A feature in the latest Observer, by Simon Bowers and me, tells the story of the yacht Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson was planning to have built, inspired by James Bond films, named ‘Project Mars.’ As the pictures on the designer’s website show, the Bond connection is hinted at by a Bond film playing on a screen in the lounge. On one of the walls there is a big picture of an Aston Martini, a witty reference to Bjorgolfsson’s own Aston Martini.
The specifications indicate that the yacht would have space for fifteen passengers, catered for by captain, crew and staff of 34 people. The yacht allows for a truly off-shore life, providing perfect living quarters and work space, as well as leisure and entertainment zones.
Bjorgolfsson has for a number of years had business interests in Finland where he has been co-operating with three Finnish investors – Ahti Vilppula, Ari Salmivuori and Kai Mäkelä – who all have been in the Finnish media for questionable affairs. Salmivuori was involved in the telecom company Elisa, which Bjorgolfsson invested in. The company became a battle field of a bitter power struggle, making headlines in 2007-2008. Bjorgolfsson was forced to sell his stake in Elisa in October 2008 as his empire was shaken to the core by the collapse of Landsbanki. Salmivuori invested in Amer Sports, one of the world’s largest producer of sports equipment, where Novator also held shares for a while, later bought by Mike Ashley, who also had Icelandic connections, via Kaupthing.
Another long-time partner of Novator is Altima Partners, an investment fund in the UK, set up in 2004 by several bankers from Deutsche Bank, specialised in Eastern Europe. These bankers cooperated with Bjorgolfsson earlier, while at Deutsche and the relationship has continued. Among these contacts are Georg Tzvetanski, Radenko Milakovic and Dominic Redfern – all of them involved in Eastern European privatisation projects after 2000, led by or done with Bjorgolfsson: Bulgartabak (which they didn’t get), Balkanpharma (later merged with Actavis), Bulgaria Telecom and in the Czech Republic, Cesky Telecom and Ceske Radiokomunkace. Bjorgolfsson and Altima have also co-invested in properties, through their Luxembourg fund, Landmark, i.a. in Bulgaria.
Another part of Bjorgolfsson’s Bulgarian interests was the Economic and Investment Bank, EIBank, where he held a controlling stake of 48.6%. In the US cables, from 2006, published on Wikileaks EIBank is mentioned as one of the problem banks in Bulgaria. The three names mentioned are Bjorgolfsson, Tsvetelina Borislavova, who earlier shared bed with the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov, and Svetoslav Bozhilov. US diplomats expressed, at the times, worries of lending to connected parties and money laundering. Novator sold its share in EIB, now called CIB, in September 2007.
Bjorgolfsson has been investing in Bulgaria since 1999. His 2004 deal regarding Bulgaria Telecom has long been contested in Bulgaria. According to Bulgarian media in March this year, an investigation into the deal might be underway. It’s not the first time that an investigation has been attempted and this time it might well go as earlier, that nothing comes out of it.
Bjorgolfsson has lost his main assets, Landsbanki and Straumur Investment Bank but he is still an active investor with a vast network stretching over several continents. Part of that network is visible in Luxembourg where 16 Novator companies and 8 Actavis companies are still registered. He didn’t manage to realise his project Mars but if business continues to thrive he might well have another stab at another yacht in the future. After all, a yacht is the much desired trophy asset among alpha male investors.
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