Va-va-voomski as the 'baby Russian oligarch' takes over TVR sports cars By Julius Strauss in Moscow and Caroline Davies (Filed: 29/07/2004) In Moscow he is the "baby oligarch", son of one of the original businessmen who amassed huge fortunes and wielded supreme power controlling private enterprise in post-communist Russia. At only 24, he is already, reportedly, the youngest of the country's rouble billionaires. Nikolai Smolenski likes fast cars and has owned a TVR And now Nikolai Smolenski has joined the ever-expanding ranks of nouveaux riches Russians buying into Britain with his purchase of TVR, the Blackpool-based sports car manufacturer. A close friend of Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, Mr Smolenski took up the reins at his new business venture yesterday, touring the factory and meeting the 400 workers. But just who is this baby-faced multi-millionaire who paid an estimated £15 million for one of Britain's most successful sports car makers? Raised partly in Austria - his mother is Austrian and his father, Alexander, of Jewish Austrian extraction - he was educated privately in London and studied economics. In spite of his great wealth, Mr Smolenski is an extremely low-profile character, splitting his time between Russia and Britain, where he lives in a huge villa on one of north London's most prestigious avenues. It was bought for him more than four years ago by his father who once snapped at a journalist who queried the cost of such a house for a student. Did he expect the boy to live in a railway station? Mr Smolenski junior is one of a breed of high-flying young Russians who owe their wealth to their father's lucrative and shadowy business dealings during the galloping capitalism of the 1990s. With an estimated wealth of £55 million and rising, Mr Smolenski took over his father's banking empire OVK in December 2001. He announced that he would open as many as 1,500 OVK branches but he appeared to grow bored with the idea and sold the bank to another oligarch, Vladimir Potanin. Dmitry Benechuk, a marketing director at OVK, said: "We didn't see much of him. He was not very keen to get involved in the management issues." Co-workers of Nikolai at the bank say he is a typical young new Russian with a thirst for adventure. In his spare time he likes to fly small planes and drive fast cars. He has long been an admirer of TVR, and has apparently owned one of their models. As he toured the factory to inspect cars and engines, a TVR spokesman said: "Mr Smolenski is still getting his head round it all. He has been here before and is incredibly excited by the quality of engineering and skill he has seen on this trip. "All of the staff are extremely impressed by Nikolai - both with his enthusiasm and his knowledge. He is a very, very sharp man." A statement on the TVR company website said it would continue production with a view to channelling extra investment into new technology and production methods. It said the new owner had ruled out large-scale restructuring and the former owner, Peter Wheeler, would remain on the board as a senior consultant. Like Mr Abramovich and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos who is in prison on fraud charges, Alexander Smolenski made a killing in Russia's infamous loans-for-shares scheme. Under the deal, the tycoons agreed to pour their resources into securing the re-election of the ailing President Boris Yeltsin in 1996 in exchange for large chunks of state-owned mineral wealth. Smolenski senior became one of the richest and most controversial businessmen of the Yeltsin era. His story is often portrayed as a rage-to-riches saga. His father was absent, and his mother's Austrian background qualified her in Stalin's Soviet Union as an "enemy of the people". He grew up in poverty and ran foul of the Soviet authorities for printing black-market Bibles, for which he was sentenced to two years in a prison construction brigade. He then made a fortune building houses for the Communist Party elite. In 1989 Alexander Smolenski set up Stolichny Bank. During the 1990s there were several investigations into his business activities. In 1992-3 the FBI took a close look at his alleged part in a scam in America run by Russian immigrants. Another investigation was opened into the whereabouts of a missing £15 million, but was dropped. When Mr Smolenski senior began operating in Austria, where he spends much of his time, the media speculated about his business dealings. His lawyer once boasted that he had to use connections inside the Kremlin to stop Austria raising charges against him. In 1998, during the Russian financial crisis, Alexander Smolenski's bank SBS-Agro went bust and thousands of investors lost their money. He famously told the Wall Street Journal that if foreign investors had been stupid enough to trust him with their money, they deserved nothing but "dead donkey's ears". In May this year Forbes magazine put Alexander Smolenski's worth at about £140 million, to which he replied: "The figure is incorrect. Seriously understated. I was amazed: surely I didn't work so badly for the last 15 years?"