Prokhorov Tops Rich List

Russia's most eligible bachelor, outspoken and controversial billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is now the country's richest man with a $14.1 billion fortune, the latest rich-list from popular business magazine Finans showed.

While many of his peers seek state bailouts and risk losing their businesses entirely, the 43-year-old former banker and mining executive, who towers over his colleagues at two meters tall, is flush with money after cashing in his assets just before the bull market turned.

Prokhorov, a former chief executive of Norilsk Nickel, came under the spotlight of the international media over two years ago when he was briefly detained in a prostitution probe at a French skiing resort. He was released without charge.

Priding himself in predicting that the crisis was coming, he can view the latest rich-list as further proof that his strategy was right. The rating itself is unlikely to impress him, though.

"I never think about this [expletive]," he said in November when asked about rich-lists. "When I'm in a restaurant, I don't want everybody to stop eating and look. I'm not George Michael."

Prokhorov, who enjoys biathlons, kickboxing and extreme sports, earned billions of dollars by offloading his real estate and banking assets as well as a one-quarter stake in Norilsk Nickel, the Arctic miner that supplies 20 percent of the world's nickel, to United Company RusAl in 2008.

He now owns a minority stake in RusAl, whose top owner, Oleg Deripaska — last year's leader on both Finans's and U.S. magazine Forbes's rich-list — now faces major challenges as he struggles to refinance debts.

Deripaska saw his fortune plummeting nearly tenfold to $4.9 billion from $40 billion last year, according to Finans, which now rates him the eighth-richest Russian.

Finans rose in popularity last year when it ranked Deripaska as Russia's richest man. Two months later, the U.S. benchmark Forbes list followed.

Deripaska, who in recent months has lost assets in Canada and Germany put up as collateral on bank debts, has long argued that calculations of his fortune were inaccurate as they did not count his debts, which are estimated — though not confirmed by Deripaska — at over $20 billion.

Second to Prokhorov on the list came owner of English soccer club Chelsea, Roman Abramovich, who kept his position from last year although his fortune shrank to $13.9 billion from $23 billion over the last 12 months.
Abramovich was also among the earliest Russians to cash out of major industrial assets. The number of Russian billionaires halved in the last year to 49 as major developers, bankers and retailers fell out.

Last year, with 101 dollar billionaires on the Finans rich-list, Russia trailed only the United States as a home for the megarich.

Record oil and metals prices gave way to a decade-long economic boom, and cities across Russia, particularly Moscow, rapidly changed and became crammed with designer stores, sports utility vehicles and exorbitantly priced restaurants.

But a collapse in commodity and stock prices, a 35 percent ruble devaluation and high inflation slashed the number of billionaires in 2009 to below the levels of 2007 and 2006, when Finans counted 61 and 50 respectively.

Steel baron Vladimir Lisin kept his position as third-richest, although his wealth fell to $7.7 billion from $22.2 billion, while oil tycoon Vagit Alekperov from the country's No. 2 firm LUKoil jumped to fourth place with $7.6 billion.

Investor Suleiman Kerimov came fifth with $7.5 billion.