Thursday 27 November 2014

Russia's richest woman plans tilt at Westin

Russian billionaire Elena Baturina has already spent millions buying the Morrison Hotel in Dublin – but now she's planning to buy up an awful lot more of Ireland

Roisin Burke

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

ELENA BATURINA: Russia's wealthiest woman

Russia's wealthiest woman is eyeing buys in the Irish housing market as well as adding to her multimillion hotel assets here.

In addition to considering a bid for the landmark Westin Hotel, Elena Baturina told the Sunday Independent she is "closely monitoring" the housing market here. She and her husband, former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, are also interested in acquiring agricultural land here, she said.

A philanthropist and one of Russia's most influential figures, she is listed by Forbes as worth $1bn. She entered the Irish market in 2012, buying the Morrison Hotel in Dublin for around €20m, which has been substantially restored and returned to profitability under her ownership. She owns several European hotels and resorts.

Now her investment interest in Ireland is evolving beyond the hotel market to Nama and banks' residential mortgage and commercial loan books.

"I'm keeping a very close eye on housing and offices. I haven't yet decided to enter that market but I keep a constant eye on that," she said.

"I think the Irish market is getting more and more attractive. Housing prices are going up, offices prices are going up. There is still potential and it's still interesting for me."

When asked about the Westin, she said: "I'd really like to look at it." Her attention picks up animatedly as we discuss the hotel, which Nama is bringing to market soon priced at north of €60m.

She recently went to the final bidding stage for another unnamed Irish hotel, thought to be John Malone's €35m Trinity Capital. "We tried to acquire one more hotel but unfortunately we didn't win the competition," she said. "Once it got to the final stage of comparing prices I decided not to do the deal. We just didn't think it was right to up the bid.

"We are very interested still, we're monitoring the situation. If anything interesting comes up we'll definitely look at it," she added.

We met at her luxurious family trust's office in London's Mayfair last week, a building decked with expensive looking objects, thick carpets and rich purple and grey toned decor.

Baturina is dressed in a vivid blue Armani suit the colour of a St Tropez sky. She wears heavy gold jewellery but her hair is toned down from its former Russian blonde to a more muted brown and tied back in a simple style, and she wears no makeup. She is strong-faced and handsome, very warm and congenial, and also seems not a little formidable.

She stands at a heavy ornate dark wood desk and approaches smilingly to greet me with an open hand but politely says "careful!" as her right hand is bandaged following a run-in with an unruly horse.

Her attention was drawn to Ireland when her advisers called the beginning of recovery here, she says.

"They pointed out that Ireland was a good place to invest, where the economic situation had reached the bottom but was at the point where it was about to climb. And they were not mistaken. Ireland was the first country in the European Union that started to climb out of recession."

She praises the Government for its role in that. "Arguably it was in part the result of the measures taken by the Irish Government to help it out of recession. It was shock therapy at the time, but it brought the results that everybody wanted. I think the fact that there are so many foreign investors in the Irish economy proves that the Government is doing something right in its economic policy," she said.

She's justifiably proud of the Morrison, where occupancy has jumped and profitability is growing. "We're very happy with the way we restored the hotel and the way it's operating at the moment."

She has visited Ireland over the course of the year and lives between London, New York and Moscow, where her mother still lives.

"My oldest daughter is studying in London, the younger one in New York. The whole family are dispersed between them. My mother lives in Moscow and me and my husband live on a plane," she jokes.

She's a city girl from Moscow but she and her husband have a vast 12,500-acre farm in Kaliningrad, where her husband breeds Romanov sheep.

"Here in England I have a small farm, about 100 hectares (250 acres). Perhaps that's not very small for the size of Ireland, but (it is) in Russian scale."

The couple are keeping an eye out for agricultural land in Ireland. "If we have an opportunity to do it in Ireland we would. It's a hobby rather than business, but a very interesting lifestyle and I love country life mixed with urban life."

She is a keen horsewoman as her bandaged hand demonstrates. "I am looking for two nice calm horses, possibly Irish hunters," she half jokes. She owns two Irish horses in Russia.

Things have been difficult back in her home country, where a land dispute with the Putin-led government is ongoing.

"The problems continue, they're still getting through the courts with the Russian government. It goes on...

"And if Russian law won't be able to protect me then I'll have to turn to international law. I'm ready for that," she said.

I tell her that although her PR has said she never comments on Russian foreign policy, I tell her I will need to ask her for her thoughts on Ukraine. Her husband, once close to the Kremlin and one of Russia's most powerful figures, has in the past been a vocal supporter of a Russian-owned Crimea.

The room temperature drops by about 40 degrees but she says very reasonably: "Well, give me the question, I'm happy to answer it if it's acceptable to me." I ask how she thinks the situation there might be resolved and whether the Russian government should continue to be so aggressively involved there.

"I have two daughters, and they're close in age, less than two years between them. And it means that when they were teenagers they constantly argued about some topics. In all the conflicts and confrontations not one person was ever guilty or to blame; it was that both of them were to blame. One pushed a bit too much the other one did not compromise enough. It's exactly the same in Ukraine. It's never that one side is to blame solely.."

Do you feel that the Putin government has been in place too long in Russia and is it time for change there, I also ask. Baturina's husband was was ousted from power in Moscow in 2010.

"Putin has been legally elected by the majority of people. Maybe people in the West should not even ask this question whether someone has been in power too long when someone has been democratically elected," she says carefully.

With wealth that would be difficult to spend in a lifetime, some might wonder why she works as hard as she appears to. "Probably I could just sit back," she says, appearing to consider it an outlandish idea. "Do you like playing games? Yes? Well, so you can consider that I am playing games." She smiles broadly.

Outside of her multimillion business affairs she has many other interests, including cherishing the biggest private collection of Russian imperial porcelain in the world.

Like many wealthy jetset international Russians she has a favourite philanthropic project, called BeOpen, which supports several art endeavours around the world.

She collects mainly Russian art and also owns a painting by Irish-born Francis Bacon. "I did quite well there, it was not bought for the crazy prices of today."

And she loves classic cars, which she and Yuri enjoy running in rallies. She has about 50 in her collection, including a 1907 Darracq Double-Phaeton and a 1936 Lagonda LG45.

Far from sitting back, she will grow her business. She has ambitions to expand her interests in Europe, including in Britain and Ireland, and is considering investments in the US now that the economy is on the rise there.

The changing of media groups and stakes in newspapers here hasn't caught her attention but it piques her interest when mentioned in the context of her countryman Alexander Lebvedev having bought the British 'Independent' newspapers from the O'Reillys.

"I have no experience of owning media, I've never thought of it before. Maybe that's a new idea! The main thing is that I would not become a tyrant putting across my own point of view!" she laughs.

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