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'The loan was a giant mistake'

Robert Hermansen talking to friends and former collegues after finishing Guverennet 2014. FOTO: Eirik Palm

'The loan was a giant mistake'

"I'm going to continue working," says Robert Hermansen, former CEO in Store Norske. "I have no other choice because I have some debt. But in a year's time I will be finished with the debt."



Hermansen has just come in to the finish of the Gruverennet ski race from Svea and is standing talking with old colleagues at the mining company. The atmosphere is good this last Saturday in April. In addition to the ski race, he is here to, among other things, make contacts for the sale of his cottage on the way out towards Bjørndalen.

The day before the Gruverennet race he got together with other participants to see the new Lunckefjell mine. Since the access road goes through Svea Nord he had his first encounter with Store Norske's old money machine in six years.

"It was damn interesting and an emotionally powerful experience to meet old friends and colleagues inside the mountain, where for ten years I spent several hours every single week," says Hermansen, who was the mining company's administrative director from 1999 to 2008. Before that he was the chairman of the board.

Giant mistake
In March of last year he walked out of a prison in Tromsø as a free man. He had served the judgement made by the district court in October of 2011. The punishment was for receiving four million kroner from Kristian Jebsen Rederi, a Store Norske subcontractor. In addition to prison, the four million kroner was confiscated.

"I'm going to continue working," said Hermansen, now 75. "I have no other choice because I have some debt. But in a year's time I will be finished with the debt. That will be good."

By then the cabin will in all likelihood be sold and the last issues settled in a case that caused a stir when it became known. It started with a series of news reports by TV2, which led to Store Norske's board ordering an investigation. The subsequent report criticized contracts with LNS, Kristian Jebsens Rederi and Oxbow because they were not put out for bids. The Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime (ØKOKRIM) later sought charges against Hermansen for gross corruption. During that investigation documents arrived detailing transactions for the day.

"It was about seizing the home, cottage and other places, so I figured, yeah, it was serious," Hermansen said. "The loan with Jebsen was a giant mistake of mine. They found it in my papers."

On July 1, 2006, he confessed to borrowing money from the late shipping magnate and business associate Atle Jebsen. Today Hermansen says that was a giant mistake and admits to committing many other mistakes.

What did he think when the judgement fell?

"I was surprised by it," Hermansen says. "I wanted to be finished with it. My custodian wanted me to appeal, but I had never thought I would be sitting so long. I had imagined that I would get a suspended sentence, but I decided for myself to be done with it."
Why didn't he appeal?

"I decided not to appeal in recognition that the loan was illegal," he says. "When you are so old you would rather not keep up with it, but I was glad that all the other things I was charged with were not adjudicated."

Controversial monument
Regarding his stay in prison, Hermansen says "the hours passed slowly, but the time passed quickly." Behind bars he introduced strict procedures with daily plans so that "the lack of freedom would not be total," including physical conditioning, drawing, and reading literature and poetry.

He would rather be remembered for the transformation of Store Norske and Longyearbyen, first as the chairman and then as the administrative director. In 1987, the company had a large deficit and the first important task was to split up the company into units and sold so Store Norske could concentrate on its core business while helping Longyearbyen become more of normal community instead of a company town.

"The state was a good and demanding owner," he says about the work.

Today he has no desire to say anything publicly about Store Norske and mining in Svalbard, but points out there are three places where value is created in such a company: main customs, mine development and the stope. All other operating services for these and productivity depends on how one organizes.

"It would be presumptuous of me if I had any opinions about the daily situation," he says. "Store Norske has absolutely the world's best mining people. They can do it and I cannot help with anything."

As for the company's rights to natural resources in Troms, he still hasn't added up the mineral side himself.

The so-called bust case in Longyearbyen has reached a preliminary conclusion with the Municipal Council's decision to entrust it to Svalbard Museum. But it was an inflamed issue in the community and allowed for a time a split on the question of what should happen to it after the city manager announced it needed to be removed and Store Norske wouldn't take possession of it. Hermansen doesn't have any official opinion about it, being content to say he has a sense of humor.

However, he experienced a fall from the top to a jail cell, serving the first half of his sentence in a locked ward.

"Clearly, they didn't have it particularly good, but they handled it well," he says. "They knew me, yeah."

Is there anything he would do differently?

"I would have acted very much alike when it comes to developing the community here," he says. "But I accepted the loan from Jensen under fire, so I would probably not do that. I would probably borrow money from the bank. It was a great imprudence."

Hermansen participated in the Gruverennet race, which goes from Svea to the finish line at the end of Bolterdalen, for the second time during the past weekend. At the finishing area there is still chatter with friends from the mining area.

"I have not experienced that I have lost a friend, I have not noticed that I have lost something," he says.


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