Mikhail Prokhorov: The Russian Is Coming

Billionaire Plans To Buy New Jersey Nets, Vows To Turn Around Team's Fortunes

He says he hasn't found a woman who can cook well enough to marry, but he seems to be looking for her in all the wrong places. When Prokhorov took "60 Minutes" to Moscow's exclusive "SoHo" club, there were 20 beautiful women waiting in his private section to entertain him and his friends, and none of them looked like they wanted to spend their lives over a hot stove.

As we said earlier, this penchant for pulchritude has gotten him in to trouble before and helped him make a fortune.

But before we get to that, it helps to know about his money and how he made it.

"People say you are the richest man in Russia," Kroft remarked.

"Maybe, who knows?" Prokhorov replied.

Asked whether he knows how much money he has, he told Kroft, "No."

"Does 17 billion sound about right?" Kroft asked.

"I'm lucky to have enough money to be really independent. But it doesn't drive me just to count money, thinking about money, It's only a side effect of what I'm doing in business," Prokhorov replied.

Like most Russian billionaires, Prokhorov's fortune was molded from the ashes of the former Soviet Union, with a little bit of luck and the help of a powerful political connection.

He was raised among the Soviet elite and studied at the prestigious Moscow International Financial Institute where he majored in international finance.

So when communism and the Soviet Union finally collapsed, he was one of the few people who knew anything about world markets and free enterprise.

"We made a crazy transformation, just crazy. I can't imagine 20 years ago, we know nothing about capitalism, nothing," he remembered.

His expertise drew the attention of Vladimir Potanin, a future deputy prime minister of Russia with close ties to the Kremlin who had just been given the right to open two private banks.

He asked Prokhorov to run them as his partner; the downside was the job might get him killed. During the 1990s, hundreds of Russian businessmen were gunned down by contract killers hired to resolve disputes or by gangsters trying to muscle in on someone else's turf.

"It was Wild West. It was a territory with no sheriff," Prokhorov recalled. "No rules, you need to survive."

And he did survive and with no blood on his hands: by the time he reached 30, he was already a multimillionaire, but a much bigger payday was just around the corner.

In 1995, Prokhorov and Potanin's bank won the equivalent of the Russian lottery: Kremlin leaders gave them what amounted to an insider's opportunity to buy one of the state's most valuable assets - a huge mining and metal operation called Norilsk Nickel, which is among the world's largest producers of nickel, copper and platinum.

They acquired it from the Kremlin in a so-called auction for the measly sum of a few hundred million dollars, in a process that even Prokhorov's business partner admitted wasn't perfect and probably not even legal under western standards. But it was legal in Russia.

Yulia Latynina, one of Russia's top business journalists, says it was sort of like a slam dunk. No one was shocked or surprised. "Everybody would have would have been surprised if they didn't win it," she explained.

Asked if the process was rigged, Latynina said, "Yes, it was rigged. But it cannot be explained in normal economic terms to an outsider, especially an American."

But she says this is the way these things worked. "You had robber barons, we had oligarchs," she told Kroft.

Prokhorov transformed the decrepit mining company into one of the most productive operations in the world, taking it public before world prices for metals and other raw materials began to skyrocket along with the price of his stock and he sold at the perfect time but not necessarily because he wanted to.