Friday, March 3, 2017

Birth of Alexander Mantashian (March 3, 1842)

Alexander Mantashian was a prominent oil magnate at the turn of the twentieth century, when Armenians were one of the main driving forces behind oil extraction and trade in Baku. He was also a very important philanthropist.
Born in Tiflis (Tbilisi) on March 3, 1842, Mantashian spent most of his childhood in Tabriz (Northern Iran), where his father was involved in the cotton and textile trade. As his only son, he was involved in his father’s business affairs from early on. In 1869 he moved to Manchester, a major European center of cotton and textile processing industries, to help ship goods to his father in Tabriz. He honed his skills in the secrets and crafts of the textile industry, and also delved into the intricacies of European business and English culture, learning English, French, and German in the meantime. He returned to Tiflis in 1872 with his father, and became fully engaged in the wholesale textile trade. After his father's death in 1887, Mantashian purchased most of the shares of the Tiflis Central Commercial Bank, becoming its principal shareholder and then chairman of the board. The bank was the only financial institution in the Caucasus whose shares traded on the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange.
Well-established in commerce and in public life, Mantashian became interested in a new business venture. The oil boom had started in Baku (currently Azerbaijan) in the 1870s. The promise of colossal profits lured adventurous investors. The businessman’s entrepreneurial savvy recognized human vulnerability: he was known to sign off on his business documents «Աստծով» (Asttsov “with God”) in Armenian. His childhood friend Mikael Aramiants had moved from Tiflis to Baku in 1884 and established the oil company A. Tsaturov and Co. with three compatriots from Gharabagh. One of them, A. Tsaturian, borrowed 50,000 rubles from the Tiflis Central Bank. In return, Mantashian was allowed to purchase shares at a bargain, and eventually he took over the company.
Mantashian’s penchant for high risk investments led him to buy marginally successful oil wells in Baku, and the gamble paid back. He built a refinery in Baku, as well as a lubricant plant and a marine refinery for pumping oil and fuel to vessels. His company also produced storage canisters in Batumi, a mechanical workshop in Zabrat, and a pumping station in Odessa. He was a major player in the construction of an east-west pipeline extending 500 miles from the coast of the Caspian Sea (Baku) to the Black Sea port of Batumi, which was the world’s longest pipeline after its opening in 1907. The pipeline ultimately made a positive impact on the oil business in Europe. For transportation, he acquired 100 freight cars that ran on the railways of southwestern Russia. His tankers supplied oil to India, China, Japan and the Mediterranean countries. He was well known to hire fellow Armenians to manage his plants and to give business loans to his countrymen.
In 1899 Mantashian created the trading house A.I. Mantashev and Co. with Aramiants, opening representative offices and warehouses in the major cities of Europe and Asia: Smyrna, Salonica, Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, Damascus, Paris, London, Bombay, and Shanghai. Mantashev became a shareholder in a number of oil companies, among them Branobel (belonging to Ludwig and Robert Nobel). The firm managed 51.3% of the total stock of oil and 66.8% of the oil content in the Caspian Sea. In 1904, it was the third largest oil company in Baku, next to the Nobel brothers and the Caspian Sea Society of the Rothschild brothers.
Mantashian’s oil company was the largest in Russian industry by its capital from 1899-1909. By 1909 its fixed assets amounted to 22 million rubles (over 35 million dollars of today).
Despite his enormous wealth, Mantashian led a modest lifestyle. He did not like gold and never wore jewelry. He usually traveled by public transportation in Tiflis, carrying a very small amount of money. A patron of arts and culture, he loved theater and, besides frequent donations to the Armenian Dramatic Society, he built the Pitoewski Theatre in the Georgian capital (now the National Rustaveli Theatre). He had a personal lounge in the Academie National de Musique of Paris. Besides helping actors, his sponsorship was fundamental to have talented young Armenian students pursue their careers at the best universities, including such luminaries of Armenian culture and studies like Gomidas Vartabed, Hrachia Adjarian, Nicolas Adontz, and Hakob Manandian, among many others.
In his time, Mantashian’s largesse had an impact on Armenian life comparable to Alex Manoogian, Kirk Kirkorian, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (incidentally, he met and helped young Calouste Gulbenkian in 1896). His earliest charitable gesture was his contribution to the construction of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Manchester in 1870. He was one of the twelve founders of the Armenian Benevolent Society of the Caucasus (1881), which developed a very important activity over the next three decades. He made important donations for the construction of the new building of the Nersesian Lyceum in Tiflis and the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenians in Holy Etchmadzin. His most famous and lasting donation remains the St. John the Baptist Armenian Church in Paris (1904), near Champs Elysees. His tongue-in-cheek explanation for the choice of Paris was that the City of Lights had been the place where he had sinned most. Émile Loubet, President of France, conferred Mantashian the order of the Legion of Honor for his donation.
The Armenian benefactor passed away in Saint Petersburg, where he had gone to follow medical treatment for kidney disease, on April 19, 1911. His body was moved to Tiflis and buried next to his wife at the cemetery of Khojivank, which was being restored at the time with his donations. His company was confiscated after the October Revolution of 1917 and, in 1933, the Khojivank cemetery, including Mantashian’s tomb, was mostly destroyed by order of Lavrenti Beria, the main Stalin henchman in the Caucasus. Today, most of his buildings are still standing in Tbilisi, and a downtown street and a statue remember him in Yerevan.