Ivan Savvidi just had a week to remember. It started March 11, when the pistol-packing Russian businessman charged onto a soccer field toward the end of a Greek Super League match to confront the referee for disallowing a last-minute goal. Five days later, he became a billionaire.
Savvidi, 58, said he was “deeply sorry” for the incident, which prompted Greece to suspend the league and drew condemnation from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, as he and his team PAOK face hefty fines.
But the deal announced Friday may soften the blow. Japan Tobacco Inc. agreed to buy Savvidi’s company, Donskoy Tabak, for 90 billion rubles ($1.6 billion), a hefty premium at a time when Russia is cracking down on smoking, including a planned tax increase for cigarettes and a proposed ban on sales to anyone born after 2015. The transaction, expected to be completed in the third quarter, would give Savvidi a net worth of $1.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
While ethnically Greek, Savvidi was born in Georgia under Soviet rule. He served in the army, rising to the rank of sergeant major, and began working at Don State Tobacco Factory in 1980. After studying at Rostov State University of Economics, Savvidi took control of the government-owned enterprise in 1993, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Savvidi distinguished himself by being the most aggressive and successful among the Russian producers in exploring international markets and introducing cigarettes with flavors such as Irish coffee and rum and cherry. Donskoy Tabak sells about 30 percent of its cigarettes to foreign countries including Egypt and Transnistria, the self-proclaimed republic between Ukraine and Moldova, according to Maxim Korolev, who heads industry research firm Russkiy Tabak.
“Customers also like flavored cigarettes, and they were the only big producer who made substantial efforts to address clients’ wishes” as the company developed a variety of products, he said.
Donskoy Tabak, founded in 1857, is Russia’s fourth-largest tobacco company with 7 percent market share and had $278 million of revenue last year, Japan Tobacco said. Its brands include Donskoy Tabak, Kiss and Play. Savvidi transferred ownership of the company to his wife in 2003 when he was elected to the State Duma, Russia’s legislative body, according to Tatiana Gordina, his spokeswoman.
In addition to Donskoy Tabak, Savvidi owns meat-processing and packaging businesses that are managed by his holding company Agrocom Group. His Atlantis-Pak is Russia’s biggest producer of plastic packaging for the meat products and cheese industries. He also controls RKZ-TAVR, a sausage maker, and Akva-Don, which bottles drinking water.
He has been accumulating assets in Greece, taking a controlling stake in the PAOK soccer club in 2012 and buying tobacco factory Sekap a year later. Last year he was part of the winning consortium that purchased state-run Thessaloniki Port Authority, and he also acquired significant Greek media interests.
Savvidi endeared himself to soccer fans and was made an honorary citizen in 2013, a year after assuming the club’s debt. But he shocked spectators last week, when he charged onto the field in Thessaloniki to protest the referee’s decision while carrying a holstered gun and surrounded by bodyguards.
“I had absolutely no right to enter the pitch the way I did,” he said in his apology on the team’s website. “My only aim was to protect tens of thousands of PAOK fans from provocation, riots and casualties. Please believe I had no intention to engage in a brawl with our opponents or the referees. And I obviously did not threaten anybody.”