Money

My Dinner with Putin’s #1 Enemy

Last night, I attended a dinner in London with Bill Browder, the CEO of Russian investment fund Hermitage Capital Management.

Having dinner with Bill Browder is an odd experience. You see, Bill doesn’t touch his food or drink.

It’s not that Bill worries about his weight. It’s just that he doesn’t eat food served to him in public places, even though the event was hosted by Jeremy Bradshaw’s well-respected Britain Club.

That’s because Bill lives his life in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin and the Russian agents bent on destroying his life. London is also well-known for Russian oligarchs and rogue KGB agents dying under mysterious circumstances.

How Bill Browder Took on Vladimir Putin

As it happens, I have known Bill Browder for over 25 years. Back in the early 1990s, our paths crossed in Eastern Europe. As a young lawyer, I worked on a couple of investments he made for the “bouncing Czech” Robert Maxwell’s investment fund in the region.

Bill’s work in Eastern Europe was a tiny footnote in his career. After Maxwell’s demise, Bill quickly moved on to Salomon Brothers in London. There Bill made a fortune for the storied investment bank by buying Russian stocks.

When Bill started, the entire Russian stock market was worth $10 billion. That’s the equivalent a single U.S. mid-cap stock. Bill called it the single best investment opportunity in the history of finance.

Bill quickly set out on his own. When I had lunch with him in London in April 1995, he had raised his first $5 million for Hermitage. Bill soon raised another $25 million from the late Edmond Safra.

From this modest beginning, Hermitage became Russia’s biggest foreign investor.

Hermitage was wildly successful in the first Russian stock boom, doubling in value within a matter of weeks. Suddenly, the likes of George Soros and Julian Robertson sought out the 31-year-old Browder for his investment insights. Bill became a minor celebrity, earning profiles in Business Week, The Financial Times and elsewhere.

Bill’s best investment? Buying Gazprom shares at a 99.7% discount to Exxon. Hermitage made 100 times on that investment.

As always, every boom is followed by a bust.

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