Even the Avengers are sometimes cornered. They fight, they fall, they get back up. But they never stop fighting. The human imagination created them for this. In the 80’s, a completely opposite figure of a hero with supernatural powers was dominating Italy: Superciuk, the man who stole from the poor (who don’t know what to do with money) to give to the rich, who instead know how to enjoy life. A simple counter-hero, a mockery in a world of drawings in which plutocrats are pigs, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, but in reality, everything is a joke, because even the “good guys”, a group of starving wretches working for a mean old man with a cumbersome past who is himself a thief, are just a cartoon caricature of the 007 films that were a big hit in Italy at the end of the 1960s, in the wake of Diabolik.
While Superciuk has remained confined to Alan Ford’s comics, the superhero we are talking about, Björgolfur Thor Björgólfsson, exists in real life and, according to “Forbes” magazine, has for decades been the richest man in Iceland and one of the richest in the world. He was born in Reykjavik in 1967 and is the last member of a prominent family of entrepreneurs – all with a past that we could politely describe as between light and shade. All people who, since the end of the 19th century, have made the history of capitalism in Scandinavia, creating colossal fortunes, destroying them in a few weeks of crisis, only to rebuild them again, moving from Denmark to Iceland each time.
Björgólfsson is a man whose personal wealth, on a remote island near the North Pole, can prevent justice from taking its course: Iceland, in the 1980s, when Björgólfsson made his first billion, had a total gross domestic product of less than $3 billion. In the years of the financial boom this figure rose to the exorbitant total of $21 billion, after the Björgólfsson family crash it fell by over 40% and now, a decade after its bankruptcy, it is back above $20 billion. The Icelandic Superciuk himself, who meanwhile lives in England, has returned to opulence, as if nothing had happened. Not only that: he has paid all his debts – those that the courts have asked him to pay, both civilly and criminally, and today he is a man with an unassailable reputation.
The great crisis of 2008
Icelandic people take to the streets to protest against the banks and the government
This was possible because that disaster was not the work of one man, but of an entire system which, in 2003, decided, under the leadership of Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson, in office since 1991, to privatise Iceland’s banks and bet all the state’s tokens on the roulette of international financial speculation: when the global banking crisis of 2008 arrived – the island lost everything.
Even before the Wall Street implosion of 2007, economic journals warned Reykjavik that the Icelandic Krona, under the increasing pressure of privatised banks, had reached a very high and fictitious value, simply because, due to a 19th century banking law, banks could count debts acquired from failing companies as part of their assets and, therefore, when they had to repay those debts, they did not have the necessary cash liquidity, and the value of the Icelandic Krona fell by more than half in less than a week.
Oddsson, gripped by fear, seeing that the banks’ bad debts had reached 50 billion dollars, compared to national assets of only 8.5 billion dollars, put government bonds into circulation without collateral – in other words, he started printing money without value which, during the course of 2008, contributed to creating an increasingly transparent speculative bubble and to increasing inflation to rates hitherto unknown in Latin America and, therefore, to imploding the entire national economy.
At this point the central bank of Iceland (Seðlabanki Íslands) asked the United Kingdom for help, but the Bank of England, informed of the real situation, refused to refinance Iceland’s debt. An apparent choice: at the same time, some loans were granted to private banks in difficulty – a measure that postpones collective collapse by only a few months. One after the other the big Icelandic banks collapsed: the Kaupthing Bank (financed by the fish industry), the Glitnir Bank (born in 1990 from the merger of the old family banks), and Landsbanki, one of whose major shareholders is Thor Björgólfsson’s father.
The latter is the bank that has done the most damage, because it has created an investment fund based on the securitisation of national debt, called Icesave, in which the national banks and thousands of British and Dutch citizens have invested (and lost) about 4 billion euros from 300,000 British customers and 1.7 billion euros from 125,000 Dutch customers. Once the survival of the bank was guaranteed by the state, after a long trial in London, Landsbanki paid back all damaged customers in less than seven years, by paying 100 billion crowns per year.
Davíð Oddsson (left), Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (in the middle), Björgolfur Guðmundsson (right)
Davíð Oddsson left politics and became head of the national bank, but the scandal concerning his person was so big that he was forced, after 20 years of almost absolute power over his country, to resign and become an economic journalist for the biggest newspaper on the island, the Morgunblaðið – because in such a small country, the powerful never forget their Superciuk. The people take to the streets, terrified, despite the fact that the government has nationalised the large failed companies, guaranteeing for the debts and thus allowing everyday life to continue. A block of left-wing parties won the elections, but the Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was caught red-handed and forced to resign.
