Billionaire Tornqvist Pivots to Asia Amid Gunvor Russian Retreat

gunvor logoBy Andy Hoffman and Chanyaporn Chanjaroen

Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) — Gunvor Group Ltd. is looking to Asia for the next leg of its expansion as the company loosens the Russian ties that made it the world’s fifth-biggest oil trader.

Chief Operating and Investment Officer Jerome Schurink has relocated temporarily to Singapore to oversee the firm’s growth in a region that accounts for nearly a third of Gunvor’s revenue and trading volumes. The company expects that share to rise next year, said Seth Pietras, a Geneva-based spokesman for Gunvor.

Chief Executive Officer Torbjorn Tornqvist officially opened a new office last week in Shanghai from where it will eventually trade petroleum in addition to metals, coal and iron ore. The company is also looking for acquisitions in Asia after putting most of its physical assets in Russia up for sale in October, seven months after the Swedish billionaire agreed to buy the 44 percent stake of fellow Gunvor co-founder Gennady Timchenko.

Timchenko, a Russian sanctioned by the U.S. for his close ties to President Vladimir Putin, founded what is now Gunvor with Tornqvist in the late 1990s. Deals with Russian crude producers including OAO Rosneft saw the Cyprus-based firm once handle more than a third of the country’s seaborne oil exports.

Gunvor’s dominant market position in Russia has been supplanted by larger trading houses including Glencore Plc, Trafigura Beheer BV and Vitol Group, the world’s largest oil trader, which have signed offtake agreements to provide Rosneft with $11.5 billion in total financing in exchange for guaranteed crude supplies.

U.S. Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Timchenko as part of a money-laundering probe, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Gunvor denies it has or has ever had any links to the Russian president after the U.S. Treasury Department said in March that “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”

Russian oil now accounts for less than 20 percent of Gunvor’s trading volume, according to the company, whose assets in the country include an oil terminal, pipelines and a stake in a coal mine. Gunvor’s only U.S. interest is a one-third stake in a Montana coal mine.

Gunvor’s Asian headquarters in Singapore, where it trades crude, petroleum products, coal, iron ore, industrial and precious metals, has added 20 people this year, bringing the total to 120. There are 225 staff in Geneva, the company’s main trading hub.

Indonesian Terminal

“While Geneva remains our head trading office, we are working to make sure our corporate culture grows along with the rest of our business,” Gunvor said in a late August internal memo to employees announcing Schurink’s secondment to Singapore. He is expected to return to Geneva by the end of the year.

Trafigura Chief Financial Officer Pierre Lorinet relocated to Singapore in 2012 and the firm reorganized its structure so that the city-state became the main booking entity for its trading. Gunvor doesn’t plan to adopt a similar structure, spokesman Pietras said.

Gunvor also has an office in Beijing and is building a 760,000 cubic meter oil terminal on the Indonesian island of Karimun with Hamburg’s Oiltanking GmbH, the world’s second- biggest independent crude storage provider.

After starting to trade iron ore this year, Gunvor paid A$5 million ($4.3 million) for a stake in Ascot Resources Ltd., which is developing a project in Australia for the steel-making ingredient.

To complement its Asian operations, Pietras said Gunvor has started an account on Weibo, a Chinese language social network similar to Twitter.

(c) 2014 Bloomberg.