(Repeats story with no change to text)
By Dmitry Zhdannikov
NEW YORK, March 24 In 2007, when Torbjorn
Tornqvist first emerged from the shadows of the Geneva-based oil
trading empire he helped build, he had one message to tell:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has nothing to do with Gunvor.
"We don't deny we have excellent contacts," the
steely-voiced Swedish oil trader told Reuters, in what was the
first interview of his 30-year career. "To involve Mr Putin and
any of his staff in this dialogue is speculation."
Seven years on, Tornqvist, 60, is still dogged by the same
speculation, this time provoked by the United States slapping
sanctions on his long-time partner, Gennady Timchenko, one of
the most loyal businessmen to Putin.
The U.S. government says Putin has "investments" in Gunvor
and may have access to its funds, an allegation Gunvor fiercely
denies. Hours after the announcement of the sanctions - designed
to put pressure on Russia for its annexation of Crimea - Gunvor
said Timchenko had sold his stake to Tornqvist.
Now, with a majority stake and 100 percent of the voting
shares, Tornqvist has much work to do to convince his trading
partners that Gunvor can still grow and thrive without
"This is certainly the most challenging moment in Gunvor's
history," Tornqvist told Reuters on Friday.
The imposing chief executive, an avid sailor with a shaven
head, teamed up with Timchenko to form Gunvor in 2000. The firm
has grown from a niche player in Baltic Sea oil exports into the
No.4 oil trader, handling 3 percent of the world's oil.
Gunvor says 80 percent of its business is unrelated to
Russia. It has poached top traders from firms like France's
Total, bought refineries in Europe and expanded into
coal, natural gas and key Asian markets. With annual turnover of
near $100 billion, Gunvor has 1,600 employees in 20 offices.
"Gunvor is more than 1 country or 2 people," the firm said
on Twitter on Friday. "Gunvor is global."
Yet the U.S. sanctions on Timchenko have brought Gunvor's
Russia ties once again to the fore. On Friday, major U.S. banks
and traders scrambled to understand whether they could continue
dealing with the firm. By the weekend, most
appeared to believe they could.
Washington did not slap sanctions on Gunvor itself as
Timchenko owned less than half the company, but the Treasury
Department warned Americans to "act with caution" when dealing
with companies that may be controlled "by means other than a
majority ownership interest." (Link to Treasury statement: r.reuters.com/fer77v)
FROM RUSSIA, WITH OIL
Tornqvist began his career the way many of the industry's
top executives did: working for a major oil company. At BP
, Tornqvist had a front-row seat to the birth of the
modern oil market in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He left BP in 1983 and joined Scandinavian Trading Co, an
oil trading venture that AB Volvo had acquired several years
earlier, according to a biography on Gunvor's website. The firm,
known as STC, was that year in the midst of dealing with heavy
speculative trading losses. By 1989, when he left STC, it was
scaling back operations.
Tornqvist became managing director of the oil division of
Intermaritime Group Petrotrade, which was part of Swiss oil man
Bruce Rappaport's energy, banking and shipping empire.
Tornqvist teamed up with Timchenko in 1997, and three years
later the two formally launched Gunvor, a name that translates
to "Vigilant in War" in old Scandinavian. His own name,
Torbjorn, means Thunder Bear.
Gunvor began making its name a decade ago by pioneering
small shipments of Russia's fast-expanding crude oil production
out of the Estonian port of Tallinn, one of the only Baltic
export terminals at the time.
The firm grew spectacularly, at one point becoming the
biggest exporter of Russian oil thanks to contracts with state
majors such as Rosneft.
Timchenko has repeatedly denied that Putin helped him create
his business empire and insisted that contracts were won at
competitive tenders. Putin himself made several statements
saying he never helped Timchenko.
By 2007, Gunvor was already looking further afield, seeking
to get access to oil exports from Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.
"We are confident our growth will continue but not in
Russia," Tornqvist said.
In 2012, Gunvor bought its first refinery in Antwerp, the
same small plant once owned by his former boss, Rappaport.
In the last few years, Gunvor ceded its leading positions in
Russia to rivals such as Glencore and Vitol, and now
focuses on trading in Europe and Asia.
Yet Russia remains core to Gunvor's success, with
investments such as a major oil products terminal at Ust Luga, a
Russian Baltic port. It is the company's single largest
investment, and a lucrative, 25 million metric ton a year
gateway for Russia's growing oil product exports, rivals say.
"He did exactly what all of us did - expand in new markets
and buy industrial assets. And he did it very aggressively," the
head of a major rival house said.
"WE DID IT"
Tornqvist now faces the future as Gunvor's sole majority
shareholder with an 87 percent stake. He said Timchenko's abrupt
divestment was part of a contingency plan that was worked out as
the Russia crisis deepened in recent weeks.
"By Wednesday, we were pretty convinced that the sale was
the only way forward for the company," said Tornqvist.
It is not known where Tornqvist raised the money to buy
Timchenko's stake in Gunvor, whose industrial assets are valued
at $2 billion. Timchenko and Tornqvist had each owned 43.5
percent of the firm, with the remainder held by employees.
Tornqvist said the deal was priced at a fair value but would
not give any details on financing. Forbes estimated Tornqvist's
net worth at $2.6 billion, making him the 15th richest Swede.
In both his personal and professional life, Tornqvist has
not been easily daunted by disaster.
In May 2013, Tornqvist's huge racing boat capsized in the
San Francisco Bay during practice for the America's Cup, the
world's most prestigious sailing race. A crew member died after
being trapped underwater.
Tornqvist, who did not participate in that race, said at the
time that he was devastated. Three months later, he was on a
brand new boat for another race.
"People didn't believe we will come back but we did it," he
said at the time.
(Reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Jonathan Leff and