinton and Google boss Eric Schmidt.

But some are critical of Oxford for taking his cash. According to a former BP adviser, "having the Blavatnik School of Government sounds rather like having a henhouse sponsored by a fox". He is certainly no stranger to "controversies and bitter battles", stretching way beyond BP, noted Stephen Foley in The Independent in 2011.

He also "fell foul of Gordon Brown" at the height of the credit crisis when it was revealed that RBS had lost more than £1bn in loans to his collapsed chemicals business, LyondellBasell. The bankruptcy saw years of litigation with creditors who accused Blavatnik of fraud. He in turn sued JPMorgan Chase, alleging the bank had negligently put his money into risky mortgage-backed securities and won.

Blavatnik might have suffered a tumultuous financial crisis but, like other members of this year's Rich List (now collectively worth £547bn), he has emerged with flying colours and is now at least twice as rich as he was in 2009, says John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. Booming stockmarkets have boosted his investments across industries by £3.17bn in the past year alone. It's sobering to consider that the average Briton, on £25,000 a year, "would have to toil for 526,800 years" to amass Blavatnik's £13bn pile.