The three big banks ended up drowning: first the country’s only major publishing and retail group, the Baugur Group (whose owners were later convicted of fraud); secondly, the largest industry in the country, Kaupthing, which sells frozen fish all over the world (and whose two most influential figures, Lýður Guðmundsson and Águst Guðmundsson, had their careers destroyed, while the managers in charge of the industrial group and the bank linked to it, Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and Sigurður Einarsson, ended up in jail); thirdly, Landsbanki, whose managers Elín Sigfúsdóttir, Hannes Þór Smárason, Sigurjón Þ. Árnason and Steinþór Gunnarsson were sentenced to severe prison terms. From then on Iceland embarks on a hard road to recovery, and the Björgólfsson family, caught up in the failures, disappears…
A family of great traditions
Thor Philip Axel Jensen
So did Björgólfsson’s ancestors, starting with Thor Philip Axel Jensen (1863-1947), our hero’s maternal great-grandfather, famous because he was the one who imported capitalism to Iceland from Denmark. Don’t be surprised: until 17 June 1944 the two geographical areas were a single nation, and only at the end of the war did Iceland break away and declare independence. In 1878, after university, Thor Jensen was sent to Borðeyri, a small trading settlement in north-west Iceland, because his headmaster knew a local merchant there: he studied Icelandic and founded the trading company Kveldúlfur hf, which became the most important in the country between 1919 and 1939.
The beginnings were hard: a shop opened in Akranes with his wife Margrét went bankrupt in 1900, but the two opened a new one in the capital, this time managing to make a profit. With Pétur J. Thorsteinsson, in 1907 Thor founded the first large fish processing company with an international clientele: PJ Thorsteinsson & Co., today known as Milljónarfélagið. Through it, Thor Jensen took part in the design of the Jóni Forseti, Iceland’s first industrial fishing boat, and to make it work he had a harbour built in Viðey and built what was then Iceland’s only railway line to bring fish to the island’s towns.
In later years Thor concentrated on sheep farming and founded the Korpúlfsstaður dairy – the largest in the country. He died as a hero, from a stroke, on 12 December 1947. His son, Ólafur Tryggvason Thors (1892-1964), was one of Iceland’s most prominent politicians and headed five governments as prime minister. In Thor Jensen’s companies the whole family worked and became rich – and then the trouble started. Björgolfur Guðmundsson (1943), Thor’s father, was convicted of accounting fraud in the 1980s when he worked for Hafskip, the country’s second largest shipping company, founded by his wife’s family, and was among the architects of its bankruptcy: the court sentenced him to one year’s probation, after which he went to work in a small brewery in Copenhagen for a change.
In 1991, with the help of his family, he got a good manager’s job at Shell, and with the money he earned there he bought the brewery of the Icelandic group Pharmaco, so that Guðmundsson is now a very rich man: a former professional footballer, still a great fan, he bought 90% of the shares of the English club West Ham United in 2006. His wife, Margrét Þóra Hallgrímsson (1930 -2020) was a prominent figure in the country’s cultural and business elite. But her first marriage was already over: on 3 October 1953 she married George Lincoln Rockwell (1918-1967), a US Navy officer and founder of the American Nazi Party.
From Russia to Bulgaria
Bravo beer advertising also features on historical buildings in St Petersburg
The next generation of the family tried, successfully, to expand outside Iceland. Thor Björgólfsson (together with Magnus Thorsteinsson, who has now separated from Björgólfsson and is an entrepreneur in the aviation and financial services sector) started his business activities in Russia, founding Bravo International OOO, a drinks company in St Petersburg that signed a franchise agreement with Pepsi-Cola and converted part of its plants into a brewery.
In 1997, the company sold its soft drinks plants to Pepsi and began a campaign of international expansion in the beer sector: with an investment of $25 million from various American funds, Björgólfsson and Thorsteinsson launched the international sale of three traditional brands that have been very successful – Ohota, Botchkarov and Löwenbrau. Thanks to Bravo’s advertising campaigns (the sensational initiative of inviting 10,000 people to a free beer festival in the centre of St Petersburg), the Russian beer market doubled between 1999 and 2001, with a total volume rising to 60 million hectolitres. One of the most effective ways to make beer trendy was to put the Björgólfsson family’s private jet at the disposal of the father of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev – and the state repaid the entrepreneur by appointing him Consul General of Iceland in St Petersburg.
