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Vekselberg denies Kremlin influence

Viktor Vekselberg assured the audience that his business decisions were not influenced by the Kremlin

(Keystone)

Russian billionaire investor Viktor Vekselberg has launched a defence of his expanding Swiss business empire by rounding on critics who dubbed him a Kremlin puppet.

Vekselberg's holding company, Renova, has sent shockwaves through the Swiss manufacturing sector in the past two years by snapping up established companies such as Oerlikon and Sulzer.

Speaking at the Swiss Economic Forum in Thun on Thursday, Vekselberg dismissed whispers that his operations are financed by Russian state funds and that he plans to make a quick rouble by selling off Swiss firms.

Criticism has focused on Vekselberg's association and regular meetings with former Russian president – and now prime minister – Vladimir Putin.

Newspaper reports in September said former Russian Economy Minister German Gref had threatened Swiss business interests in Russia when the Federal Banking Commission launched investigations into Renova's aggressive takeover tactics.

"The Russian state has no part in [Renova] but we are confronted in Switzerland with comments that Renova is in the hand of the Kremlin. My meetings with the president have been understood as me receiving instructions," Vekselberg told the audience of heads of small and medium-sized businesses.

"This is just total nonsense. Our investments in Swiss products have nothing to do with the Russian government or Russian state capital."

Corruption

Vekselberg admitted that Russia's rapid rise as a global economic power had resulted in problems – not least corruption. However, he insisted that Russia was on the right path to "conquering this horrible evil".

"Europe and the United States took their time to build their market economies over two centuries. Russia had to do this in 15 years," he said. "Given this rate of expansion, mistakes were made, but we have also learned from our mistakes."

In recent weeks Renova has emerged victorious from a power struggle with former ally, the Austrian Victory group, to wrestle total control of engineering companies Oerlikon and Sulzer.

Various media reports have alluded to secret plans to merge these firms with other Swiss industrial companies to create a manufacturing giant.

Vekselberg did not comment on these rumours, but was more interested in dismissing concerns that he is a speculator intent on selling off his acquisitions to the highest bidder in the near future.

"Russian madness"

The Russian insisted his business philosophy was based on the principles of trust, honour and respect.

"In 18 years [since Renova was founded] I have never sold anything of significance because each company is something akin to a child to me - perhaps I am sentimental. Whether you like it or not we are here for the long run," he said.

"We would like to become fully fledged business citizens of your hospitable country. We are making every effort to understand your social, historical and cultural traditions. We hope in return to bring a bit of Russian madness and a faster pace."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Thun

Viktor Vekselberg

Viktor Vekselberg is Russia's fifth-wealthiest individual, with a personal fortune of SFr8.1 billion ($6.52 billion) made in oil and aluminium.

Married with two children, he lives in Switzerland having recently bought a luxury apartment in Zurich. He is an avid collector of Fabergé eggs.

He is chairman of the Renova Group, which has had a long association with Zug-based commodities firm Glencore but started acquiring stakes in Swiss manufacturing companies in 2006.

The holding company briefly teamed up with Austrian investment company, Victory Holding, to create a third enterprise, named Everest. But the partnership soon broke up because of strategic differences and Renova started buying Victory out of their joint ventures.

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Swiss Economic Forum

The tenth edition of the Swiss Economic Forum (SEF), the annual meeting of SME leaders, is taking place in Thun, canton Bern until Friday.

It was conceived by Stefan Linder and Peter Stähli over a spaghetti meal in 1998 as a forum to promote new SMEs and innovation. The following year the first SEF, running under the theme of communication, attracted 460 business people.

This year's forum has swollen to 1,200 attendees - oversubscribed by 600 - and is entitled: Peak Performance.

This year's keynote speakers include Russian billionaire businessman Viktor Vekselberg, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Novartis chairman and chief executive Daniel Vasella.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are companies that employ up to 250 people.
They account for 99.7% of the 307,000 companies in the Swiss private sector and provide jobs for 66.8% of the workforce.

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