Marc Rich: A buccaneer in a piratical world

The founding father of modern commodities trading, who has died aged 78, made a fortune out of sailing exceptionally close to the wind

To describe Marc Rich, the founding father of modern commodities trading, as "controversial" would be an understatement even bigger than the oil tankers from which he made his billions. The man who spent nearly two decades on the run from the FBI drew more criticism than possibly any other businessman of his generation.

Now that he has died of a stroke in Switzerland, aged 78, that controversy will dog his legacy, just as it has tarnished that of Bill Clinton, who famously pardoned him of a multitude of charges in his final hours in the White House.

Born Marcell Reich in 1934, he and his Jewish family fled Antwerp to escape the Nazis, settling in New York. Although fiercely clever, he dropped out of college in the 1960s to work for the commodity traders Phillips Brothers, now known as Phibro.

He quickly learnt the tricks of trading and, along with Pincus "Pinky" Green – another Phillips trader he met while working for the firm in Madrid – split off to form his own trading outfit, Marc Rich & Co.

Mr Rich and Pinky were renowned for working with the most difficult – for which read "corrupt" or "embargoed"– regimes in the world. Little surprise, given that one of Mr Rich's first tasks at Phillips had been, at 24, negotiating a mining deal with Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba.

These were places where the major oil and minerals companies refused to operate. In the 1970s and 1980s, that meant Iran, apartheid South Africa, Cuba, Libya.

Based in Zug, Switzerland, Mr Rich specialised in trading with countries embargoed by the US. In a rare interview with NBC, he said: "We're not political… That's just the philosophy of our company."

One trader who worked with him in those days puts it another way: "Marc was prepared to sail very, very close to the wind and not get too troubled about the legality of his transactions."

He hit his richest money vein during the Opec oil embargo of the early 1970s. He and Pinky, who spoke fluent Farsi, ran a lucrative trade buying oil from their contacts in the Middle East at around $12 a barrel, then selling them on to desperate US oil majors for up to $30. As one colleague recalls: "When you're making a turn of 20 bucks on hundreds of thousands of barrels, you quickly make shedloads of money."

Mr Rich built up senior contacts in all the countries where there was money to be made. It was a culture that he ruthlessly imposed across all of his employees throughout his career. Says one: "He created a network of very bright people with incredible connections, from the Congo to Peru, to Nigeria to South Africa, Israel to South Korea. He and his staff would know everybody from government ministers and company bosses to Joe Blow in charge of selling the products.

"It was a phenomenal field office operation. Yes, that involved backhanders and 'commissions' but that intelligence earned him a fortune."

It was not just cash that was made available to potential allies of the growing Rich empire. One oil executive told Bloomberg how in the 1970s Mr Rich and Pinky bought a house in the south of France, "stocked it with hookers from Paris and flew in oil guys who spent a week at their expense".The result of such largesse? "They got the oil contracts they wanted."

He lived so much on the edge of morality and business, and was so ruthless that he was dubbed "The Matador" by his traders. But his closeness to one regime was to leave him badly gored and exiled for the best part of 20 years.

Pinky and Mr Rich had been, it was alleged, trading oil from Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in Iran, in violation of the US trade embargo. US federal prosecutor Sandy Weinberg constructed an emotive case against a man alleged to have made millions from a regime that had held Americans hostage in Tehran.

Alongside the sanctions-busting charges, Mr Weinberg also hit Mr Rich with dozens of others, including wire fraud, mail fraud, racketeering, trading with enemies of the US and tax evasion.

Rather than stay and fight the charges, Mr Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 before the indictments were served. He spent the next two decades on the FBI's Most Wanted list, dodging the US manhunt in a chase that spanned Finland, Germany, Britain and Jamaica.

With his name like dirt in the US, the company could not afford the reputational damage. Mr Rich sold it to its management team, led by Ivan Glasenberg. Glencore, now the biggest commodities trader in the world, was born.

He remained on the run, even being unable to visit his daughter in the US while she was dying of leukaemia, until Mr Clinton pardoned him on 20 January 2001 – the President's very last day in the White House.

Conspiracy theories abound as to how he secured his pardon. Little wonder when you consider that his glamorous socialite wife, Denise, was a major donor to the Democrats and the Clinton library. Or that the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington had also been applying pressure on his behalf. Even the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and ex-Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit had pushed for the pardon.

Mr Rich set up in business again, but never with the same amount of success. As one former employee of the new firm said: "He'd lost his edge. Didn't want to take the risks. And besides, the markets were very different then."

That's not to say he didn't love it when his traders beat Glencore on deals, treating them to trips to his blingy chalet in St Moritz.

Former employees describe him in terms of awe but not fondness. Says one: "He was shy, not particularly friendly, and surrounded himself with sycophants. He had pretty gauche tastes – why else buy a place in Marbella?"

But his focus from the early days retains huge respect. As one veteran trader says admiringly: "If an event relevant to our business emerged in the newspapers before we knew about it, you would get severely bollocked."

Employees who failed to perform were quickly out on their ears. But those who survived went on to make themselves fortunes.

"This guy must have made more millionaires than practically anybody else in history," says one. "The money you could earn in a very short period of time made you very aggressive, very ambitious."

While there may have been a slight Jewish bias in the intake, Mr Rich ran his empire as a ruthless meritocracy: "If you didn't cut the mustard you were out," says an employee.

Although quietly spoken, with a soft American accent, he had what an employee said was a "vulpine" look: "Very intense, penetrating eyes, slightly hunched shoulders, with a face that showed signs of his love of whisky and cigars."

He was a buccaneer, in every sense of the world – positive and negative – and his alumni, sometimes dubbed "the Rich Boys", continue making up the backbone of what is still criticised as being a piratical industry.

Rich Boys led by Mr Glasenberg still run Glencore, while the world No 2, Trafigura, was founded by Mr Rich's protégés Claude Dauphin and Eric de Turckheim.

We may not like what they do, but, as long as consumers demand computers, smartphones and electricity, they will prosper from providing raw materials from difficult places. Mr Rich's legacy will live on.

Clinton's pardon: Outrage at let-off

Marc Rich's pardon by Bill Clinton drew huge condemnation from the US political establishment and was widely seen as a stain on his presidency. The former Democratic president Jimmy Carter described it as "disgraceful", Rudolf Giuliani, who later became mayor of New York, despaired at the let-off on what he described as "the biggest tax evasion case in US history". A House of Representatives committee said the pardon "raised substantial questions of direct corruption, primarily whether pardons were issued in exchange for political and other financial contributions".

Mr Clinton himself later admitted that he regretted the pardon, saying: "It was terrible politics. It wasn't worth the damage to my reputation. But that doesn't mean the attacks were true."

Luxury life of former wife 'Lady Gatsby'

It is a testimony to the bond between Marc Rich and his ex-wife Denise that she continues to use her husband's surname rather than her maiden name of Eisenberg.

Although a wealthy heiress to a US shoemaking empire, she made her own career as a songwriter, penning hits recorded by Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige and Jessica Simpson. A figure in the art world and political scene (she is a Democrat), she now lives in London, like her two daughters. She renounced her US citizenship in a move that accountants said would save her tens of millions of dollars in US taxes.

Dubbed "Lady Gatsby" by Yachting magazine, she has homes in luxury destinations around the world.

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