King of fish: True story of new Russian billionaire 

King of fish: True story of new Russian billionaire
Vitaly Orlov Photo: Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg

Bloomberg has proclaimed the emergence of a new dollar billionaire in Russia – Vitaly Orlov – whose business had skyrocketed after the Russian ban on imported fish. RBC tells his true story.

In the end of January 2017, Bloomberg has proclaimed the emergence of a new dollar billionaire in Russia. Meet Vitaly Orlov, owner of Norebo Holding fishery company and native of Murmansk, never mentioned before in popular ratings of biggest businessmen. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the fortune of Orlov exceeds $1 billion.

Dark horse

Being a native of Murmansk and the richest person in the region, Orlov remains a low profile figure – even in a small regional capital where all residents are supposed to know each other, very few people have heard about him and even fewer know him personally. The museum of the main university of the city – the Murmansk State Technical University (former Higher Nautical School), billionaire’s Alma Mater – has no references to the successful graduate, Aleksey Gurkin, Director of the Museum, told RBC.

Bloomberg claims that the main reason behind the skyrocketing success of Orlov are the Russian counter-sanctions: allegedly, after the ban on imported European fish, the company of Orlov has increased herring and mackerel shipments to Russia and made good money on this.

However, market insiders questioned by RBC have dismissed that version. They noted that it is impossible to drastically increase the supply due to the specificity of the fishery industry – capacities of fishing companies are limited by their catch quotes. In addition, the current devaluation of ruble makes fish shipments to the domestic market not very profitable – especially taking the sustainable demand on the international markets paying for the catch in hard currency.

Norebo Holding employees confirm that the counter-sanctions haven’t resulted in any business surge. “In 2016, the total catch of enterprises of the holding was roughly at the same level as in 2015 – 530 thousand tons against 520 thousand tons. The catch in the Far East has increased – while the catch in the northern basin has dropped. So, somewhere the revenues grow, somewhere they decrease,” – holding employees told RBC.

The Ministry of Fishery and Agriculture of the Murmansk Region believes that the enrichment of Vitaly Orlov has nothing to do with the import substitution.

In fact, the entrepreneur has come in Bloomberg’s view due to his victory in a corporate conflict and consolidation of the controlling block of Norebo Holding shares in his hands in 2016.

What is Norebo Holding?

Today, Norebo group consists of 12 main fishery companies based in the Russian Northwest and Far East; these companies operate 39 fishing ships belonging to them. Norebo group also includes trade companies in Russia and abroad, a new modern fish processing enterprise in the Murmansk region, Seroglazka cargo terminal in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and administrative and management companies. Some 3 thousand people are employed with the holding; 2 thousand of them constitute crews of fishing ships. Norebo head office is located in Murmansk. Representatives of the company do not disclose financial parameters, but according to the media, the corporate revenue was $600 million in 2015. In his interview to Kommersant, Orlov had mentioned a profit of 25–35%.

Friends-navigators

During the Soviet period, the Higher Nautical School was an ultimate dream of the Murmansk youth. Its most prestigious department was the Seamanship Faculty. A promising career of a sea captain had lain ahead of Vitaly Orlov and Aleksander Tugushev – cadets of the Higher Nautical School in the middle of the 1980s. The two students had studied on different courses – Tugushev was two years older – but still became friends. The collapse of the Soviet Union has altered the long-term plans of the young seamen and opened up new horizons for them.

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Upon graduation, Tugushev has launched his own business – a fishery company with several old refrigerating trawlers. Orlov has chosen a different path: good knowledge of the English language enabled him to get a job in the Murmansk branch of Scansea International – a Swedish company purchasing fish from Murmansk seamen and reselling it in Norway at a profit.

Aleksander Tugushev became a fish supplier for Scansea International. The business was growing, and in 1997, the two friends have decided to establish, jointly with Magnus Roth, co-owner of Scansea International, a new company – Ocean Trawlers. At that time, the fishing fleet of Russian companies was in poor shape – no new trawlers had been built, while old Soviet ones had inferior technical characteristics and equipment in comparison with Norwegian ships. Ocean Trawlers was incorporated in Norway and supplied Norwegian trawlers to Russia under bare boat charter contracts (lease of ships without crews) in exchange for the end product – fish fillet.

“We were actively searching for good ships built in Norway. We had implemented complicated ship financing and purchase schemes and sold those to our suppliers on long-term deferred payment terms,” – Orlov told in the interview to Kommersant in 2015.

According to Gennady Stepakhno, former Head of the Union of Fishing Producers of the North, this scheme had generated super-profits for the company. “Orlov had capitalized on the fact that Murmansk-based companies had neither connections nor experience; he had purchased our fish at half-price and resold it all over the world,” – Stepakhno describes the situation.

