Abram Brown

Abram Brown, Forbes Staff

I write about people who build businesses.

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3/31/2014 @ 1:36PM |3,103 views

The Willy Wonka Of Ukraine Is Now The Leading Presidential Candidate

Billionaire Petro Poroshenko might be known as The Chocolate King in his native Ukraine, but there’s nothing sugary about his steely resolve. He’s long been a high-profile politician–in addition to running the candy business–and now he’s poised to become the next Ukrainian president.

Poroshenko, 48, was second in the polls before first-place contender Vitali Klitschko dropped out of the race this weekend and threw his support behind Poroshenko. That leaves Poroshenko with a strong lead ahead of Yulia Tymoshenko, the one-time prime minister jailed by the recently overthrown Ukrainian government.

Known for a pragmatic attitude, Poroshenko served under both pro-Western and pro-Russian government as a member of parliament. But he was a strong supporter of the revolution that deposed dictator Viktor Yanukovych and has advocated for greater trade with Europe after Russia banned his chocolates.

46th Munich Security Conference 2010: Petro Po...

The candy man cometh: Petro Poroshenko could soon be the next Ukrainian president. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He believes his wide business interests, which stretch beyond Roshen, his candy company, to media, shipping and agriculture, have given him the skills necessary to rebuild the broken Ukranian economy and government. “I have experience in how to build up a new investment climate,” he told The New York Times. “I know how to build zero tolerance to corruption. I know how to build a court system. I know how to create a positive, absolutely new page of Ukrainian history.”

Worth $1.3 billion by our calculations, Poroshenko got his start selling cocoa beans, then bought several confectionery plants on the cheap during a privatization wave and combined them into Roshen in 1995. Today Roshsen brings in $1 billion in revenue from a variety of products–truffles, milk-chocolate bars, jellied hard candy, taffy, candied nuts. They’re sold across Asia, North Africa and Europe. Poroshenko has always eyed tighter ties with Europe: his first shop opened in Budapest, Hungary.

(Forbes doesn’t include kings, queens or despots on our Rich List when the fortune behind a head of state’s wealth is indistinguishable from his or her countries’ assets. For example, we don’t rank Thai King Bhumidol Adulyadej: his $30 billion-plus fortune comes from his control of the monarchy. However, when business leaders like Poroshenko earn their money separate from their country’s coffers and then assume power, we’ll continue to count their fortunes. Additional examples include recently departed Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.)

Another major Poroshenko holding is a TV station, Kanal 5. The 11-year-old network has earned a reputation for fair, accurate coverage, and helped broadcast the events of the past winter.

In the political arena, Poroshenko, a Kiev State University graduate with a degree in international relations, has played a number of roles. After his initial election to parliament in 1998, he supported the pro-Russian government before leaving it for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko became president during the Orange Revolution in 2005, and Poroshenko was a foreign minister in his government from 2009 to 2010. He kept his seat in parliament when Yanukovych, the recently ousted president, took office in 2010. Poroshenko was briefly in 2012 an economic minister under Yanukovych.

When street protests began around Yanukovych’s heavy-handed rule, Poroshenko tried his best to keep the situation from worsening. He clambered onto a backhoe to stop a demonstrator from plowing into police, and tried to start talks with the pro-Russian government in Crimea–only to be heckled in the streets by Russian supporters in the Crimean city of Simferopol. Crime has since voted to join Russia, a move seen by Western observers as little more than an rubber-stamped annexation by Russia.

Now that Poroshekno seems ready to claim the country’s top job for himself, he has voiced nothing but icey determination to stop Russia from seizing additional power from Ukraine. “If the aggression continues against the rest of the country,” he says, “the Ukrainian Army will open fire.”

Reach Abram Brown at abrown@forbes.com.

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