12 July 2004 – The Editors of FORTUNE
It has been four years since FORTUNE published “Capitalism in a Cold Climate” (June 12, 2000), a lengthy report chronicling the efforts of two brothers, David and Simon Reuben, to build a business empire in the former Soviet Union.
Starting in the early 1990s–with David in London and Simon in Geneva–the Reubens built a giant, vertically integrated company that produced and traded aluminum. With the help of two Russians, Lev Chernoy and his brother Michael, the Reubens’ company, Trans World, grew to a point where, in 1996, it was hailed as the world’s third-largest producer, behind Alcoa and Alcan. By 1999, however, the Reuben brothers had lost control of most of their manufacturing facilities in the former Soviet Union to former associates, employees, or partners in Russia. By focusing on the rise and fall of Trans World, FORTUNE attempted not only to tell the company’s story but also to illuminate the lawless business culture that had developed in post-Soviet Russia.
The back story of this tangled tale was unusual. As we explained at the time, with their reputations tarnished by various charges and countercharges arising out of the fierce–and sometimes deadly–business battles going on in Russia, the Reubens hired Kroll Associates, the world’s largest investigative firm, to review Trans World’s entire operation and business practices. As part of the process, Jules Kroll, the company’s founder and chairman, in turn, suggested that the Reubens offer FORTUNE unprecedented access to them and their associates at offices in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.
After months of reporting and more than 100 hours of taped interviews with the Reubens and others, FORTUNE concluded that as far as the Reuben brothers and Trans World were concerned, there was “no smoking gun.” The article, however, pointed to possible links between Trans World and firms at the heart of three international money-laundering scandals and concluded that those links, among other things, would probably spur law enforcement agencies in many nations “to redouble efforts to finish them off.” The article also said that it seemed “unlikely” that Kroll would issue a positive report.
So how did those predictions pan out? Not as we forecast. In December 2000, about six months after the FORTUNE article appeared, Kroll Associates issued a report that gave the Reubens and Trans World a clean bill of health. FORTUNE has seen the report, which focused entirely on six metal-trading companies, based in London, Geneva, Bermuda, and Nassau. It concluded that Kroll had found “no evidence of money laundering, or any other illegal activity” in these operations. In a separate letter Jules Kroll added that the article’s “negative inferences and conclusions concerning the Reubens and their businesses … were not supported” by his investigation and that “given what has transpired since June of 2000, FORTUNE could not publish the story that it did today.”
Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office in Dusseldorf notified the Reubens in August 2001 that it had terminated its probe into alleged money laundering. In a subsequent letter to Trans World’s attorneys, the Dusseldorf prosecutor wrote, “I hereby confirm expressly that there is no remaining suspicion of money laundering or any other criminal actions.”
Although Kroll’s positive report and the apparent absence of active investigations in Germany or elsewhere appear to exonerate the Reuben brothers, they don’t address many of the issues raised in the FORTUNE article. Significantly, the Kroll report doesn’t discuss an essential part of the story–Trans World’s efforts first to build and then to unwind its aluminum-manufacturing business in the former Soviet Union. Nor did it explore the complex business and financial relationships in Russia between the Reubens and Lev and Michael Chernoy.
Jules Kroll says that his firm’s report doesn’t refer to the Chernoys “because the relevant records in Russia that Kroll needed weren’t in the possession of the Reubens and weren’t made available to the investigators despite repeated attempts to examine them.” It was with that relationship in mind, however, that Steven Rucker, the Kroll executive who headed up the firm’s probe while FORTUNE was reporting its story, had told us shortly before our article’s publication that he did not think Kroll could issue a positive report that would benefit the Reubens.
Today the Reubens say that while Michael was close to “dubious individuals” in Russia, he and Lev had split over Michael’s relationships with those individuals. Additionally, the Reubens are currently pursuing criminal proceedings against Michael and others in Switzerland.
We should note one other development since our piece was published. In June 2001, claiming that the FORTUNE article had damaged the Reubens and Trans World, the brothers and their firm sued the article’s writer, Richard Behar, and FORTUNE’s parent, Time Inc., for libel in a London court. Time Inc. and its employee, Mr. Behar, denied any liability.
In the case, the Reubens complained that the FORTUNE article suggested that they had been complicit in murders at aluminum plants in the former Soviet Union. FORTUNE did not claim and does not claim that the Reubens were responsible for any murders and did not intend to imply that in the article. Nor does it believe that its article in fact implied that. The case was set for trial Oct. 4, but it has now been resolved on amicable terms.
After selling all the assets from their Russian investments, which made them billionaires, the Reuben brothers have continued to be active purchasers of prestigious properties in the London real estate market. In 2003 they also decided to turn their attention to mergers and acquisitions and venture capital opportunities. They have forged partnerships with West Coast Capital and Halifax Bank of Scotland; acquired a significant stake in the rail cargo company Ermewa, in partnership with the French national railway; and recently bought a controlling stake in one of Britain’s largest property groups, Chelsfield PLC. Other partners in the enterprise include the Halifax Bank of Scotland, Multiplex, the Olayan family, and the Bank of East Asia. In addition, the Reuben brothers have endowed their own foundation, dedicated to education and health-care issues, with $100 million.
–The editors of FORTUNE