The Saxo Bank team unveiled a new co-sponsor today: Tinkoff Bank. The team will now be called Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank, a mouthful that will be awkward to pronounce and type.
It marks the return of Oleg Tinkov to the sport. A Russian entrepreneur, he is a lively character with a past unlike almost anyone else in the sport.
Aged 44, Oleg Tinkov (Олег Тиньков) was born on 25 December 1967 but it was a day like any other as Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on this day. Instead we can focus on the year he was born since it means he was in his early twenties when the Soviet Union fell apart. By then he’d left his home town of Leninsk-Kuznetsky and its mines to move to St Petersburg although he started studying at a mining institute. But he was also racing a bike and started to dabble in business. His first break happened during a cycling race when at one point in the late 1980s he was in Uzbekistan for a race and spotted some blue denim jeans, then the height of fashion and above all very rare. He spent all his cash to buy four pairs of jeans on sale at 35 roubles each but the seller realised he wanted several pairs and upped the price to 50 roubles. Tinkov bought them and returned to St Petersburg where he sold them for 200 roubles each. He carried on with printer cartridges, caviar and cars.
The studies stopped prematurely and he became a full-time entrepreneur. Russia was poor but Russian goods were often even poorer and he started importing consumer electronics from Asia. Walkmans, stereos and CD players. He opened a shop and business was good, soon he had branded retail chain in and around St Peterburg called “Technoshock”, then alongside this a chain of record stores called “Musicshock” and even a recording studio too. He sold these in 1997 for US$7 million.
Tinkov switched into the food business, creating “Daria”, business that made pelemeni or Russian dumplings. A few years later he sold the business to the up and coming oligarch Roman Abramovich. With the money he started a brewery in St Petersburg called Tinkoff. Note the -ff, he borrowed the name from a street that sounded a bit like his name and created a story about the brewery serving the Imperial family, only this was a fake tale designed to lend authenticity and heritage to the new brand. In 2005 he sold the brewery for a genuine €200 million to InBev of Belgium, the world’s largest brewer was keen to get into the Russian market. But he kept hold of some of the rights to a brand and opened a chain of restaurants trading under the name of the beer. Which he again sold, this time in 2009.
By this time Tinkoff was also getting involved in pro cycling. Flush with cash for 2006 he started a domestic team called Tinkoff Restaurants and for 2007 this went international but under the name of Tinkoff Credit Systems, hiring some Italians and non-Russians, including the American Tyler Hamilton. The team rode the Giro d’Italia in 2008 with two stage wins, Vasil Kiriyenka took one and Pavel Brutt the other but at the end of the year Tinkov sold the team to Russian gas oligarch Igor Makarov. But Tinkoff found he was being frozen out of his own team by Makarov in the bid to create the “Russian Global Cycling Project”, or Team Kremlin. He went complaining to cyclingnews.com about “a lot of politics – there are a lot of people behind Makarov” and then dumping criticism on team manager Tchmil.
“He is a great cyclist, but he is a very poor sports manager and sports director. He brings in Serge Parsani; he is basically starting to bring all of his friends into the team. I said, ‘Andrei, that is not what you want to do, you want to get the best people out of the market, not your friends.”
Maybe Tinkov had an axe to grind and enjoyed doing it via the media but we can see Tinkov’s businessman side at work here, offering management tips. Certainly the Katusha team was run in Tchmil’s way and never delivered results; Tchmil was moved out for 2012.
Today Tinkoff Bank is not the usual bank you might expect. It doesn’t have a big network of branches, it’s more in line with Tinkov’s entrepreneurial streak as a light-footed financial services company offering online banking and above all, credit cards.
Political ambitions? What is this? It is terrible. You do not need this. I shit on politics
Tinkov is completely different from the stereotype Russian oligarch businessman with close links to politics. Tinkov has few friends in high and low places and if he struck it lucky during the 1990s, it seems to be by trading hard rather than playing hard.
A personality cult is too strong but he’s a known figure in Russia because he’s often giving tips on how to succeed in business and is visibly linked to his business, often starring in the adverts. He’s similar in some respects to Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who went from a record label to all sorts of products and services under the Virgin label, notably several airlines. Branson even wrote the intro for one of Tinkov’s books.
The tips are dispensed whether people want them or not via books, a website, Twitter and even a dedicated Youtube channel called “Biz Secrets”. It might seem normal for a top entrepreneur to self-promote but this is almost unique in Russia. Russian Forbes lists him amongst nine eccentric people in business.
So what’s he doing in cycling?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I wrote “Tinkov sold…” above. He has a track record of creating a venture and then selling it it on. He even did this with a cycling team when Katusha was created.
But he’s a keen cyclist and being wealthy he can play around with a team in the way you might toy with Velogames. This sponsorship fits the mould of another sugar-daddy entering the sport, putting their name into sponsorship but for personal reasons ahead of business rationale. Good for him.
But there are business reasons to invest in a cycling team if you are patient. For starters, Tinkoff is effectively teaming up with Alberto Contador meaning other sponsors could be found to share the burden given the near-certainty that the Spaniard will return to winning ways once his ban ends. But the teams – Saxo Bank included – are exploring ways to reshape the sport and Tinkoff now gets a front seat here.
Tinkov’s business drive and capital should be a boost for Bjarne Riis and his team. Already Tinkov is making loud noises about wanting to sign new riders. So far Fabian Cancellara and Vasil Kiriyenka are top of the shopping list. And Jacob Fuglsang is very likely to join.
- Note Saxo Bank and Tinkoff Bank might both be called banks but they’re not the traditional form. Saxo offers brokerage services around the world whilst Tinkoff offers consumer credit for Russians.
A Russian businessman, Tinkov is the opposite of shady or politically-connected. He loves the limelight and tries hard to portray himself as the Mr Transparent of Russian business, supporting the little guy against overlapping Russian big business and big government. He’s a keen cyclist, indeed it was thanks to racing that he spotted some jeans for sale and events started.
He’s back and it’ll be interesting to see where the team goes next.