The weekly business section of Morgunbladid reports that Björgólfur Thor Bjórgólfsson, Iceland’s first dollar billionaire, has denied allegations of links to Russian mafia in a recent interview with the Danish daily newspaper, Berlingske Tidende.
“Unlike other breweries in St. Petersburg we were not backed by Russian money. We funded our operations using our own capital at the same time as Russians had substantial stakes in other brewing operations, the Russians then fought among themselves,” he said according to Morgunbladid.
Björgólfur Thor denies reports in the Nordic media that he is on an acquisition spree. He specifically cites his investment in the Swedish insurance company Skandia. “Skandia is only an invesment. In my opinion, its shares are undervalued. Of course we take a possible acquisition into consideration, but by other parties, not by us. I believe the acquisition will happen, but we will not play an active part in it,” he said.
According to Morgunbladid, Björgólfur Thor said to Berlingske that he was not a “specialist in management”. “My strength lies in identifying opportunities and people who can run companies,” he said.
In response to a question from the Berlingske reporter, Björgólfur Thor played down any similarities between himself and Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, CEO of investment company Baugur. Baugur recently made headlines in Denmark when it acquired the well-known Danish store Magasin du Nord. Björgólfur Thor said that he and Jón Ásgeir moved in different circles and did not associate with one another. He also claimed that he did not desire to receive press coverage of the kind Jón Ásgeir had. “When someone invests for a few hundred million [Danish crowns] in a Danish retailer it makes the headlines, but when someone invests for billions in a drug company it barely warrants mention, and that suits me fine,” said Björgólfur Thor.
Björgólfur Thor serves as the chairman of the board of the generic drug maker Actavis and is Actavis’s largest shareholder.
The Baugur investment in Magasin du Nord was financed by Icelandic investment bank Straumur of which Landsbanki, controlled by Björgólfur Thor and his associates, is a major shareholder.
Earlier this year, Björgólfur Thor featured prominently on the Forbes 500 list of the world’s wealthiest people. His profile included a picture of him bathing in the Blue Lagoon, a popular Icelandic tourist destination.
In mid-June, the British daily Guardian wrote a story questioning why Björgólfur Thor and his business associates had emerged unharmed and wealthy from the brewing business in St. Petersburg at the same time two other executives in the business had been shot.
(See Iceland Review, Daily News, June 17 “Is Russian mafia financing Icelandic expansion abroad?“)
Björgólfur Thor, his father, Björgólfur Gudmundsson, and their business associate, Magnús Thorsteinsson, acquired their controlling stake in Landsbanki in a controversial privatization in 2002.
(For background on the bank privatization, see Iceland Review, Daily News, June 14, “Prime Minister’s feelings hurt but announces he has been exonerated“; June 13, “Prime Minister under investigation“; and May 31 “Privatization of banks draws heavy fire“)
When asked about Russian mafia shortly after acquiring his controlling stake in Landsbanki (Morgunbladid, February 16, 2003), Björgólfur Thor said “the most I have heard about it [the mafia] is in Iceland.” He went on to explain, “We have never been in a sector where the mafia operates, neither vodka nor tobacco. We sell large volumes of low-margin soda. That type of riff-raff is not interested in anything that requires work. They only want to get their hands on fat cash-cows which they can milk.”
In the same interview Björgólfur Thor remarked that corruption had been inevitable when one of the world’s wealthiest nations was “stripped naked” of its assets in the Russian privatization wave of the nineties. There had been many sharks circling in that fish-tank. “But we were never involved in any privatizations in Russia,” he said.