The Music Man

Author image

Celina Lafuente De Lavotha   Contributor

THE MUSIC MAN

Article first published in Forbes Monaco March/April 2021 issue.

He brought the Cadillac and slot machines to the Soviet Union and cofounded Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods to sell juice in Russia. The company was eventually bought out by PepsiCo making David Yakobachvili a billionaire. Now for his crescendo, the Monaco resident and musical instrument collector is about to open a local museum.

One of Russia's most successful entrepreneurs, David Yakobachvili built his fortune from scratch. He has never been averse to risk and adapted to the changing circumstances in the soviet union. When confronted with failure, he always found opportunity. 

He pulls up to the Monaco Yacht Club in a dark green leather jacket and hops off a BMW K 1600 GT. You’d never guess but above and beyond his motorcycle fleet— he also owns a Honda, a Kawasaki, and a Triumph—David Yakobachvili is an avid collector of self-playing music instruments, from music boxes to grand pianos.

Ranked No. 1372 on the 2014 Forbes Billionaires list with a net worth of $1.2 billion (in 2019, he was No. 145 on Forbes Russia), Monaco resident Yakobachvili was born in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, on March 2, 1957. He worked towards a degree in Civil and Industrial Construction at the Georgian Technical Institute but dropped out due to financial difficulties at home. Life was not easy and he took odd jobs, working by day in a metallurgical institute and in the subway at night. In 1982, when the Ministry of Interior was offering an incentive plan to raise swine and receive payment from the State based on weight, Yakobachvili and a friend built a small farm outside the city and bought 200 pigs. They made a profit within a year but when his father died in 1984, Yakobachvili and his sister, Mary, decided to leave a futureless Soviet Union.

“Our dream was to move to Sweden but it was difficult at the time,” recalls David Yakobachvili. “I met a young Finnish woman who was working in Estonia and we had an arranged marriage to help me get a visa in Finland. We later divorced, both eventually remarrying, but we remained friends.”

His Finnish wife housed him in a 2-squaremeter room in the north of the country, away from her family and friends, until he passed the interview with the police authorities. Yakobachvili eventually rented an apartment in Helsinki with a roommate and landed a job as a driver for a Japanese TV-camera crew working on a program about the Finn’s eating and drinking habits. “Not only did I get paid but on top of that it was all you could eat for free.”

His time in Finland was short-lived as Yakobachvili managed to legally migrate to Sweden, where he took on various jobs eventually working for a company buying and selling timber and a deal in Leningrad that earned him 22,500 Deutsche Marks (€14,000). “I managed to buy a used Mercedes for 14,000 German Marks,” he recalls fondly.

In the late Eighties, as the perestroika “restructuring” movement began, Yakobachvili and a few friends rented a riverboat and opened the Soviet Union’s first floating hotel on the Moscow River charging $10 a night. With the AGIP Service Station housing all their employees at the low-budget hotel, the businessman was able to eventually rent another riverboat to create a second hotel on the harbor that attracted

tourists on a shoestring budget. In April 1989, with colleagues and representing Cherryforetagen AB Sweden, Yakobachvili set up the first slot machine operations in Leningrad, Moscow, Tallin, Tbilisi and several other cities in the Soviet Union, which made very good profits.

After generating some substantial income, the businessman went to the U.S. to buy used cars at auction, hundreds of makes like Chevrolet and Cadillac, to be delivered to Finland and then driven to Leningrad and Moscow for resale. The operation was so successful that it caught the attention of General Motors (GM) and Yakobachvili went on to create Trinity Motors. In 1991, for the first time in Soviet Union history, Trinity Motors was granted dealership rights from GM and was able to open official dealerships in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. The following year, the company produced the first modern-day GPS that connected three building antennas to trace stolen cars.

He chuckles when he thinks back on his myriad of businesses and startups, including two restaurants in Paris on the Champs-Élysées and near the Four Season’s George V; amusement centers in China; distributing TUA office furniture; and selling women’s Oroblu stockings and Super Rifle jeans. He was in the process of setting up a telecommunications company in Russia that today is owned by the Alfa Group.

David Yakobachvili has a private music collection of more than 150 organs, including this original 19th-century Raffin R20/67 "Konzert" street organ  currently  housed at Collection, his museum in Moscow. Feature image: At the Hotel Hermitage with a singing bird snuff box, the original music box that could fit into a waistcoat pocket.

 

“Those were volatile times, less controlled markets,” Yakobachvili describes, always referring to “we” because he never operated alone. “You had to be flexible, constantly adapt to new circumstances and, most importantly, avoid conflict. When borders started to open, people could travel to other markets and start a business spontaneously but nothing was easy and, with traps everywhere, you had to be savvy.”

