Jo Lunder was the former “wonderboy” at Norway’s Telenor, who ended up resigning this spring as chief executive of Telenor’s partly owned mobile phone firm VimpelCom. That firm has been hit with corruption claims filed by US and European authorities, but Lunder has landed a new job, as chief executive for Fredriksen-gruppen, the companies controlled by one of the world’s wealthiest men, Norwegian shipping tycoon John Fredriksen.
“We will have fewer, bigger and better companies,” Fredriksen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend, and Lunder will be responsible for them. Fredriksen, now age 71, said he has no plans to retire but will now be somewhat freed up from the formalities of running companies so that he can “focus more on business development and make deals.”
Harald Thorstein, who’s been serving as Fredriksen’s right-hand man since since Tor Olav Trøim quit last year, said that Fredriksen will be “liberated … to think and work with strategy and make sure that we have the correct capital allocation.”
Hiring Lunder, age 53, was “very exciting,” Thorstein told DN, since he’ll “lead the group and be part of creating the next phase of John Fredriksen’s and his daughters’ journey.”
That “journey” started when Fredriksen, who grew up in very modest circumstances on Oslo’s working-class east side, quit school at the age of 16 to start working as a clerk in a ship brokerage in 1961. He clearly had a knack for shipping and rose to become one of the world’s biggest tanker owners, before also branching into other lines of shipping, finance, drilling rigs, fish farming and, most recently, real estate.
His twin daughters, 31-year-old Cecilie and Kathrine, are also closely involved in the business and sit on the boards of several of the Fredriksen companies. Fredriksen himself wants to work mostly with shipping and drilling. All told, the family’s fleet includes around 350 vessels at present worth around NOK 40 billion. The company is also flush with cash after selling its shares in the gas tanker firm Golar lng last fall. Cecilie Fredriksen told DN that cash holdings at present are “north of USD 5 billion.” In addition come liquid holdings in investment funds and shares valued at around USD 3.5 billion.
That indicates there’s plenty of resources for new investments and more growth. Lunder, a former professional football player for Oslo club Lyn before going into business himself, told DN that he and the Fredriksens have “spent a lot of time” talking about “the history, the possibilities and the challenges ahead.” He was careful to note that Fredriksen “is the principal and will have control and be around. It would be idiotic to not use his time and benefit from his insight and market sense. He’ll be involved in the big and important deals.”
Lunder claimed he was not taking over after Trøim, who worked closely with Fredriksen for 20 years before they parted ways last year. “We’re talking about a new phase in the family,” Lunder told DN, stressing the importance of “building a solid and good structure for the companies.”
‘Zero tolerance’ for corruption
Lunder was passed over to become the new chief executive of Telenor, where DN noted that Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser felt anyone “operative” in VimpelCom was no longer welcome in Telenor, because of the corruption case in which VimpelCom of Russia is accused of paying bribes to expand into Uzbekistan. Lunder spent 15 years in central positions at VimpelCom after Telenor invested heavily in the company and has been dragged into the corruption case as well. He left a company under investigation for both corruption and money laundering in the US and the Netherlands. US authorities believe VimpelCom covered up bribes paid in Uzbekistan with the help of a network of shell companies and accounts around the world.
Fredriksen doesn’t seem bothered by Lunder’s past at VimpelCom. “We have read a lot that’s been written about the case and spoken at length with Lunder about it,” Fredriksen told DN. “I have full confidence in Lunder and his integrity. He has made it clear he has zero tolerance for corruption, and that leaders have a major responsibility to fight corruption. It’s important to build up the right systems, procedures and cultures.”
Lunder won’t comment on VimpelCom or the investigation. Fredriksen himself is the first to admit that his group runs a lot of “high-risk companies.” Lunder’s experience with Russian owners during his years at VimpelCom and his network in Russia are clearly seen as an advantage by Fredriksen, not least because of his group’s cooperation with the Russian oil and gas company Rosneft.
Fredriksen’s twin daughters are also enthusiastic about Lunder coming on board: “We’re building up the strongest team we can, so that we can be as best prepared as possible to exploit opportunities ahead,” Kathrine Fredriksen told DN.