The amazing life and fortune of Kjell Inge Røkke
From fisherman to billionaire businessman
Kjell Inge Røkke, born in Molde, Norway, in 1958, got his start as a fisherman when he was 18. He moved to the United States in 1979 and launched his business career with the purchases of a 69-foot trawler in Seattle. With time, he built up a leading worldwide fishing enterprise—very impressive, as he has no secondary or higher education. He has dyslexia and claims it has helped him to his success. He returned to Norway in 1996.
Røkke’s biographers tell us that he used to compete in cross-country skiing with another prominent Norwegian businessman, Bjørn Rune Gjelsten, when the two were young. Gjelsten later received a scholarship from Denver University in Denver, Colo., and was on their ski team. Later, Røkke and Gjelsten worked together developing the company Resource Group International, commonly known as RGI, which in 1996 merged with Aker. Gjelsten also became world champion in offshore powerboat racing.
Today, Røkke is the chair and largest owner of Aker ASA, a Norwegian holding company engaged in offshore fishing, construction, and engineering. He is one of Norway’s wealthiest people, ranking No. 9 in the 2020 list published by the Norwegian business magazine Kapital with assets of NOK 27.5 billion. (The list does not consider income, but the value of total assets held.) According to the 2019 tax list published by the Norwegian Tax Administration, Røkke was the second wealthiest man in Norway, ranking after salmon heir Gustav Magnar Witzøe.
In 2006, Røkke won the “Peer Gynt of the Year” award. The prize is given every year to people or institutions who have marked themselves in a positive way nationally and internationally and improved Norway´s reputation abroad. The prize is named after the iconic main character in Peer Gynt, a five-act play written in verse by Henrik Ibsen in 1867. The members of the Norwegian Parliament select the winner, who is celebrated in a ceremony at the Peer Gynt Festival. The festival dates back to 1928 and takes place in Gudbrandsdalen one hour north of Lillehammer and is one of Norway´s largest cultural festivals. When he received his award, Røkke wore his bunad.
In 2007, he started fishing and selling shrimp In Oslo and Vollen from his own fishing boat, the Trygg. On his visit to Oslo, President Bill Clinton visited the boat at the pier in front of the Town Hall. Clinton was at the time one of Røkke’s advisers.
In Norway, and globally, there is a new trend, the green wave. In 2020, investments in green funds were up more than 70% from the previous year, and companies continue to look for investment opportunities.
In August 2020, Aker Solutions separated its offshore wind development business into a separate company called Aker Offshore Wind. The company will strive for a sustainable future driven by clean, green energy.
Another business that was spun out was Aker Carbon Capture. They are a leading pure-play technology provider and are one of few companies globally that has extensive knowledge of the entire value chain. Both companies have women CEOs and are listed on the Merkur Market, a marketplace for shares and equity certificates from the Oslo Stock Exchange.
At an oil and gas conference held last year, Røkke talked about the two green companies instead of the traditional oil and gas Aker. However, for most of his allotted time, he talked about Aker’s information technology (IT) company Cognite, where Aker is the largest owner. Serial entrepreneur John Markus Lervik is the founder and CEO of the startup. The company was established in 2016. Lervik started Fast Search & Transfer (FAST) and sold the company to Microsoft after 10 years.
The idea behind Cognite is that heavy-asset industries like oil and gas, shipping, manufacturing, and power and utilities already have the data and that they now need software to collect, clean, and contextualize the data. They make it possible to maximize the strategic value of data. According to the company, there will be a big data boom. In less than 15 years, there will be more than 50 billion physical assets and machines connected to the internet and more than 7 billion internet users. The growth of data will be exponential; the potential value of data will explode.
Cognite’s head office is located at Fornebu at the old airport west of Oslo. They have 330 employees from 25 countries and are growing fast. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have captured the consumer digital market. Now Cognite could be doing the same thing within the business-to-business market.
Today oil and gas makes up 60% to 65% of Aker’s value. According to Aftenposten, Røkke said that five to 10 years from now, IT will make up 50% to 65% of the holdings, and, of course, they might be investing in even more startups.
This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.