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Oil King Controversial commodity trader Marc Rich dies

Marc Rich found sanctuary in Switzerland

(RDB)

Marc Rich, the billionaire oil trader who set up Swiss commodities giant Glencore Xstrata, has died at the age of 78.

Rich died of a stroke in a hospital in Lucerne, near his longtime home, according to the Marc Rich Group. His Israel-based spokesman, Avner Azulay, said Rich would be buried in Israel on Thursday.

The legendary trader, who courted controversy by covertly supplying Israel with Iranian oil, found sanctuary in Switzerland from the United States authorities who wanted to prosecute him for tax evasion.

Former US President Bill Clinton pardoned Rich in 2001 just hours before he left office, unleashing a political firestorm of criticism. 

Having fled to the US with his Jewish family from Antwerp, Belgium, to avoid Nazi persecution in 1942, Rich followed his father into commodities trading with the US group Philipp Brothers before eventually building his own vast empire based in Switzerland.

Marc Rich & Co, the precursor to Glencore Xstrata, was founded in 1974 and Rich himself became a Swiss resident in 1983 to escape US prosecution.

The trader was also criticised for making millions in his business dealings with apartheid-era South Africa. In 1993, he sold Glencore in a management buyout but he continued in the commodities trading business until 2003.

“We are saddened to hear of the death of Marc," Glencore Xstrata chief executive Ivan Glasenberg told the Reuters news agency. "He was a friend and one of the great pioneers of the commodities trading industry, founding the company that became Glencore.”

In later years, Rich dedicated his time to his diversified financial and real estate trading firm Marc Rich Group and to charitable organisations he had set up under his name.

Two sides

But his death has divided opinion on how to judge his legacy. A statement from the Marc Rich Group praised a "pioneer of modern commodities trading".

The statement went on to list his "philanthropic work" with charitable foundations dedicated to education, culture and welfare and the honorary doctorates bestowed on him by Israeli universities.

However, Oliver Classen from pressure group Berne Declaration, that has long criticised the Swiss commodity trading industry, had a different view.

"Rich was ruthlessly opportunistic regardless of the legal and human consequences," Classen told swissinfo.ch. "He was a risk taker and his business model has been handed on to the current generation of traders in Switzerland."

Rich's arrival in Switzerland "lent momentum" to the commodities trading industry in Switzerland which would probably not otherwise have reached the levels it currently enjoys, added Classen.

"Charming"

In 2009, swissinfo.ch spoke to Daniel Ammann, who interviewed Rich extensively for his book, The King of Oil.

He said he was surprised at how charming Rich was. “As a trader in commodities, you are in a way working in the grey areas of capitalism. He is a very charming person, which surprised me because publicly he was painted as the biggest devil and very arrogant and unscrupulous,” he said.

“I had this image of him and when I met him I was surprised. He speaks very softly and he's very friendly. I was surprised by his charm but at the same time of course he was one of the best traders in the 20th century so he had to be cunning as well.”

As to what made Rich so successful, Ammann said he simply had a “nose” for trading.

“He had the knack for discovering trends and at the time he became active independently ... he realised that the world of commodity business was changing from multinational companies towards the governments of countries which wanted to exploit their resources themselves. They had to have independent traders and Marc Rich was one of the early ones, especially when it came to oil, so hence the title [of the book] The King of Oil.”

Ammann added that Rich was always able to bring together impossible business partners such as Iran and Israel after the fall of the shah – “I think this was one of his biggest successes.”

The author also described Switzerland as a “golden cage” for Rich, safe from any problems with the law.

 

“He was actually hunted by the US authorities all over the world. They even tried to kidnap Marc Rich in Switzerland, which was highly illegal according to Swiss law, so he had to be very cautious where he was travelling and that's why I say that Switzerland was a golden cage,” he said.

“He was safe in Switzerland but he had to be extremely cautious where he would fly. He had to avoid, for instance, American air space when he flew to the Caribbean or to South America.”

swissinfo.ch


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