Marc Rich: Businessman who was named on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted Fugitive’ list

He arranged 78 shipments of oil to the apartheid regime of South Africa, breaking the UN embargo

Marc Rich was one of the world’s most influential commodity traders, a veritable godfather of the business, whose former colleagues now run two of the world’s largest trading firms, Glencore and Trafigura. His business philosophy – he once told an interviewer “you can’t run a business on sympathies otherwise you’d be hampered” – was worthy of a villain in the works of Ian Fleming or Eric Ambler.

He specialised in dealing with outcast countries, selling oil to everyone from Pinochet and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to apartheid-era South Africa, ensuring that for years his name appeared on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list. Yet he was pardoned by President Clinton just before he left the White House and died, untouched by the law, in the Villa Rosa, a huge, cream-coloured mansion overlooking Lake Lucerne.

He was born Marcell Reich in Antwerp in 1934. In the early 1940s, like thousands of other Jews, the family fled to America to escape the Nazis, settling in Kansas City, where they opened a jewellery store. From the beginning, Rich was different. His preferred languages were French, German and Yiddish, and at school he aimed to attract as little attention as possible. People who worked with him said that before making any decision he always weighed the risks carefully and that his obsession with secrecy knew no bounds – “Marc gave paranoia a bad name,” said one business associate.

Rich’s career as a deal-maker began in 1954 when he joined Phibro, then the world’s largest raw-materials trading company. From the start he stood apart, if only because of the risks he was prepared to take. By 1966 he was successful enough to marry Denise Joy Eisenberg, a beautiful brunette whose parents, like his, had fled the Nazis. Her father, Emil, was one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the US.

Rich’s big opportunity came in 1973 with rumours that Opec was about to impose an oil embargo. Rich and a colleague, Pincus Green, bought $150m worth of crude oil at $5 above the going rate – the “spot rate”. In the late 1960s he had taken on the so-called “Seven Sisters”, the companies that controlled the world’s oil business and thus invented the spot market for oil. When news of the scale of the deal reached head office, Phillipp Brothers’ board panicked and forced Rich to sell.

But he had been right, and a few months later, when the oil price soared, the board gave Rich a freer hand. A year later when the board refused to pay them the bonuses they thought they were due, he and Green left and set up their own business in Zug, a Swiss canton known for its corporate secrecy and low tax rates, at 10 per cent a mere quarter of that in the US.

The 1970s were good for Rich as he expanded the previously undeveloped oil trade. Exploiting his contacts with the Shah’s courtiers he bought Iranian oil for $15 a barrel and then sold it at far above that figure. By 1976 his pre-tax profits were $367 million. He built what was named “the Dallas building” – a glass tower block in Zug – to house his oil and commodities trading operation, making him appear to Zugites like their very own JR Ewing.

Rich saw no reason to stop dealing with Iran when Ayatollah Khomeni replaced the Shah. But clients like him, Pinochet’s Chile and Ceausescu’s Romania were just the tip of the iceberg. Between 1979 and 1988 he also arranged 78 secret shipments of oil to South Africa, in an obvious breach of the UN embargo against the apartheid regime, disguising the deliveries by filing false shipping reports. By then he was dealing on an awesome scale. In the early 1980s he cornered 40 per cent of the world aluminium market and then, seemingly by accident, the world silver market, too; he bought a 50 per cent share in 20th Century Fox as a tax write-off and managed to keep it secret for six whole months, selling it at a profit to Rupert Murdoch.

According to the 1983 US indictment he illegally bought millions of barrels of oil from Iran during the US hostage crisis in 1979-80 in contravention of the US ban on trading with the enemy. In 1984 he settled wrote the government a cheque for $170m to compensate for tax violations and contempt of court for refusing to surrender subpoenaed documents.

But he was still guilty of trading with the enemy, and he and Denise still could not leave Switzerland without fear of arrest except to go to Spain, where Rich had a villa in Marbella, and Israel, countries in which Rich had taken out citizenship. He had endeared himself to the Swiss through his charitable foundations, donating money to the Zurich opera house, Lucerne’s culture centre and Zug’s modern art museum, and sponsoring the local ice hockey team.

By then the stories – not necessarily accurate – had accumulated: how en route from Switzerland to Finland he had to order his jet to reverse course at 20,000ft to avoid being arrested by the FBI at Helsinki airport; the tunnel he built between the “Dallas building” and the Glashof restaurant opposite so he could slip out to lunch without fear of assassination; or the time he was allegedly held hostage in Azerbaijan while his captors considered whether to sell him to the Russians (who were allegedly fed up with him for getting hold of their reserves of gold and other precious metals); or the rumours that he had slipped in and out of Britain and the US many times under false passports.

In 1996 he and Denise had gone through a bitter divorce but four years later Denise wrote to President Clinton in support of her husband’s application for the controversial presidential pardon he granted Rich on his last day in office despite the misgivings of law enforcement officials. They had barely exchanged a civil word in five years, but as she told one interviewer, “All I thought at the time was, ‘OK, he’s the father of my children, and if that’s what they’ve asked me to do, I’ll do it’.” Probably more relevant were the efforts of Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, and other senior officials, and a deal with the Israelis, for whom he had found supplies of oil during a crisis in the mid-1970s.

Through a mysterious intermediary, a former Mossad agent, Avner Azulay, Rich managed to exert pressure on Clinton from prominent Israeli politicians including Ehud Barak and former prime minister Shimon Peres. But by then Rich was far less influential than he had been. In 1993 an ill-advised attempt to corner the world zinc market brought him apparently to the edge of bankruptcy, and he sold his business to associates, who renamed it Glencore. He then set up a smaller business which he sold, again to associates, in 2003, living for 10 years in retirement surrounded by a major art collection; he was particularly fond of the works of Picasso.

Marcell David Reich (Marc Rich), businessman: born Antwerp 18 December 1934; married Denise Joy Eisenberg (marriage dissolved); died 26 June 2013.

Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star