LONDON – (Reuters) – When he took the helm of Norilsk Nickel (GMKN.MM) last December as part of a deal that ended a long-running shareholder battle, Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin hinted he saw himself in the job for roughly two years.
Almost a year on, Potanin is clearly relishing his role at the center of a major turnaround and indicates he has no plans to stand down as chief executive of the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. “I don’t like deadlines,” the 52-year-old Potanin told Reuters over tea in an upmarket London hotel late on Friday after a long day spent wooing investors.
His departure could be years away as he develops the Norilsk management into a world-class team, he said. “For a rich and reasonably successful guy, it is impossible not to enjoy your job, otherwise why would you spend so much time and effort doing it? I am a great fan of Norilsk and I like this kind of challenge.”
Potanin, whose more than $14 billion fortune began in banking, has long been a major shareholder in Norilsk, securing stock at a bargain-basement price in the loans-for-shares privatizations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and spawned a new oligarch elite.
He now holds a 30 percent stake, the single largest.
Until late last year, Potanin had rejected a direct role in managing the company, saying he preferred to leave the day-to-day running to professional managers. That has changed.
“When you supervise something, it is one thing. When you are in the middle of something, there is a different pace of life,” said Potanin, sporting a sober grey suit instead of his customary open-necked black shirt.
He is now spearheading an austerity effort that echoes Norilsk’s diversified peers in the mining sector, trimming back to its core assets, cutting spending, and even dividends – albeit still with sector-beating yields. And there is flexibility for more if markets worsen dramatically, he said.
Norilsk, which mines some of the world’s largest nickel-copper-palladium deposits in Russia’s far north, has battled lackluster prices – nickel has dropped by a fifth this year – and an image tarnished by years of draining infighting between key investors. Potanin and rival billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who owns 28 percent of Norilsk through indebted aluminum producer Rusal (0486.HK), were at loggerheads for more than four years.
Potanin has kept the largest stake but ceded control last year, with a deal that brought in Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich as peace enforcer.
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