November 30, 2015
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Roman Abramovich – An epitome of quiet power

In the court of Roman Abramovich, they have learnt to look out for the telltale signs. He rarely voices his displeasure, but when that often inscrutable face morphs into what they call his “death mask”, that is when the chill descends as the wind of change blows through Stamford Bridge.
Among those who mix loosely in Abramovich’s circles, there is surprise that Jose Mourinho has, for now, been spared a second sighting of the death mask, but among the inner circle — which tends to mean those who are privileged to address him as Roman rather than as “Mr A” — it is a different story. There they reject the portrayal of the Chelsea owner as a man prone to kneejerk reactions or impulsiveness. “Rash?” one associate asks. “Rash is the last word I would use to describe Roman.”
So how would you describe him? “Quiet,” the associate says. “Private — obviously, you know that — and very loyal, unless of course you let him down, but the main things are calm, measured and businesslike.”
Abramovich is not afraid of a bit of spontaneity. Another associate relates tales of evenings when they would be in one of his fleet of cars, with one of his chauffeurs at the wheel, and he would settle on a destination for a night out — London, Paris, Moscow, St Tropez — and simply fire off the instruction to his staff to ready the private jet.
Now 49, though, and on his third marriage, he has become a little more sensible. If he is to invest in another yacht or a piece of art — like when he paid £43 million in 2008 for Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976 — he thinks about it more carefully these days.
He has certainly thought carefully about how to solve a problem such as Mourinho. On October 3, barely eight weeks after the Portuguese signed a new four-year contract, the Chelsea board met to discuss whether they might need to change manager for a 10th time in 11 years. The support of Marina Granovskaia, Abramovich’s former PA who is now a highly influential director of the club, helped the billionaire owner to go with his initial instinct, which was to give Mourinho time to sort things out.
Another three English Premier League defeats later, the club’s position is unchanged, but the matter will continue to be reviewed and Abramovich will continue to deliberate, asking questions, soaking up opinions.
“Roman makes the decisions at Chelsea, there is no doubt about that,” another associate says. “But it isn’t a dictatorship. It’s a very small, tight board structure; effectively everyone reports into Marina, who reports to Roman.”
As an influential but low-profile woman in football, Granovskaia attracts intrigue. It is striking just how many people around Abramovich use the same word to describe her — “brilliant”. An executive at a rival club agrees. “She’s charming, but she’s formidable, a real asset to Chelsea,” he says. “Marina knows Roman’s pressure points,” another source says. “She knows how to hit them and how to avoid them. You need to know how to communicate with Roman. He asks direct questions and he expects direct, succinct answers. He will soak up those answers, form a view and one day, whether that’s in four days, four weeks or four years, he will decide it’s time for a change.
“If Jose wants to delay the inevitable, he has to win matches, be careful what he says in public and be even more careful about what he says in private. If he upsets people behind the scenes, he won’t survive.”
Another says: “Roman doesn’t like sacking people, surprising as that might sound. He’s fiercely loyal to those who have worked with him for a long time, like Marina, Eugene Tenenbaum, Eugene Shvidler. They are like family to him. Then there is his actual family. He has been divorced twice, but his family means everything to him. If you consider his background, that is probably not surprising.”
Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich was born into what one friend suggests was as a “typical Brezhnev-era Soviet Jewish family — not a great deal of money” — in October 1966. Before his first birthday, he had lost his mother, Irina, who died during a medical procedure. In May 1969 his father, Arkady, was killed in an accident on the construction site where he worked. At the age of two, an only child, Abramovich was an orphan.
Initially Abramovich was brought up by Arkady’s brother, Leib, and his wife in their small apartment in the frost-bitten industrial town of Ukhta, 700 miles northeast of Moscow. At the age of seven, he was sent off to Moscow — at first with his grandmother, then with another uncle, Abram — on the basis that the capital would offer him the best chance of making something of himself.
The most familiar and impressive claim about Abramovich’s academic achievements — that he attended the Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas — is questioned by some and rejected by others. At some point he returned to Ukhta to attend the industrial institute there. At 18, he was called up for national service, late enough to avoid being sent to Afghanistan, and it was in the army that he discovered the skills that would make his fortune.