At home among strangers

In 1998, the co-owners of Ocean Trawlers had established Karat Holding in Russia to run the fishery business. According to Tugushev, Orlov and Roth had 33% each, while he had 34% of shares in the holding. During the investigation of a criminal case initiated later (RBC possesses testimonies of its suspects), Tugushev said that the parties had allegedly formalized their arrangements in an agreement produced in English language, and the only original of that agreement was kept by Orlov whom Tugushev used to fully trust as a friend.

Orlov was responsible for acquisitions, financing, and general cooperation with business partners, Roth – for sales, financing, and management, while Tugushev – for procurement of catch quotas for the company’s own fleet and its partners.

The access to catch quotas had always been the key factor of the fishing business in Russia. Governmental bodies of the countries running the fishing industry determine on the annual basis, based on scientific studies and other factors, maximum allowable catch quotas for specific fish species. Up until 2003, local authorities had distributed 60% of the quotas, while the remaining 40% were sold at federal auctions.

This scheme had provoked corruption and attracted criminal structures to the fishing business. For example, the investigation had linked the high-profile murder of Valentin Tsvetkov, Governor of the Magadan Region, in 2002 in Moscow with the distribution of catch quotas. This crime had expedited the revision of the catch quotas distribution procedure: the upcoming changes in the industry aimed to strengthen the role of the Federal Fishery Agency were actively discussed since the beginning of 2003. According to the new regulations, this agency had to distribute the quotas for five years ahead based on the “historical principle” – i.e. based on performance parameters of companies in the previous three years.

Aleksander Tugushev believed that amid such a drastic change of the game rules, it is important to have a finger on the pulse of the industry. In September 2003, he has joined the governmental service and became a Deputy Head of the Federal Fishery Agency.

How could a businessman be appointed to such a position? “At that time, operations of the fishery agency had caused lots of scandals. Its heads and deputy heads were replaced quickly, and it was not a secret for nobody that a position there can be purchased without any issue,” – tells Valery Yarantsev, former captain of Electron trawler, who became famous after a live TV broadcast of the pursuit of his ship by Norwegian fishery inspectors.

Upon becoming a civil servant, Tugushev had to leave the business and sell his share in the holding. Now he claims that his departure was a formal step: he had transferred his shares to nominal owners.

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Orlov has provided a different version to the investigators: his partner had left to become a governmental official and received for his portfolio of shares $30 million – the one-third of the total value of Karat at that time. The money had been transferred to accounts provided by Tugushev, Orlov says.

Being employed with the Federal Fishery Agency for less than a year, Tugushev has become a suspect in a criminal case. Far-Eastern Polluks company addressed the law enforcement authorities claiming that the official had promised to allocate catch quotas for 50 thousand tons of fish to it and received $3.7 million in cash for this. The quotas were never provided to Polluks. In June 2004, Tugushev was arrested and charged with swindling; in February 2005, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow had sentenced him to six years behind bars.

Fishing expansion

Upon his release in the end of 2009, Tugushev has immediately met with his companion and friend Vitaly Orlov who returned him into the business. The post of Tugushev was officially referred to as “Councilor”, but he claims that he had, in fact, managed all the holding operations in Russia – because Orlov and Roth were living abroad permanently.

After the return of Tugushev, Karat started actively purchasing assets – especially because the supply on the market was sufficient. The main factor determining the selection of assets was not the fleet capacity but the presence of ‘historical quotes’.

“Owners of fishery enterprises might have different reasons to sell their businesses. Mostly, these are economic reasons. The ship amortization is approaching zero; not everybody is willing or able to do the repairs. Therefore, one–two companies are being sold every year,” – Vladimir Grigoriev, general director in a number of companies – members of Norebo Holding, told RBC.

In the 2010s, the holding started an expansion in the Far East. In 2011, the companions have purchased Roliz company (according to Kommersant, for $50 million) and the controlling block of shares (53.24%) in Kamchatka-based Akros company for almost $100 million from the family of Sergei Darkin, ex-Governor of the Primorsky Krai. In 2012–2013, they have acquired Magadanflot, Vostochny Bereg (East Coast), and Sakhalin Leasing Fleet companies with the total Alaska Pollock catch quotas over 160 thousand tons (some 15% of the total Russian volume).

In the Northern basin, the cod catch quotas of Karat have doubled after the acquisition of the controlling block of shares in Tralflot, the oldest fishery enterprise in the Murmansk region founded in March 1920. Shortly prior to that deal, Tralflot had purchased from the Government of the Murmansk Region 26% of shares in Murmansky Gubernsky Flot (Murmansk Provincial Fleet) established in the late 1990s for 122 million rubles ($2.2 million). “I believe that the sale of those shares was a short-sighted policy of Governor Dmitry Dmitrienko, – Stanislav Nikanorov, former Head of Murmansky Gubernsky Flot Joint Stock Company, told RBC. – Dmitrienko thought that it is better to get money – even small – now rather than to develop the enterprise”.

Finally, Karelskie Moreprodukty (Karelian Seafood) company with catch quotas of some 6.8 thousand tons of fish has been added to the northern assets of Karat. Roman Kulik, Director of Severny Kupets (Northern Merchant) fishing company, claims that it was purchased for some $60 million.