As his success grew, unsubstantiated allegations about his links to the Russian mafia began to circulate, but eventually the Icelandic entrepreneur grew tired and sold everything to Heineken in 2002 for $100 million. This money was used to finance several start-ups in Iceland and to take over, together with his father – who was later appointed president of the Banking Institute – 45% of Landsbanki, the oldest commercial bank in Reykjavik (founded in 1885), which became Iceland’s leading financial institution and the largest in Northern Europe.
But that was not enough for him. In 2003 Björgólfsson founded Novator Partner in London (where he lives with his wife Kristin and their three children) and Luxembourg, – an investment fund which, in turn, manages the Novator One LP fund of the Cayman Islands, which invests worldwide in the telecommunications sector: in the spring of 2020 Björgólfsson bought 3% of Telecom Italia and about 1% of Mediobanca, the temple of Italian capitalism.
At the same time, the Icelandic entrepreneur invested in a Bulgarian pharmaceutical company, Balkanpharma, and thanks to a frenetic series of small acquisitions ($1.3 billion spent in the United States) the company, which took the name Actavis, became the fourth largest producer of generic drugs in the world. Björgólfur Thor had already started buying up property and shares in Bulgaria in 1999: in a very poor country, the Icelandic made an immediate name for himself and, in 2005, was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Bulgarian National Radio, as he was the largest foreign investor in Bulgaria.
The Actavis Group Headquarters
In 2008, Actavis had legal problems at one of its US plants and was forced to withdraw all its drugs. Actavis’ shareholders were forced into debt: Björgolfur Thor borrowed 230 million dollars from ‘his’ Landsbanki, which he paid a few hours before Iceland’s collapse. Obviously, this was the last straw: as part of Iceland’s general crisis, when the state was forced to nationalise the banks to prevent the entire population from running out of money, Landsbanki was the first to fail. The Icelanders, who regarded the family as a patriarchy protecting the island, learned to hate Björgólfsson and his relatives.
Thor Björgólfsson does not give up: first he sold the majority stake in Actavis to the Watson Group for $2.25 billion, after which, supported by a team of lawyers, consultants and investment bankers, he promoted ‘Project Darwin’ to restructure his debts of around $1 billion and managed to repay the debt – perhaps with the help of immense public pressure and criminal justice, which traced his assets, forced him to sell his yacht, his private jet, some of his mansions and his Ferrari… but Operation Darwin was a great success, because the entrepreneur kept a small part of his holdings and, with them, slowly and painstakingly rebuilt his empire, almost from scratch.
At the end of this journey, in April 2010, following the publication of the government’s report on the financial crisis, Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson made a public apology for his role in the speculative bubble in an advertisement in the newspaper ‘Fréttablaðið’. Novator Partners currently controls the Polish mobile operator Play, a minority stake in the pharmaceutical company Actavis, the video game company CCP, the cycling platform Zwift, the e-commerce platforms Nova and the telecommunications operator Wom. The latter, recently introduced also in Colombia, was launched in Chile in 2015, where in five years it has captured 23% of the market, which is equivalent to six million users under the direction of a particularly effective manager, Chris Bannister, whom in Chile they have nicknamed Tio Wom for this reason.
The London resurrection
Together on holiday: Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson (left) and David Beckham (right)
How did Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson achieve such a result? With skill, first of all, by investing his remaining money (which was in any case millions of euros) in the right products, such as in V-Nova International Ltd. London, a group of Italian financiers, coming from the best banks in the world, who since 2011 have been investing in new technologies for data compression on the internet and in e-commerce (Amazon) and media (Eutelsat, Sky, etc.) companies and who, in ten years, have brought the company’s capital close to 200 million pounds and a figure of over 10 billion in investment value.
Björgólfsson’s share is more than 10%, and for this reason, until 2020, the Icelandic entrepreneur had a seat on the board of directors, but when the growth became really fast, Björgólfsson founded a new series of capital companies, each with assets of tens of millions of pounds, which serve to avoid the intervention of the British tax authorities and to spread the wealth among all members of the family. Naturally, some of the proceeds were hidden in tax havens, so much so that the clan was repeatedly mentioned in the Panama Papers, which revealed the existence of half a dozen front companies scattered around the planet, and later in the so-called Paradise Papers, two lists of offshore companies discovered by the international journalists’ group called ICIJ. Venial sins, all things considered, at least in the perception of public opinion.
