History never repeats itself, but often it does have a habit of rhyming. Looking at the posturing going on in the London Stock Exchange this week, it seems that observation is as true as ever. One of London’s most cherished listed mining companies is potentially falling into the clutches of an apparently disreputable Russian conglomerate with a history of unlawful conduct.
Renova Group is a diversified corporation owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia’s richest men and a prolific, bullish and often unorthodox investor. Its assets are diversified, but its business practices remain largely consistent. Renova has made headlines in the past for the aggressive and stealthy tactics it has employed to take control of public companies without paying a fair price for them. And now it looks like it has London, and mining, in its sights.
Renova first came to the attention of many with a blaze of investment in the Swiss market between 2006 and 2013. Just as impressive as the companies involved were the brazen tactics employed to secure them. Rather than incur the expense of offering to buy out shareholders and reward them a control premium to take over a company, Renova works to stack the board in their favour instead.
Renova’s track record can be seen in their acquisition of Swiss majors Oerlikon, Sulzer and Schmolz + Bickenbach. At Oerlikon, Renova acted in concert with Ronny Pecik and Georg Stumpf, the Austrian billionaires, to build up stakes in the Swiss industrial group – first 13.8%, later increasing it to 44%. All were later investigated by Swiss authorities concerning this stake-building and were fined CHF40m each in January 2010 for violating disclosure rules.
Similarly at Sulzer, Renova, along with concert party partners Pecik and Stumpf, had to pay Swiss authorities CHF10m to settle allegations of a breach of disclosure rules during the building of a controlling stake in the large industrial group. The Swiss Federal Department of Finance (FDF) announced that the trio had misused share options to hide their objectives and by 2015 Renova was forced into a mandatory offer after increasing their stake to over 33.3%.
Now it looks like those tactics have come to London as Renova mounts a management reshuffle at the veteran goldmining company, Petropavlovsk. Reports surfaced last week that Renova (which is thought to own around 30% of the business) along with two other large shareholders – M&G Investments, owned by the Prudential, and Sothic Capital Management – intended to vote against the chairmanship of Peter Hambro, Petropavlovsk’s founder. Renova has also proposed adding several individuals to the board. This too is a tactic we have seen before, but nominating one of their own employees, Vladislav Egorov, to a supposedly independent position certainly looks like a new kind of chutzpah.
For their own part, questions remain over the credibility of Renova as a business. Their CEO Evgeny Olkhovik remains in Russian custody facing fraud and bribery charges, meaning they are hardly strangers to scrutiny. Last year, Renova’s Moscow offices were raided by FSB agents wearing ski masks and balaclavas. Given one of the other major shareholders in Petropavlovsk is one of London’s most respected firms, the Prudential, it will make for an interesting AGM when the future of the goldminer, which returned to profit this year after a damaging refinancing process in 2015, is discussed next month.
My concern is less for the value of Petropavlovsk, I am certain that a change at Board level won’t have any immediate impact. But the value of a London listing cannot be overstated, and it is a worrying sight to see underhand tactics that benefit the controlling parties and not the shareholders that truly deserve reward. As we approach Petropavlovsk’s AGM next month, it will be fascinating to see the commentary that accompanies Renova’s first move into the mining market in London, not to mention how the Prudential can justify such a close associate with the Russian firm.