In 1992, Yakobachvili entered the juice business in Russia where the drink was being made from low-quality powder. With a $50,000 loan for startup capital and some promising partners, including his long-time business partner Gavril Yushvaev, their company Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods rented a juice bottling line at the Lianozovo dairy plant. Two years later the brand Seven Juices hit the market. In 1994, Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods bought a 20% stake in the Lianozovo plant and, headquartered in Moscow, it quickly became one of the largest companies in Europe manufacturing dairy products, juices and beverages. 

“It was not an easy task handling the site logistics or renting the machines but the venture turned into a successful story,” admits Yakobachvili.

Ten years later, the company hit the New York Stock Exchange valued at $830 million, making it the first food company in Russia to make an IPO. (Most of the shares were acquired by Danone.) In 2010, Yakobachvili got a payout of more than $600 million for his 10.5% stake in Russia’s biggest food producer when it was acquired by PepsiCo.

After pumping $15 million in 2011 into the Russian-based Bioenergy Corporation (it now produces biofertilizer), Yakobachvili became joint owner of Petrocas Energy Group, which own 135 gas stations in Georgia and one oil terminal in Poti and provides trading, transportation and logistics in the Black Sea region and Mediterranean. In December 2014, the Rosneft Oil Company purchased a 49% stake in Petrocas (the company has an annual revenue of $3.5 billion) with Yakobachvili retaining the controlling stake.

Never one to sit idly by, in 2013 Yakobachvili, a member of the World Economic Forum in Davos for 25 years, founded and became president of InOil Research and Production Group, which is one of the developers of GreenBooster, the multifunctional additive for gasoline, diesel fuel and fuel oil. Since 2018, he has been actively introducing the GreenBooster oil products into African, Georgian and Russian economies to significantly reduce the cost to consumers and air emissions. 

David Yakabachvili, pictured at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum, lived between Sweden and Nice, France, before moving to Monaco in 2003.

 

Unsurprisingly, Yakobachvili is the recipient of a long list of awards (2003 Pro Merito Medal of the Council of Europe, Ernst & Young’s 2003 Entrepreneur of the Year…) and has received a medal “In Memory of the 850th Anniversary of Moscow” for his active participation in the implementation of objectives of domestic economy modernization. He is also a member of the steering bodies of influential Russian and international organizations, including a member of the board of Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Chairman of the NP Rusbrand Board of Directors.

Married to the niece of his former partner Yushvaev, the couple’s only son, Mikhail, 28, returned to Monaco after graduating from New York University in 2014. In addition to running the Monegasque family company in the real estate and reconstruction spheres, Mikhail now supervises family investments in new technologies, such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, among other businesses. “He’s gradually been getting involved in the business,” says the proud father.

An art lover and philanthropist at heart, Yakobachvili is a member of the President’s Global Council at New York University, as well as a member of a gaggle of Board of Trustees, including the State Hermitage Museum, the Faberge Museum and the All-Russia Museum of Decorative, Applied and Folk Art.

Long lefore today's world of cold pressed juices and trendy cleanses that have helped build a $3.5 billion market, David Yakobachvili had a clear vision in 1992 for a regular juice business in the soviet union where the lowquality beverage was made from powder. Along with his partners, they rented machines in a dairy plant and WIMM-BILL-DANN foods started producing the first real juice in the soviet union. In 2010, as part of its plan to build a $30 billion nutrition business by 2020, pepsico paid $3.6 billion for a 66% stake in WIMM-BILL-DANN foods, acquiring the rest of the company the following year for $ 1.8 billion.

 

Like all collectors, Yakobachvili belongs to the tactile species that find exquisite pleasure in the items they accumulate. He has amassed mechanical musical instruments and clocks, Russian bronze, art silver, items of Russian and WestEuropean Applied and Decorative Arts.

His passion for collecting came through his Swedish friend Bill Lindvall, founder of the Gumlastan Stockholm Museum of Mechanical Music who gave Yakobachvili a job Cherryforetagen AB back in 1989. Fearing that his children would sell off his collection of 460 items, Lindvall sold everything to his Georgian friend. In July 2018, Yakobachvili opened the museum “Collection” in a state-of-the art building in the center of Moscow, as a new cultural and educational project, honoring his longtime colleague. He is president and founder of Orion Heritage Co, Ltd, which manages the Collection museum.

Collection houses one of the largest private collections of the world’s cultural heritage featuring more than 20,000 exhibits divided into unique sections—mechanical musical instruments and objects, decorative arts and jewelry, fine arts, clocks, prints and records. Beyond the permanent exhibition, the museum organizes events across the year, such as musical evenings and art expositions, and large-scale interactive educational programs for young people.

His latest project is the planning and construction of a museum in Monaco (where he has called home since 2003). Situated on the border of France, for which he has been given the green light by governments in both countries, the musée will house pieces ranging from the 17th to the 20th century, including musical boxes, French glass, bronze and ivory objects, French-Russian art, paintings and jewelry.

“My friend’s wishes will be fulfilled when the new museum Collection is inaugurated in 2023,” David Iakobachvili says humbly.

 

Author image

Celina Lafuente De Lavotha   Contributor