PROFILE: Day of reckoning comes for eccentric owner of Russian bank Uralsib

By bne IntelliNews November 10, 2015

Jason Corcoran in Moscow -

Revelations and mysticism may have been the stock-in-trade of Nikolai Tsvetkov’s management style, but ultimately they didn’t help him to hold on to his Russian bank.

Tsvetkov surrendered control of Uralsib, Russia’s 26th largest, on November 4 as part of a bailout after a year of it being on the precipice of bankruptcy and under threat of having its license revoked. Deals to offload the lender to Moscow Credit Bank, Alfa Bank and SMP Bank foundered as the loss-making institution's financial health deteriorated amid the country’s deepening recession, sanctions and a worsening loan book.

As part of the rescue, or “sanitation” as it’s known in Russian, the state will extend an RUB81bn ($1.3bn) lifeline to Uralsib and allow entrepreneur Vladimir Kogan, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, to take a 82% stake. Tsvetkov will be left with a minority holding. The bailout is the biggest using Central Bank of Russia funds since the controversial takeover of Bank of Moscow by VTB in 2011.  

“The writing was on the wall for Uralsib for quite some time,” one former senior employee tells bne IntelliNews. “Even Tsvetkov’s guru, known for his dubious visions and premonitions, would have seen this one coming.”

Tsvetkov is a follower of the self-help guru Sergei Neopoletansky, one of the founders of the doctrine of Sun Light. Neopoletansky, which is believed to be an alias, says he is a disciple of the Indian Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba. Some of Neopoletansky's adherents believe he is the embodiment of the deity, while other UralSib employees claim he is a charlatan and a crook. Tomes by Neopoletansky called “The Alchemy of Abundance” and “The Matrix of Happiness” became required reading for senior bank personnel who were tested on its contents.

Tsvetkov, a dabbler in ontology, yoga and feng shui, obliged managers to attend seminars at the Ritz Carlton where they were required to talk to trees and pretend to be different animals by growling, grunting and howling on tables. One executive said he was almost fired for declining to attend, while another senior analyst got into strife for dismissing the sessions as “Scientology”.

Former employees at Uralsib tell bne IntelliNews that Neopoletansky was paid “several million dollars” from company coffers for his seminars. Olga Gorshkova, a bank spokeswoman, declined to comment by e-mail.. 

“His birthdays were legendary,” recalls another former executive. “All senior managers had to line up and each one make equally outrageous comparisons between him [Tsvetkov] and Peter the Great or other heroes of Russian history. It was just like North Korea and nobody dared not do it or they would be out or demoted.”

Oily beginnings

In 1993, Tsvetkov set up a brokerage called Nikoil, which became Lukoil’s main agent in the notorious voucher auctions. Tsvetkov and his wife Galina pledged their small house in the Russian countryside to set up the firm, according to Thane Gustafon’s book “Wheel of Fortune”.

By the early 2000s, Tsvetkov and Vagit Alekperov, founder of Lukoil, had contributed substantially to one another’s fortunes. Nikoil, which would become Uralsib, organized Lukoil’s privatisation and served as its investment bank, managing relationships with potential foreign lenders and investors. By 2002, Tsvetkov was listed as Lukoil’s second-biggest shareholder, while Alekperov was listed as a major shareholder in Nikoil.

A fitness fanatic who served in the Soviet air force, Tsvetkov commanded that elevators at the bank’s Moscow headquarters be blocked from stopping on floors 1-4 on the way down to encourage exercise. He obsessed about diets and encouraged vegetarianism, fasting and starvation.

Another hobby of his was numerology. In 2007, Tsvetkov was assessing two candidates as a replacement for chairman of the bank. The two contenders were Andrei Donsky and Vladimir Ryskin, and Tsvetkov eventually opted for Donsky because his tenure at the bank was numerologically compatible with his, according to one insider at the bank.

A devotee of feng shui, a Chinese system of keeping things in harmony, Tsvetkov paid an extortionate rent for the bank’s London office in Tower 42 because “the building looks like a rocket ship to the stars”, according to a former staffer. The office, which takes up the south-facing side on the 33rd floor, was decorated with space motifs and has an amazing view of the Thames from Tower Bridge to the Big Ben. “It is the ideal feng shui location,” says the former exec.

Honest Nik

To his credit, former staffers say Tsvetkov refused to deal with state companies or energy companies because he thought “dirty money” would contaminate the group and his wellbeing. Hence, the bank's balance sheet remained small and it became overly exposed to the risky real estate and constructions sectors.

Tsvetkov used to circulate company presentations with new age-inspired titles like “The Corporation as an Organism” with pictures of zodiac signs, according to a former Uralsib trader. “However, if you leafed through these presentations, sometimes they also had real information in them like financial performance figures for different departments of the bank. These couldn’t be located then in the actual IFRS filings,” says the former trader.

Tsvetkov has been very involved in charity and Forbes reported he spent as much as $300mn of company funds on the restoration of churches, the construction of houses for families with adopted children and other projects.

By 2006, Uralsib was the fifth biggest lender in the country by assets and among the bracket of the five most profitable. But the bank never really recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, and Tsvetkov was forced to sell off his supermarket chain Kopeika in 2010 to help plug a financial hole and keep Uralsib solvent.

Tsvetkov had been desperate to sell the supermarket business to the US giant Walmart, but was frustrated when the Kremlin intervened and told him to sell it to X5, the retail chain of Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group. “He nearly had a meltdown because he had to accept Alfa’s oil money rather than the Walmart deal,” says one executive from that time. “He disappeared to the retreat in New Mexico for 10 days to get his head around it.”

At the same time, former executives claim Tsvetkov knew many of the bank’s managers were “diverting profitable trade” to other lenders for kickbacks and did nothing about it. 

Forbes estimates the capitalization of the bank tumbled from a peak of $7.9bn in 2007 to a paltry $170mn today. And in mid-October, Fitch Ratings lowered Uralsib's long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to 'B-' because of the weakening of the bank's capitalisation, asset quality and profitability. Problem loans surged to 15% of the loan book and the bank faced the risk of breaching the 6% Tier 1 capital ratio, according to Fitch.

Mikhail Sukhov, deputy governor of the central bank, claimed the real value of Uralsib’s assets were overstated by “tens of billions of rubles”. The regulator didn’t find any evidence of outright fraud, but said the lender’s business was unprofitable due to high internal costs.

Forbes estimates that Tsvetkov’s own wealth has shrunk to just $350mn from $5.2bn in 2006. Tsvetkov, who hasn’t talked to the media in years, is apparently unfussed by the decline in his fortunes and is happy to focus on his spirituality and research activities.  

PROFILE: Day of reckoning comes for eccentric owner of Russian bank Uralsib

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