MOSCOW — In 1993, Alexander Lutsenko abandoned a fledgling military career in the Russian army to test an economic adage he learned while studying at the Political College of Arms in Minsk. Even in the most difficult times, the saying went, a well-managed agriculture business is always profitable.
Lutsenko founded a trading company that became Luxembourg-based Sodrugestvo Group, Russia's largest soybean meal producer, and encountered plenty of opportunities to see whether the theory would hold.
When the Russian ruble crashed in 1998, he drew upon the company's U.S. dollar cash reserves to pay his most important foreign creditors first. A decade later, as competitors scaled back amid the global recession, he expanded, investing in new factories, sea terminals and railroads.
"Our company has always grown in crises," Lutsenko said in a November interview at his office in the city of Svetliy in Russia's Kaliningrad region, located on the Baltic Sea. "We have cast-iron discipline."
That discipline helped the 50-year-old and his wife, Natalia, amass a 10-figure fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Sodrugestvo generated about $1.7 billion in revenue last year — double its sales in 2008 — and controls 33 percent of the Russian market for soybean meal, an additive used in animal feed. Lutsenko has never appeared on an international wealth ranking.
In July, the company announced that Tokyo-based Mitsui, Japan's second-largest trading house by market value, had acquired a 10 percent stake in Sodrugestvo. The alliance will bring Mitsui's marketing and distribution resources to Sodrugestvo's grain operations, while providing Mitsui access to the company's livestock feed business in Russia and the former Soviet republics.
Mitsui's investment gave Sodrugestvo an enterprise value — equity value plus total debt minus cash — of $2.2 billion, Sodrugestvo said in a news release. An agro-business industry analyst in Russia familiar with Sodrugestvo's financial performance who asked not to be identified because the company is closely held said it has about $250 million in net debt, giving the company an equity value of $1.95 billion.