In total, over $600 million – mostly, borrowed from Sberbank – have been spent on the acquisition of new assets. Some 15 major projects have been implemented jointly with Norebo Holding since 2005, says Anatoly Popov, Senior Vice President of Sberbank. Media had estimated the net debt of the holding at $450 million as of the end of 2015.

End of friendship

Vitaly Orlov had owned 67% in Norebo Holding – the new name of the group parental structure since 2013 – while 33% belonged to Roth. Tugushev claims that Orlov had repeatedly promised him to return the one-third share in the company ‘committed for safe-keeping’ for the period of his work in the Federal Fishery Agency and further imprisonment – but nothing was done.

The conflict was inevitable. In February 2013, Orlov has suspended Tugushev from duty – while Tugushev started actively demanding his share back. According to the investigation, Orlov had offered his partner a compromise solution. Tugushev has provided details of that compromise – Orlov had allegedly offered him $60 million. But Tugushev had estimated his share much higher – at $350 million. In case of refusal, he was ready to purchase the share of Orlov for the same amount.

Representatives of Tugushev had presented these terms again in November 2015, at a meeting with lawyers from Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners (EPAM) law firm retained by Orlov. In case of refusal, the representatives of Tugushev had promised to transform the corporate dispute into a criminal case and obtain the support of powerful people. In particular, the names of businessman Ilia Traber, also known as ‘Antikvar’ (Antiquary) (he had supervised the control over the sea ports on behalf of ‘Tambovskaya’ organized criminal group of St. Petersburg), and Adam Delimkhanov, Deputy of the State Duma and friend of the President of Checnya, were mentioned.

“The representatives of Tugushev told at our meeting that he had addressed a wealthy person unknown to them who has asked Delimkhanov and Traber to settle the existing conflict,” – lawyer Yuri Savvin told the investigators. Arkady Krasnikhin, another EPAM representative, told the investigator about the conversation with the representatives of Tugushev and noted that they had described people of Deputy Delimkhanov as “solving issues with weapons and remaining unpunished”.

Another arrest

But Orlov declined the proposal. Then Tugushev submitted a criminal complaint to law enforcement structures of the Murmansk region claiming that his shares had been stolen and provided audio records of his conversations with Orlov where Orlov allegedly confirms the right of the former partner to the one-third of the assets.

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The facts presented in the criminal complaint of Tugushev haven’t been confirmed, but, according to his lawyers, the Department for Economic Security and Combatting the Corruption of the Administration for the Murmansk Region of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation still continues its inquiry.

Vitaly Orlov addressed the law enforcement authorities as well. He has submitted a criminal complaint to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR) accusing the ex-partner of extortion. In April 2016, the ICR had declined to institute a criminal case, but in the end of the year, Tugushev was arrested.

The formal reason for the arrest were incoming calls to the cell phone of Orlov with threats recorded by him. According to the investigation, Mualadi Dzhamaldaev, an unemployed native of Chechnya, had called Orlov following a request from Tugushev. He had introduced himself a “kiddo of Sasha Tugushev” and promised to “break the legs” and “cut into pieces” Orlov and members of his family should he refuse to transfer the shares. Dzhamaldaev was remanded in custody, while Tugushev placed under home arrest in his Moscow apartment. On March 25, the court has released him under a written pledge not to leave the city.

“Our client was not even questioned; the charges are based solely on the testimony of Dzhamaldaev; there are no other evidences of his guilt,” – Daria Konstantinova, defense attorney for Tugushev, told RBC.

“I am very sorry that the story of affairs between two members of the fishery community has been exposed to the public, this is really sad,” – Yuri Zadvorny, Head of Murmansk-based Murmanseld-2 company, told RBC.

The winner

Upon ousting Tugushev from the management of the Norebo business in Russia, Vitaly Orlov has returned back to his home city of Murmansk. After the beginning of the ‘sanctions war’, he has given up the Norwegian citizenship and, according to his representatives, personally addressed the Federal Antimonopoly Service of the Russian Federation asking to check all the asset acquisitions made by the holding. “All the deals have been ultimately approved as legitimate,” – Vladimir Grigoriev, general director in several of companies – members of Norebo Holding, told RBC.

In 2016, Orlov has bought out the share of Magnus Roth and became the sole proprietor of Norebo Holding. According to the heads of enterprises united by the holding, he actively participates in the corporate management; they discuss and coordinate their strategies with him on the weekly basis and determine the tactics by themselves. The active expansion period is over; currently the holding has no plans to acquire new fishing companies.

Still, Orlov has some time for leisure. “Vitaly Petrovich has been skiing since his childhood in Murmansk and Kirovsk; now this is his hobby. Living in Murmansk permanently, he has a good opportunity to practice active winter sports,” – Sergei Sennikov, deputy of Vitaly Orlov in the holding management company, told RBC. 

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