Gunvor looks to US after Russia disposals

When the Swedish challenger for the 35th America’s Cup heads for a qualifying race in Japan next month it should boost a new sponsor — commodity trader Gunvor.

On one level the move is unsurprising: Artemis Racing is owned by Torbjorn Tornqvist, the billionaire Swedish who co-founded Gunvor and helped build the company into one of the world’s largest oil traders.

But prominently placing the Gunvor logo on the catamaran’s main sail also has symbolic value for the Swedish executive, as Gunvor tries to shake off the stigma of its Russian roots.

It is six months since the Financial Times revealed how Gunvor paid Mr Tornqvist, the company’s controlling shareholder, a special $1bn dividend that he used to sever ties with his old Russian business partner, who was hit with US sanctions in 2014. For Mr Tornqvist, who is widely known in the oil industry as TT, it was a chance to reinvigorate Gunvor.

“In 2014 and 2015 we were on the back foot,” Mr Tornqvist says in an interview with the FT at Gunvor’s sleek modern offices in Geneva. “Now we can be forward looking and position the company for the future.”

Gunvor chief executive Torbjorn Tornqvist © Reuters

A key challenge facing Gunvor is how it replaces the profits it used to secure from Russia.

Gunvor once had a market-leading position in Russia, handling about one-third of its seaborne exports of crude oil, but today commodities originating from the country amount to less than 15 per cent of the company’s total trading.

This reflects how Gunvor sold Russian assets after company co-founder Gennady Timchenko was placed on a US sanctions list in 2014, during the early days of the Ukraine crisis.

The US state department alleged Gunvor had ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin — something the company has vehemently denied.

Gunvor was only able to keep trading due to Mr Tornqvist buying out Mr Timchenko’s stake the day before the US sanctions were announced. But the money he owed to Mr Timchenko, an oligarch who is close to Mr Putin, was only paid off with the $1bn dividend in 2015.

Since the split with Mr Timchenko, Gunvor has focused on expansion in Asia and western Europe.

But its most audacious move — given the sanctions imposed by Washington on Mr Timchenko — has been to establish a US operation.

Gunvor this month opened an office in Houston, having secured a $500m bank loan to support its fledgling North American operation.

The company has hired traders in the Texas city, where US oil exports have been growing this year since the lifting of curbs on sending such crude overseas. Gunvor is also planning to open an office close to the financial centres on the US east coast.

Gunvor co-founder Gennady Timchenko © Bloomberg

Meanwhile, Gunvor in February secured full ownership of a Rotterdam refinery by buying out Kuwait’s national oil company, highlighting a trend of commodity traders purchasing older plants they believe they can run more profitably than energy groups.

Gunvor now owns three European refineries with a combined capacity of almost 300,000 barrels a day in Rotterdam, Antwerp and Ingolstadt.

“For Gunvor, the US is the main focus this year and the Rotterdam operations,” says Mr Tornqvist.

Gunvor last year traded about 2.5m barrels of oil and petroleum products, making it one of the biggest independent energy traders behind Glencore, Trafigura and Vitol.

Net income jumped from $267m in 2014 to $1.3bn last year after Gunvor recorded a large profit on the sale of a majority stake in its once prized Russian oil terminal, Ust-Luga.

The Russian oil terminal at Ust-Luga © Reuters

Mr Tornqvist says trading conditions in the first six months of 2016 have not been as favourable as a year earlier when traders with access to oil storage facilities were able to buy crude cheaply and sell it forward in the futures market for higher prices. Gasoline trading — which was “really strong last year” — has presented fewer opportunities in 2016, adds Mr Tornqvist.

Craig Pirrong, a finance professor at the University of Houston who has written about the trading industry for Trafigura, says Gunvor appears to have been “relatively successful in pivoting away from Russia”.

“In this, it has been helped by highly favourable market conditions for oil traders,” he adds. “The challenge will be to see how it navigates less favourable conditions that are inevitable in the future.”

Mr Tornqvist says Gunvor is unlikely to make big acquisitions before 2017 despite having $1bn plus of cash on its balance sheet.

But as Gunvor changes its geographic focus, he is also altering the company’s ownership.

Mr Tornqvist is selling shares to his top traders to further incentivise them, in moves that mean his shareholding is due to fall from 78 per cent to 62 per cent by the end of 2016. “We want to attract the best traders,” he says.

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