Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Where are they now?

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‘Iceland was bankrupted by twenty or thirty men.’ That’s how Vilhjalmur Bjarnason lecturer at the University of Iceland and a vocal commentator on finance and business put it a few months after the collapse of the banks in October 2008. At first, many felt that Bjarnason was overstating his case but time – and most clearly the report of the Althingi Investigative Commission – has shown that it did indeed only take ca thirty people (almost all male) to bankrupt Iceland.

Most Icelanders will be able to list these thirty odd names. These are the bank managers, the banks’ chairmen and the banks’ principal shareholders. The understanding is that the Office of the Special Prosecutor will in due course most likely bring criminal charges against these people. The banks’ resolution and winding-up committees are already bringing charges or planning charges against these people to claw back the money extracted from the banks by illegal means.

All these people were extremely prominent and visible in Iceland in the years up to October 2008. They sponsored art, culture, sport and charities and appeared frequently in the media. Some of them gave interviews in the weeks and months after the collapse but as more light was thrown on the operations of the banks and their shareholders they have become increasingly silent. After the report, little is heard from them – there isn’t much to say now that the report has spelled it out so clearly what went on, including verbatim sources such as emails. Some of this material contains phrases that everyone in Iceland now knows by heart such as ‘Thank you, more than enough:-)’ – the succinct answer from Magnus Gudmundsson director of Kaupthing Luxembourg when Kaupthing’s executive chairman informed him, in equally few words, that his bonus for 2007 would be €1m.

From being feted and admired these people are now generally despised in Iceland. There are stories of theatregoers unwilling to stand up to let them to their seats at the theatre, guests at restaurants driving them out, passengers accosting them as they waited for their luggage at Keflavik airport. There are even stories that they have been hit or spat on, on the streets. People threw snowballs at Jon Asgeir Johannesson when he left his wife’s hotel in Reykjavik during the winter following the collapse of the banks.

No wonder that many of them prefer to live abroad. There have been rumours lately that some of them might want to move to Luxembourg but sources close to a well known Luxembourg bank claim that some of the more famous names have already been turned down as clients. And in order to properly settle down in Luxembourg one has to register with the police. People then do have to declare if they have an earlier conviction or if they are under investigation – not a trivial question for some of the Icelanders who might be considering to move to Luxembourg.

For most of these people the yachts and private jets are gone. Some are bankrupt other still hold on to some assets though more might be lost later on. In Iceland, many speculate if and then how much these people have stacked away on in offshore save havens. But where are they now, the bankers and the Viking raiders?

Kaupthing

When Sigurdur Einarsson ex-executive chairman of Kaupthing was summoned to Iceland in May to be interviewed by the OSP in Iceland he refused to go to Iceland since he didn’t want to risk following three Kaupthing ex-top executives into custody. He probably didn’t expect that he would end up on Interpol’s wanted list – but that’s where he’s now. Einarsson isn’t known to have been involved in any business after the collapse of the bank and has been living in London since 2005. According to the AIC report Kaupthing lent Einarsson the £10m needed to buy his house in Chelsea – and then Einarsson rented his house to the bank so he could live in the house, apparently an exceedingly smart way of living for free as the rent paid or didn’t pay off the mortgage.

Kaupthing’s CEO Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson moved to Luxembourg last year to run Consolium, a consultancy staffed by several ex-Kaupthing managers. Sigurdsson was held in custody for ten days in May as the OSP picked through his testimony and some of his colleagues’. Sigurdsson is now back in Luxembourg.

Magnus Gudmundsson was the director of Kaupthing Luxembourg where some think that Kaupthing’s darkest secrets, if there are any, were kept. When David and Jonathan Rowland, father and son, took over Kaupthing Luxembourg last year and turned the good bank into Banque Havilland and put the bad assets into Pillar Securitisation that Havilland administrates, they retained Gudmundsson as a director, much to the surprise of those who thought that the new owners wanted to start with a clean slate and a new business. When however the OSP put Gudmundsson into custody the Rowlands dropped him like a hot potato. Consolium had business ties with Havilland and Pillar and according to my sources these ties are still in place.

