Industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke, caught in a major battle with the state over their holdings in Aker Solutions, emerged publicly on Wednesday to spend nearly three hours in the media glare. He defended the controversial deals he’s widely believed to have set in motion, harshly criticized the state’s conduct and claimed the entire conflict has changed him as a business leader.
“I would have gladly gone without this day, or the past few weeks,” Røkke said at the outset of what turned into a nearly three-hour press conference that also was attended by several top politicians and financial executives in addition to scores of reporters and photographers.
The location was carefully selected: An old factory building, now used for special events, along Oslo’s Aker River, in the heart of the capital’s former industrial heart. Røkke entered the scene nearly 15 minutes late, not smiling and looking exhausted. He seemed short of breath as he began a lengthy monologue that he said would “try to explain the industrial perspective” behind Aker Solutions’ disputed purchase of five other firms in the Aker system that Røkke controls.
Røkke noted that the pressure he’d been under since the deals were reported April 1 had bordered “on what I can tackle as a person.”
He warmed up, though, as the extraordinary session continued, and he gained confidence as he expressed his disdain for the press, financial players “who think they know more” than Aker executives do about Aker’s internal situation, and state officials who he thinks have behaved unprofessionally and tried to assert undue influence.
Røkke conceded that he understood and appreciates that there’s a lot of public interest in the Aker group. It employs tens of thousands of people in Norway and around the world, is one of the country’s core industrial concerns and the state plowed around NOK 5 billion of taxpayers’ money into Aker Holding two years ago. The investment has since resulted in heavy losses, not least because of crashing stock markets.
Critics called the investment a gift to Røkke from the Labour-led coalition government. The Labour Party has enjoyed Røkke’s support, and large Norwegian labour unions also hailed Røkke as a champion of the worker for years.
At issue now, though, is the way Røkke has handled his fellow shareholder and the price Aker Solutions is paying for the five Aker firms. Analysts say it’s too high, the state claims it was caught off guard by the deal, and opposition politicians (even the state’s own representative on Aker Holdings board) claim Røkke fooled them. Sylvia Brustad, the government minister in charge of business and industry, said she was furious over the deal, and the relationship between the state and Røkke degenerated from there.Røkke showed little sign of any quick reconciliation on Wednesday. Instead he lashed out at both Brustad (even ridiculing her dialect) and the state’s representative Berit Kjøll, claiming they had declined to receive more information about the pending sales in mid-March. “They didn’t want the state to take on an insider role,” Røkke said. He also claimed that no one at a fateful March 30 board meeting shared Kjøll’s assessment of the proceedings, and he was especially angry over Brustad’s handling of the situation. “Shell-shocked” was the English description he offered, adding that the conflict with the state left him feeling “the most paralyzed” since he returned to Norway in the 1990s after earning a fortune fishing off the Pacific Northwest in the US.
Røkke defends the deals, claiming they can ultimately enrich Aker Solutions because the firms involved can make Aker a leader in such areas as deepwater oil and gas exploration, and carbon recapture. He also brushed off suggestions that Aker has any financial trouble, claiming the company is well-capitalized, has low debt and lots of cash.
Both the state and Aker, however, are working on new value assessments for the companies. The deals are done, Røkke claimed, but he feels the state has stripped away Aker’s management authority. Consequences of any reevaluation are unclear.
Claims that Røkke has fooled the state and Norway’s taxpayers have left him “sick to the stomach” and robbed him of sleep in recent weeks, he said. “I took this very personally,” he admitted. Valid criticism is fair enough, he said, but not what he’s been subjected to.
He indicated he may retreat from the “active, working chairmanship” role he’s held at Aker. The recent conflict has changed him as a business leader and capitalist, he said. He also confirmed he’d been working for years on setting up a charitable foundation with as much as 80 percent of his personal fortune. Its future, though, remains unclear.