Roman’s cap d’antibes mansion

In an interview with Zhizn, the Russian newspaper, in 2007, Nikolai Panteleimonov, a former army friend, claimed that Abramovich came up with a scheme whereby delivery drivers would allow fuel to be siphoned out of their vehicles, which would then be sold to other delivery drivers — all of them aware of the scheme — at a reduced price. “Every party involved was happy,” Panteleimonov said. “He was head and shoulders above the rest when it came to entrepreneurship. He could make money out of thin air.”
Abramovich took his wheeler-dealer skills back to Moscow, selling imported rubber ducks, dolls, retreaded tyres and much more. His reputation and influence in Moscow business circles grew. He befriended the late Boris Berezovsky, who was making fortunes by capitalising on the privatisation of state property in the aftermath of perestroika.
Between 1995 and 1997, through President Boris Yeltsin’s controversial loans-for-shares privatisation auctions, Berezovsky assisted Abramovich with the acquisition of Sibneft, the oil company — “the largest single heist in corporate history”, as Paul Gregory, the economist, wrote in 2011.
“If you were a psychologist, you would probably relate a lot of Roman’s story to his upbringing — orphaned, as an only child, raised by his uncle and then sent off to Moscow, in theory to make his fortune,” one former Abramovich aide says.

Roman’s yacht Eclipse considered the largest and most expensive in the World

“But he was also one of those guys who was in the right place at the right time to make a huge amount of money after the break-up of the Soviet Union. He got lucky in one respect, but I don’t think anyone would look at his life and say he has been blessed.”
Roman Abramovich has five children from his second marriage — one son, Arkady, and four daughters, Ilya, Anna, Sofia and Arina — and two, Aaron and Leah, from his third marriage, to Dasha Zhukova, the 34-year-old daughter of another Russian oligarch. Arkady is already embarking on his own business career, as founder and owner of ARA Capital, a private investment vehicle, and Sofia, a budding showjumper, likes to post photographs on Instagram of family life, whether at the Belgravia residence, the vast Sussex mansion or the villa near St Tropez.
This year’s Sunday Times Rich List estimated Abramovich’s personal wealth at £7.29 billion. That put him at No 10 in the list of Britain’s richest people. Those close to him take issue not with the figure, but with the concept. “You people always claim he lives in London,” one says. “He has property there and he visits, but the same goes for France and the United States. If you asked me, I would say he lives in Moscow. If you asked him, he would say he lives on his plane or his yacht.”
The yacht, registered in Bermuda but frequently moored off St Tropez, is Eclipse, reported to be the world’s second-largest (162 metres long) and is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Described as a “floating palace”, it has two swimming pools, two helicopter pads, a mini-submarine and a missile defence system. The plane is his customised Boeing 767 jet. When asked if the interior is chestnut and gold, an occasional passenger says — presumably in jest — “I could tell you, but I would have to kill you.”
Security is a big deal for Abramovich. The cost of his personal security operation in the UK alone, with a staff of 20, mostly former soldiers, is reported to be more than £1.2m. Then again, when he was described as being surrounded by a grizzled, scruffy-looking bunch of “bodyguards” as they took Eclipse on a trip around the Scottish islands last summer, stopping for a spot of cycling and dog-walking, those “bodyguards” turned out on closer inspection to be Shvidler, Alexey Polezhaev, David Davidovich and Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, reportedly worth a combined £4 billion.
Few oligarchs have what Abramovich has: a profile that can lead people to regard him as something other than the beneficiary of Yeltsin’s post-Soviet carve-up. He also has strong, if informal, links to President Putin, whom he supported strongly in his candidacy to become prime minister for the first time in 1999, and the Russian government. At the Kremlin, as among many at Stamford Bridge, Abramovich is known as “Mr A”.
“Does Roman have any political ambitions? No,” one associate says. “He tried that (as governor of Chukotka between 2000 and 2008) and it didn’t interest him. He is apolitical. He has a line to Putin, but so do a lot of other important businessmen in Russia.
“I guess the thing that sets Roman apart is that he has this different image, which is ‘cleaner’ than it might be otherwise. He is known and recognised, in Russia and worldwide, as the guy who owns Chelsea, rather than the guy who picked up Sibneft in the way he did and then sold it for billions.”
So what is Abramovich’s grand plan as he moves towards 50? “He’s an investor,” the associate says. “He isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of any of his companies — at Chelsea or anywhere else — but he takes an active interest in all of it. There are investments in steel, gold, nickel, forest products, real estate in Moscow, start-ups in Russia and Israel, green energy.”
Where do Chelsea fit into that? “It has never been a business investment in the same way the others are, but nor is it just some rich man’s toy. He gets a great deal of excitement from it — and no doubt frustration too, at times — but, more and more these days, it’s a mature business.”
“The day he bought Chelsea, people were asking, ‘What happens when he gets bored of it?’ Then when they won the Champions League in 2012, people thought it was mission accomplished and he would sell up and look for something new. But he doesn’t get bored of it. He enjoys it and he enjoys the reflected glory that comes with it. Will he ever sell? Who can say, but I really can’t see it happening any time soon.”
The Times

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