The billionaire poised to become music's most powerful man

The record industry is doomed, they say. So why is Len Blavatnik trying to buy two huge labels?
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The Independent Culture

Pop is about to get a new paymaster. He is a Ukrainian-born American citizen who made a fortune in Russia and now lives like a king in London, and it looks like he is about to get his hands on one of the biggest record companies in the world.

As of last night, Len Blavatnik was the front runner to buy Warner Music, and if industry gossip is to be believed, it won't be long until he adds EMI, the historic home of The Beatles, to his media empire.

Mr Blavatnik's move into music biz will be a departure for a man whose $10bn (£6bn) fortune is built on unsexy businesses in oil, aluminium and chemicals. More importantly, it will be a gamble for someone who has known few failures in his career. Music, since the advent of file sharing, has wiped out the fortunes of lesser men. Who thinks they can make money from recording music in an era of rampant piracy?

Certainly Warner has been posting disappointing results for years, and its owners – a group of private equity firms – want out. They watched the fate of another financier, Guy Hands, who bought EMI just before the credit crisis and lost his entire investment earlier this year, when the company's banks called in their loans and took it over. EMI and Warner are the world's 4th and 3rd largest music companies, and have tried to merge in the past. The new owner of Warner is expected to make a new attempt in the coming months.

Mr Blavatnik is no stranger to tough business challenges – though charming the music industry's precious stars and fighting the pirates will require different skills.

Born Leonid Valentinovich Blavatnik in 1957 in the Soviet Union, he arrived penniless in the US with his parents at the age of 21 but immediately took to American entrepreneurial capitalism. After studying computer science at Columbia University in New York and attending Harvard Business School, he made an early fortune buying and selling apartments in Manhattan.

But it was the collapse of Communism that gave him his opening: he provided financing and Western business school acumen for the takeover of numerous privatised Russian enterprises, often teaming up with an old Moscow school chum, Viktor Vekselberg, as they built industrial conglomerates. The pair orchestrated the first hostile takeover of the post-Communist era, of a tractor factory.

Mr Blavatnik is no stranger to the controversies and bitter battles that so many of the post-Communist business builders have got themselves into. He has been a bête noir of BP, in particular, as the British oil giant sought to expand its presence in Russia. Access and its partners were first rivals to BP and then collaborated in a wary alliance, the joint venture TNK-BP, which has turned into one of the longest-running soap operas in the oil industry. Mr Blavatnik and Mr Vekselberg forced out the head of the venture, Bob Dudley, in 2008, but Mr Dudley, now chief executive of BP, got his revenge by shunning TNK-BP for its next round of investment in Russia. Suffice to say, the relationship is in crisis, with lawsuits flying.

Mr Blavatnik also fell foul of Gordon Brown when it was revealed at the height of the credit crisis that Royal Bank of Scotland had lost more than £1bn on loans to his company when one of its chemicals businesses collapsed. The Prime Minister and his officials briefed that RBS ought not to have been gambling on risky loans to foreign businessmen.

Nonetheless Mr Blavatnik continues to enjoy a princely lifestyle in the UK. When he paid £41m for a mansion on West London's uber-exclusive Kensington Park Gardens in 2004 he moved into a street that includes the Sultan of Brunei among the neighbours and he has proceeded to dig a giant underground complex including a swimming pool, a gym and a private home cinema at the property – all to the design of David Cameron's favourite architects, Michaelis Boyd.

Forbes magazine this year rated him as the world's 80th richest man, and he has started doing the philanthropic thing by giving away significant sums – including £75m to Oxford University to build the Blavatnik School of Government to train a generation of future political leaders from around the world. The university lauded the donation as one of the most generous gifts in its 900-year history.

Mr Blavatnik will be paying about $3bn if he wins the auction for Warner and it is easy to see why he was the favourite from the outset. The deal is being done among friends. Access Industries already has a small stake in Warner and Mr Blavatnik used to be on the board. When he was engaged in a bitter public row with the bank JP Morgan Chase last year (he accused it of mismanaging $1bn of his money), the friends who rallied to support him included Edgar Bronfman Jr, who runs Warner and who is expected to continue in that post under new ownership.

"I think like any successful businessman he has strongly held views when he believes he's right," Mr Bronfman told Bloomberg News at the time. "I know Len's a highly principled guy and would not do something unless he thought he was in the right."

Media businesses account for a minuscule amount of Access Industries' profits, Mr Blavatnik has said, but he wants that to change in the next few years.

In an interview last year he acknowledged that many savvy businessmen have lost their shirts by investing in media, but promised to tread cautiously. "I don't want to be the next victim," he said.

His performance will be closely watched.