Olafur Olafsson has a longer business record than most of the other high-flying Icelandic bankers and businessmen since he’s older than most of them. He grew up when political ties were essential and his fortune was tied to the Progressive Party and the co-op movement, part of the Progressive sphere of influence. From Kaupthing’s first ventures during the late 90s he was close to them, underlining that bank’s connection to this party.

The softly spoken cultivated Olafsson wasn’t much seen in Iceland during the noughties but he had and still has a charity there. He used to have an office in Knightsbridge and lived close by. Last year he moved to Lausanne. According to a Swiss source he lives modestly. The SIC report is full of juicy stories of Olafsson – there’s his connection to the Qatari investor al Thani who seemed to have the greatest trust and belief in Olafsson’s two main undertakings in Iceland, Alfesca and Kaupthing. But according to the report there was less trust and more loans from Kaupthing. Through Kjalar Olafsson owned 10% in Kauphting but still holds on to companies in Iceland, most notably the shipping company Samskip. The Kaupthing loan overview from end of September 2008 indicates that Olafsson’s personal loans from Kaupthing Luxembourg were €49m.

Until shortly before the collapse of Kaupthing brothers Lydur and Agust Gudmundsson, the bank’s biggest shareholders, were seen as being of a different breed from Viking raiders such as Jon Asgeir Johannesson and Thor Bjorgulfsson. The brothers started in fish manufacturing during the 90s, seemed to have built their wealth up out of concrete things and not only financial acrobatics. But the report throws a different light on their activities, their close if not incestuous connections with Kaupthing and equally close ties to many of the bulging Icelandic pension funds. Robert Tchenguiz sat on the board of Exista.

Lydur owns a beautiful house in Reykjvik where he hasn’t been much seen lately and a grand house on Cadogan Place that Pillar now wants to take over due to unpaid mortage of £12,8m. It seems that Agust might suffer the same fate – Pillar isn’t showing any mercy and according to the loan overview Agust had a mortage of €9m with Kaupthing Luxembourg. As Olafsson the brothers still hold on to companies in Iceland, most notably the investment company Exista and the food company Bakkvor UK – but the final outcome is still unclear.

Landsbanki

Father and son, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and Thor Bjorgolfsson, shot to fame in Iceland when they managed to set up a brewery in St Petersburg in the 90s. The story of that venture is most fully told in a front-page article in Euromoney November 2002, ‘Is this man fit to be at the helm (of Landsbanki)?’ and in documents on Wikileaks: the short version is that father and son were working for two investors running a bottling plant in St Petersburg in the early 90s. One day in 1995 the investors found out they no longer owned the bottling plant though they couldn’t remember ever having sold the plant father and son and their co-worker Magnus Thorsteinsson. The venture took off and the St Petersburg power elite, i.a. Vladimir Putin, was friendly. Deutsche Bank started financing other Bjorgolfsson’s ventures in Easter Europe in the late 90s. When the trio sold the brewery to Heineken in 2002 they had the money to buy 40% of Landsbanki, then already partly privatised.

The distinguished-looking Gudmundsson is now bankrupt, having not only lost his share of Landsbanki but also his ultimate trophy asset West Ham and lives in Iceland. His son, with the body of a body builder and the square jaws to go with it, still lives in Holland Park though there might be fewer vintage cars in the garage now. It’s not clear if he still owns his country house in Oxfordshire but he is holding on to Novator, his investment company with ties to Luxembourg, the Cayman, Cyprus and other offshore havens. The fate of his biggest asset, Actavis, depends on what Deutsche Bank intends to do about the loan against Actavis, said to the single biggest loan on DB’s loanbook. The question is if DB turns the debt into equity, practically taking Actavis over, or if Bjorgolfsson manages to turn things to his benefit. Thorsteinsson was declared bankrupt in Iceland last year, used to have a large country estate in the UK but is now said to live where it all started, St Petersburg.

