Never down and out: Thor Bjorgolfsson is the Rocky of the business world

Ollie Gordon
Icelandic billionaire Thor Bjorgolfsson

After losing a billion dollar empire and rebuilding it again, Thor Bjorgolfsson shares some of the lessons he learnt.

“All of my greatest opport­unities have come in the middle of a crisis,” says Icelandic billionaire Thor Bjorgolfsson. “Only the brave and bold go into chaos. International corporations can’t take such risk – I go in before them, take the risk and, once things stabilise, I already have just what they need.”
Bjorgolfsson is sharing some of his business insights with City A.M. after the launch of his new book, Billions To Bust – And Back. It’s the story of how the 47-year-old built a vast billion-dollar business empire, saw it burn to the ground in the financial crisis, only for him to then rebuild it.
As close one can get to the business equivalent of a Rocky film, Bjorgolfsson’s is a remarkable story. A self-styled “adventure capitalist”, his eye for a deal quickly saw him rise to become Iceland’s first billionaire. Straight out of university he moved to Russia, successfully establishing a business empire in alcopops and beer in the lawless “Wild East” of newly capitalist Russia in the 1990s, ending with the $100m sale of his Russian Bravo brewery business to Heineken in 2002. Over the next six years, his fortune grew 40-fold as he reinvested that $100m into the merging, floating, spinning off and privatising of Scandinavian and East European businesses. On his 40th birthday in March 2007, he was sitting on assets worth around $4bn, with only 250 people in the world richer than him.
But it was all to come crashing down after Iceland’s oldest bank Landsbanki – in which Bjorgolfsson had invested with his father – imploded when Iceland went into financial meltdown in October 2008, taking Bjorgolfsson with it. Within a year, he had lost 99 per cent of his wealth. Facing crippling debts, he refused give in to bankruptcy, and bit by bit managed to settle up with creditors and slowly climb back up the ladder. By 2014, through the various strategic investments of his private equity fund Novator – primarily the success of his one per cent stake US pharma giant Actavis – Bjorgolfsson had become a billionaire once more.
So what has he learnt on his roller coaster ride? Well, according to Bjorgolfsson, the most important thing an entrepreneur can do is to keep thinking positively. “Nothing is impossible if you stick your mind to it,” he says. “It’s important to take a stab at problems again and again from different angles, until ultimately you resolve it.
“But you’ve got to retain your optimism to be able to do that.”
Sounding increasingly like the hit Stallone-character of the 1980s, Bjorgolfsson also advises that a businessmen learns much more in adversity than in success.
“People ask me how I got so successful, but I only started learning about business when things started going wrong. Nobody will acknowledge that on the way up but once they’ve been through a restructuring or a near-death experience, they will.
“And that applies to both to entrepreneurs and businesses.”

Related articles