Because in the meantime Björgólfsson has become a legend, especially after director Ulla Boje Rasmussen made a documentary about his family in 2011, “Thor’s saga”, which tells the story of Iceland’s first billionaire and that of his ambitious ancestors, right up to his resurrection in London and the purchase of a new private jet bearing the emblem of Thor’s hammer. The entrepreneur has discovered that it works: on the net there are pictures of Thor on the beach with Hollywood director Guy Ritchie and former footballer David Beckham. The three of them met at the gym, as they are all in their 50s who care a great deal about their physical appearance and have long days without work to do.
In his autobiography ‘Billions to Bust – and Back’, Thor explains: “It’s not about falling, it’s about how fast you can get back up. You should not focus on the past, but on the future, remembering what you have done. Experience the experience with optimism, facing problems without giving up. You have to know that you will get back up, whatever it takes to do so”. In the book, the author tells how it is possible, while remaining honest, to amass a fortune mainly from poor or middle-class clients, destroy it, and become very rich again, without ever breaking the law. Something that Superciuk, who was always arrested at the end of Alan Ford’s stories, never managed to do.
 https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-mono/10.4324/9780429436345/electoral-politics-crisis-great-recession-eva-%C3%B6nnud%C3%B3ttir-agnar-freyr-helgason-%C3%B3lafur-th-hardarson-hulda-th%C3%B3risd%C3%B3ttir, pages 2-32
 https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-mono/10.4324/9780429436345/electoral-politics-crisis-great-recession-eva-%C3%B6nnud%C3%B3ttir-agnar-freyr-helgason-%C3%B3lafur-th-hardarson-hulda-th%C3%B3risd%C3%B3ttir, passim
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 https://web.archive.org/web/20080202162406/http://www.icesave.co.uk/savings-range.html ; https://web.archive.org/web/20081010184234/http://www.news.com.au/business/story/0%2C27753%2C24467268-31037%2C00.html ; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/moneybox/6051276.stm ; https://web.archive.org/web/20081010184234/http://www.news.com.au/business/story/0%2C27753%2C24467268-31037%2C00.html ; https://www.bloomberg.com/politics?pid=20601085&sid=aijgJy15_hJI
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 Autori Vari, “Calendario Atlante De Agostini 2021”, Istituto Geografico DE Agostini, Novara, pagina 709
 Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, ‘The Elves’ Point of View: Cultural Identity in Contemporary Icelandic Elf-Tradition’, Fabula: Zeitschrift für Erzählsforschung/Journal of Folklore Studies/Revue d’Etudes sur le Conte Populaire, 41 (2000), pages 87-104
 [t]veir af öflugustu útvegsbændum á Seltjarnarnesi, Guðmundur Einarsson í Nesi og Þórður Jónasson í Ráðagerði sögðust skildu kaupa af honum útgerðarvörur ef hann byði þær á samkeppnishæfu verði’, Guðmundur Magnússon. Thorsararnir, p. 37.
 Roger Boyes, Meltdown Iceland: Lessons on the World Financial Crisis from a Small Bankrupt Island (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), pp. 64-65.
 http://www.americannaziparty.com/thistimetheworld.pdf, pages 135 and 139
 Roger Boyes, Meltdown Iceland: Lessons on the World Financial Crisis from a Small Bankrupt Island (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), pp. 67-68
 Frederick James Simonelli, “American Führer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party”, University of Illinois Press, Chicago 1999; http://www.americannaziparty.com/thistimetheworld.pdf, pages 135 and 139; https://www.pressherald.com/2017/09/03/for-years-the-so-called-grandfather-of-neo-nazis-called-maine-his-home/ ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lincoln_Rockwell
 V-Nova – 100 Stories ; In Conversation with V Nova – IABM (theiabm.org) ; V-Nova, AWS collaborate on more efficient on-demand online services | Infrastructure | News | Rapid TV News ; V-Nova introduces LCEVC SDK licensing terms – Digital TV Europe ; V-Nova teams with D-Orbit and Unibap to demonstrate VC-6 for on-orbit satellite imagery acceleration – Geospatial World
 2020.03.31 V-Nova International Ltd. London
 2020.09.08 Novator Capital Advisors Llp London; 2020.11.30 Thunder Productions Ltd. London; 2019.12.31 The Lost Explorer Ltd. London; 2020.12.31 Novator Partners Llp London
 https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/56070193 ; https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/80062022 ; https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/12121387 ; https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/12117225 ; https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/12027053
 Thor Björgólfsson, “Billions to bust – and back”, Profile Book, London 2017