Choppy waters for shipping magnate

The knives are out for the man known in Norway as 'Big Wolf'. Sean Farrell looks at the story of his rise to riches – and infamy

Saturday 04 June 2011 00:00

Like many of London's international mega-rich, John Fredriksen likes to keep a low profile – but Britain's seventh-wealthiest man has hit the headlines twice in little more than a week.

First, one of the Norwegian shipping and energy magnate's businesses was identified in a US lawsuit for alleged manipulation of crude-oil prices. Then, a 2009 State Department cable surfaced alleging that his Arcadia Petroleum arm used a "long-standing monopoly" to buy Yemeni oil at below-market value.

Arcadia Petroleum did not return calls requesting comment for this article. Mr Fredriksen rejected the charges of oil-price manipulation in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv.

"It's what happens in an oil market – buying and selling oil. We have done nothing wrong," he said.

Arcadia's chief executive in Singapore told Reuters that Arcadia had worked with companies owned by the tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar in Yemen but that he was not Arcadia's agent. Mr al-Ahmad was named as Arcadia's agent in the cable.

Whether the allegations are correct or not, the story of Mr Fredriksen's rise to riches to become a latter-day Aristotle Onassis is full of swashbuckling moves that belie his public coyness.

Born in a working-class suburb of Oslo in 1944, Mr Fredriksen's links to the maritime industry were established early through his shipyard welder father. After leaving school, he worked as a messenger at a shipping broker and stepped up to run fish cargoes from Iceland to Hamburg.

In his early twenties, he moved to Beirut to ship crude oil from Iraq and Saudi Arabia and also spent time in Singapore and New York. In 1973, he bought his first ship.

It was in the 1980s that Mr Fredriksen began carving out a reputation for audacious actions. By exporting Iranian oil during the Iran-Iraq war, his ships braved attacks by Saddam Hussein's airforce to pass through the Persian Gulf. His tankers were hit three times but the daring operation made Mr Fredriksen a fortune that he has since expanded many times. With an estimated value of more than £6bn, his business empire includes shipping, oil exploration, natural gas, football, the world's biggest fish farm and a stake worth almost 5 per cent in Britain's Tui Travel.

His Persian Gulf exploits made him feted in the Norwegian shipping industry and earned him the nicknames "Big Wolf" and "Big John". His regular table at the opera café in Oslo was known as Kharg Island, named after the start of his route through the Gulf, but after falling out with his home country he does not visit much any more.

In 1986 he spent more than three months in pre-trial detention in Norway for suspected tax evasion and fraud. The authorities alleged his tankers had used fuel belonging to his customers. The main charges were dropped and Mr Fredriksen was fined for a lesser offence.

By 2006, fed up with Norway's high taxes, Mr Fredriksen upped sticks and took Cypriot citizenship. However, he spends most of his time in London, where he bought a house in upmarket Chelsea for £36m in 2002.

At the time, the deal made his house one of the capital's most expensive properties but it proved to be another savvy deal.

A few years later he reportedly turned down a £180m offer from the owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich.

His twin daughters Kathrine and Cecilie have put down roots in the UK. After graduating from London Metropolitan University and the European Business School respectively, they are now in their late twenties and helping to run his businesses.

Mr Fredriksen is a big donor to medical research through the Inger and John Fredriksen Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, which he established after his wife died in 2006. His early connections with the UK were less auspicious. It was one of Mr Fredriksen's tankers, the Sea Empress, that infamously spilt 70,000 tons of oil off Britain's west coast in one of the country's worst environmental disasters.

After the Sea Empress, he considered getting out of the tanker market but instead went for broke with the acquisition of Sweden's Frontline shipping firm. Frontline is now the world's biggest independent oil-tanker operator with 81 ships.

Perhaps as a response to the Sea Empress incident, Mr Fredriksen became a major investor in pricey but spill-resistant double-hulled vessels. That decision paid off, too, as oil companies gradually stopped chartering single-hull vessels.

The expansion of Mr Fredriksen's empire has also been characterised by punts based on gut instinct. In 2005, his Seadrill business bet big on the future of deepwater oil drilling by buying two rigs for nearly $900m

with no exploration contract from an oil company. The bet paid off as deepwater exploration boomed and oil prices rocketed. His companies flourished on the back of the surging price of commodities, which his dry-bulk ships transported around the world.

Freight rates have fallen as ships ordered during the boom created a glut of capacity. Mr Fredriksen predicted as much last year, warning that he had been "negative to shipping" for some time. Frontline's profit fell by more than 80 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

However, Mr Fredriksen is already planning his next move, revealing last week that he would start adding vessels to his fleet once prices crash in about two years.

"We'll wait until the market collapses and then we'll buy up what's there," he said.

The seas may look choppy for Big Wolf right now, but only the brave would bet against the reticent maverick staying safely above water.

From messenger boy to multibillionaire

*1944 John Fredriksen born in Oslo

*1960s Shipping broker messenger boy

*1973 Buys his first ship

*1980s Hits the big time by transporting Iranian oil during the Iran-Iraq war

*1986 Detained in Norway on suspicion of fraud. Eventually settles lesser of charges against him

*1996 His Sea Empress tanker spills 70,000 tons of oil off Britain's west coast

*2005 Makes successful bet on deepwater oil exploration by buying two rigs

*2006 Relocates to Cyprus after to avoid high Norwegian taxes

*2011 Accused of rigging Yemeni oil market and manipulating oil prices

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