Landsbanki had two CEOs, Sigurjon Arnason and Halldor Kristjansson. Kristjansson was a civil servant before becoming the CEO of Landsbanki as it was being privatised. Arnason was the CEO of Bunadarbanki but when Kaupthing bought the bank he and a whole team from Bunadarbanki defected over to Landsbanki. Kristjansson kept the quiet demeanour of a civil servant, Arnason was the aggressive banker known to empty bowls of chocolate is within his reach. It’s interesting to note that Kristjansson kept his post after the privatisation, possibly underlining that the change wasn’t as fundamental as one might have thought – the political ties were still important. Kristjansson now lives in Canada, working for a financial company. Arnason lives in Iceland and is, as far as is known, not involved in any business.

Glitnir

While Landsbanki and Kaupthing were involved with high-flyers abroad Islandsbanki, later Glitnir, seemed more down-to-earth expanding in Norway. Bjarni Armannsson ran the bank with experience from the investment bank FBA in the late 90s. The AIC report shows that Armannsson was very deft at trading for his own companies along running the bank leading the report to advice clearer regulation of CEO’s personal dealings. Armannsson left the bank when Jon Asgeir Johannesson and the FL Group gang became the bank’s largest shareholder in early 2007. He moved to Norway for a while but has recently returned to Iceland and runs his own business there.

Earlier on, two brothers were among Glitnir’s major shareholder, Karl and Steingrimur Wernersson. Their father was a wealthy pharmacist and they, mainly Karl, built on that wealth which mushroomed into companies at home and abroad under their investment fund Milestone. Milestone bought into the Swedish financial sector, bought a bank in Macedonia and an Icelandic insurance company, Sjova, in Iceland. The crudeness and excesses of it all, i.a. a villa in Italy and a vinyard in Macedonia, have been masterly documented by the daily DV in Iceland. Milestone is bankrupt and the brothers are no longer on speaking terms as Steingrimur, who now lives in North London, has accused his brother of bullying him into business ventures. Karl lives in Iceland and spends most of his time on his farm in Southern Iceland where he tames and breeds horses.

The group that came to power and ownership in Glitnir was headed by Jon Asgeir Johannesson, famous his UK retail partners such as Sir Philip Green, Tom Hunter, Kevin Stanford and Don McCarthy. Johannesson started his business ventures by opening a supermarket with his father Johannes Jonsson who now lives in Akureyri. Jonsson is still involved in business though there a now more debts than assets to care for.

Johannesson has for years invested together with a small group of Icelandic businessmen, most notably Palmi Haraldsson, Magnus Armann and his wife Ingibjorg Palmadottir, herself the daughter of the man who built up the biggest retail empire until Johannesson arrived on the scene, bought the empire and later got the princess as well. These shareholders brought in a new CEO, Larus Welding who ran the bank for just over a year. Welding now lives in Northern London and doesn’t seem to be involved in banking anymore. Johannesson still owns the biggest private media company in Iceland. His ownership is the source of some speculation in Iceland since Baugur, also Baugur UK, and so many other investments of his have failed.

On the sideline in this group but for a while extremely powerful was Hannes Smarason, much admired as the McKinsey man who turned biotech to gold at deCode and later built up the investment fund FL Group that outshone everyone in excesses and, in the end, losses. Smarason lives in Notthing Hill, London and documents at Companies House show a string of failed business ventures of his.

The connection between Johannesson, Armann and Haraldsson goes roughly a decade back and though his Icelandic partners were less famous than some of his UK partners they stayed with him. Now they all and Palmadottir are charged by the Glitnir Winding Up Committee that wants $2bn dollars back. Haraldsson has two major investment companies, one is bankrupt the other is in operation and he still owns Iceland Express. Haraldsson has been living in Iceland but has a flat in Chelsea, London.

Johannesson allegedly lives with his wife in Surrey on the same road as Armann, yet again underlining not only the closeness of these two but also the Icelandic tendency to stay with one’s own countrymen. A clan mentality that also characterised the now failed Icelandic banks and businesses.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 2nd, 2010 at 1:12 am

Posted in Iceland

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  1. […] in this team are Olafur Olafsson, the second largest shareholder in Kaupthing and four companies owned by him: Sable Air APS […]

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