Do you have some favourite jeans? For Oleg Tinkov it might be the ones he bought in a market stall in Uzbekistan during the 1980s.
The Russian entrepreneur is set to take over the Saxo-Bank team. The squad rose up from modest beginnings to become the sport’s top squad before fading back in recent years, in part because of a lack of sponsorship money. Tinkov came on board in 2012 as a co-sponsor but seemed to change his mind last summer as he watched Alberto Contador ride to fourth place, live-tweeting his frustration with often personal messages. Now he’s going to buy the team.
He might be wealthy, he might be Russian but this does not make him an oligarch. Instead Oleg 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 the equivalent of Ralph Nader or Richard Branson although in a modern Russian setting.
His first break happened during a cycling race 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 spotted 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, an ordinary product but he resorted to shock marketing to get noticed although the billboard ads pictured above lasted a matter of hours until they were banned and removed. A few years later he sold the food business to genuine oligarch Roman Abramovich for $21 million.
Buy me a drink
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 invented 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 he was getting back into cycling but this time via his ambitions and money. He created the Tinkoff Restaurants team in 2005 and this became Tinkoff Credit Systems in 2007. Riders included the Tyler Hamilton on his return from a blood doping suspension – only to get blown away by Operation Puerto within months and end up at Rock Racing – and Vasil Kiryienka who won a Giro stage with them. The team was ultimately was bought out by Katusha. Again Tinkov built something up and sold it.
With this he created a Russian version of Capital One, the credit card provider. TCS Bank is not really a bank – nor is Saxo Bank – as it’s not into savings and lendings and has no branches. Instead it’s an online supplier of credit cards. It’s done very well and is now Russian’s fifth largest lender. But it was listed on the London Stock Exchange the other day only for the Russian parliament to announce a review of online credit days after, sending the stock tumbling 33%.
http://t.co/hWHsIJOkJm Why only 6? If i would buy I would pay 60million :-), 6 is cheap for me))
— Oleg Tinkov (@olegtinkov) November 30, 2013
So far a history of innovation, shock tactics and copycatting which has brought prodigious wealth. So if €6 million is cheap, why buy the modest Saxo Bank team that won just eight races this year? The squad has fallen far from its says as CSC, the number-one ranked squad. He’s linked to the team and there was talk of buying into Cannondale for 2015 so the €6 million entry ticket is the price to pay for a ready-made team rather than waiting for 2015 and setting up a team from scratch. It also suggests the team is a fun project for him, a game of fantasy cycling played out for real.
Tinkov is provocative to say the least on Twitter. He’s upset fans, irked riders and even publicly insulted Alberto Contador. But the two need each other. Contador is on a big contract which would be in danger if the team folded for a lack of sponsors whilst Tinkov has a rider still capable of winning a grand tour if the stars align. But we have to live with this, the UCI rules allow for a team licence to change hands, subject to a review. This includes a quick scan of ethics but rude and even offensive tweets don’t come into it.
“Already at the first team meeting, where we sat in a conference room, Oleg Tinkov said: ‘I do not care what you do, just do not get caught’. You can write this because there were many people in the room who can confirm it, if Tinkov decided to sue me for saying this,” said Hamilton.
Nevermind Twitter, quotes like this from Tyler Hamilton are more chilling. But remember if Tinkov did say this it was an echo of what was being said in most other teams and a few squads had managers who did care what the riders did… because they sourced and administered the doping programmes themselves. Perhaps the question now is what Tinkov has to say, an interview in October suggests he’s got new things to say. But there’s an element of “he would say that, wouldn’t he” so better still, let’s see some tests of this. For example will Tinkov sign up his team to the MPCC, will he order his team staff to avoid painkillers like Tramadol et cetera?
As much as Tinkov has come on board for 2014 there’s little he can do right now. It’s too late to buy in riders; yes there are names still for hire but these are bolt-on riders rather than the more fundamental work of building a stronger team. Tinkov clearly wants a say in the team for 2014 but we’ll see if 2015 and beyond mean spending roubles to bolster the team, hire new talent and fund extras like support staff.
Maybe the big winner here is Bjarne Riis? He’s selling his team and reports say he will be retained on a very good fee. Only Danish investigations could cause him trouble. He can cash out before any trouble or even catastrophe engulfs him and his team.
A bike race and some jeans gave Tinkov his first break as an entrepreneur. He’s no oligarch cruising the Zil lanes of Kremlin power but a self-made man, a fact he’s always keen to remind you about. The ability to shock is part of his game so don’t expect modesty as he runs his team. The squad won’t want for advice in 2014.
But what happens beyond is interesting. Is this a personal project or a business plan with an objective for 2015 or even 2020. People laughed when Team Sky said they wanted to win the Tour de France at the launch in 2010 and it did feel like a line for the media. What does Tinkov want with this team?