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Prokhorov: Metals mogul hoping to shine in Kremlin race

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
updated 6:53 AM EST, Fri March 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mikhail Prokhorov to challenge Russian PM Vladimir Putin for presidency
  • Billionaire Prokhorov sold most of his assets before global economic crash
  • Prokhorov entered politics only recently, but was ousted as leader of party

(CNN) -- Mikhail Prokhorov, who is challenge Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Sunday's presidential election after collecting two million signatures to support his campaign, has the reputation as a financial sage.

In 2008 shortly before the global economy crashed, the bank executive turned investor sold off many of his minerals assets, a decision he said was inspired partly by good planning, partly by fortune.

"In business you need to have luck," he told CNN's Matthew Chance. "Sometimes you have great strategy, but something goes wrong. You can't cover all the risks in your life."

Prokhorov's hunch that "this crisis is more global" than previous ones certainly came true, and his decision to cash in means he is now tied for 32nd on Forbes' World's Billionaires list, with assets of $18 billion. In the United States he owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Asked by CNN's Chance about his reputation as an international playboy, he laughed. "I don't care. I try to act natural," he said, adding that he had "no time" to think about having a family.

"I like business, it's my profession," Prokhorov said. "I spend, like, 15 hours a day in the office. It's the great joy in my life, and I never think about money."

As was the case with many other Russian oligarchs, Prokhorov, whose wealth grew with minerals and metals investments, built his fortune in the years following the fall of Communism in the early 1990s.

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According to Forbes, he and associate Vladimir Potanin, who is at 34 on the Forbes' rich list and was a onetime deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, wooed the corporate customers of two huge Soviet-era banks as their holding company Interros acquired interests in metals, engineering, agriculture and media. Prokhorov and Potanin cultivated ties with the Kremlin and attended meetings with Putin, and during the commodities bubble last decade their company took off.

In 2007, Prokhorov was arrested on suspicion of trafficking prostitutes (and released without charge) in the French ski town of Courchevel. In March 2007, Pravda reported his resignation as general director and president of OAO Norilsk Nickel, a subsidiary of Interros.

The following year, according to Forbes, he sold his 25% stake in Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest producer of nickel and palladium, to fellow billionaire Oleg Deripaska in exchange for $7 billion in cash and a 14% stake in the world's top aluminum producer UC Rusal.

"In my perception, the raw materials market was overvalued -- we had a strategy to leave and to diversify," Prokhorov said of his decision.

The sale allowed him to buy the New Jersey Nets in 2009, and he has a 45% stake in the team's real estate project to build a new arena in Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards in 2012. The Muscovite is also publishing a Russian-language magazine Snob in the U.S. while he has invested $200 million to develop Russia's first hybrid car, the Yo.

Prokhorov entered politics only recently, according to the website Russiapedia. In June this year, he joined the right-wing party Right Cause, and was elected its leader. "Prokhorov claimed he could replace Vladimir Putin as Russia's prime minister if the party succeeded in polls and at some point even hinted that he could become president.

"However, party veterans got extremely upset by the businessman's goals and in early September a Right Cause congress ousted Prokhorov and his key allies from the party."

Many a businessman has come unstuck in politics. Now, as Prokhorov prepares to enter the election, he will need all his good fortune to continue if he is to beat Putin.

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