It was an unseasonably warm December evening in the Russian capital and spirits were high inside Sixty, a restaurant atop a skyscraper overlooking the Moscow River where vintage Krug pops at $1,000 a bottle.
Employees of the GL network of companies were cheering as their boss, German Lillevyali, showered them with golden Oscar replicas, 10,000-euro debit cards to shop in Milan and, for his very best performer, a $70,000 car.
Six months on, there's nothing left to celebrate.
Lillevyali, a serial entrepreneur who's dabbled in everything from vodka to health care, has left Russia, the money-raising hub of his GL Financial Group, a Swiss- and U.K.-licensed asset manager with affiliates in Moscow, Zurich, Geneva, London, Cyprus and Belize.
The financier, who was managing at least US$250 million (NZ$358 million) of assets at the end of last year according to two former subordinates, seems to be in Cyprus. A Facebook message seeking to calm investors was posted under his name on April 20, purportedly from the island nation.
"I promise you the money is safe," it said. "I will return it personally, there is nothing to worry about."
That might have reassured European, US and Asian clients trying to get their money back as GL workers quit, offices closed and phone lines went dead. Except Lillevyali says the Facebook post from Cyprus was fake, deepening the mystery of their missing millions. Disgruntled clients include an executive who works for billionaire Oleg Deripaska, top managers at Swiss drugmaker Novartis and San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., and even a professional soccer goalie.
This story of GL Financial's unravelling, which is being scrutinised by regulators in Britain and Switzerland, has been pieced together from interviews with eight clients and former employees. They requested anonymity either because they don't want to jeopardize efforts to retrieve their savings or because they fear for their physical safety.
Calls and messages to the numbers listed for GL Financial and related companies weren't returned or went to voicemail. When Bloomberg reached Lillevyali himself via WhatsApp on Wednesday and Thursday, he declined to identify his current location three times, saying he's not ready to play "the anti-hero."
Lillevyali rejected any suggestion that he lost or is withholding client funds. He said the most he ever had under management was about US$140 million and that about US$35 million belonging to about 30 people is now frozen, mainly due to "compliance issues" related to sanctions. US and European sanctions only apply to a few dozen Russians, none of whom are known clients. He said "a large number" of customers are getting repaid, though he didn't name any.
"It's like a bad movie," said one customer angry at what he described as being stonewalled for months.
In an online interview last year, Lillevyali said he'd developed a "radically new approach" to investing that's based on artificial intelligence, "complex algorithms" and "integrated processing." The Swiss website of GL Asset Management, which expounded on this strategy, was taken down this month.
In his last confirmed Twitter post, on February 9, Lillevyali urged investors to study chess. He's repeatedly boasted of having beaten former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, one of the highest-rated grandmasters ever. Karpov's assistant in Moscow said she couldn't confirm or deny that claim.
What then-employees of GL said they didn't know when they were partying on the 62nd floor of the Federation Tower in December was that months earlier Lillevyali had exited the ownership structure of his main Russian vehicle for attracting clients, Ankor Invest, regulatory filings show. Then in March, Russia's central bank pulled Ankor's license for "numerous" violations of securities law it didn't identify. Lillevyali, a dual citizen of Russia and Estonia, said Ankor's main infraction was that most of the company's assets were held outside Russia, mainly in Europe. The central bank gave Ankor until the end of this month to wind down operations.
When he finally got through, he said he was told his money was "stuck in the bank" and he hasn't been able to reach anyone since
Swiss financial watchdog Finma and Britain's Financial Conduct Authority have asked at least one client who filed a complaint about GL to provide more information so they can investigate further, according to correspondences seen by Bloomberg. Finma and the FCA both declined to comment.
An American client who worked in Russia from 2014 to 2017 and is now based in Switzerland said Ankor's demise came as a surprise because he'd seen steady returns of about 7 percent a year - at least on paper - since a relationship manager at the firm first reached out to him via LinkedIn in 2015.
Like other clients, he said he was impressed that GL's web of affiliates seemed to have well-established operations in Switzerland. He said an executive in the Zurich office held a video conference with him and the firm's representatives in Russia had Swiss mobile numbers and addresses on their business cards.
He invested $100,000 the first year then another $100,000 in each of the following two years, money he said he was saving for a house and his children's education. The company was attentive and sent him annual gifts, first a bronze statue and then an expensive calligraphy set.
After Ankor was blacklisted, he said a sympathetic employee in Moscow urged him to withdraw his funds, but he couldn't get anyone from Zurich on the phone. When he finally got through, he said he was told his money was "stuck in the bank" and he hasn't been able to reach anyone since.
A trip last week to GL Asset Management's address in Zurich, No. 57 Stockerstrasse, led to a workspace devoid of furniture and a mailbox overflowing with letters. The Geneva office turned out to be a "GL" label stuck on the inbox of an accountant who said he worked on GL accounts remotely and declined to elaborate.
In Moscow, GL Finance, a new firm that Ankor's old Russian clients were advised to wire their funds to, is located in a luxury mall above Brioni and Max Mara boutiques. A security guard downstairs opened a log book showing that a handful of workers were still signing in and out, but a woman who answered the phone said nobody from senior management would be around to comment.
A disgruntled German client said GL's veneer of Swiss respectability won him over, too. After a broker he trusted recommended the firm in late 2016, he decided to invest an initial $250,000. He balked when he was told his money would be routed to Belize, but went ahead after receiving a letter signed by Lillevyali himself reiterating that he'd be able to withdraw his funds at will.
By last December, as Lillevyali was preparing for his party at Sixty, the German client said an account manager in Zurich urged him to redeem his funds because things were starting to look "shaky." When he tried, he said he was told there'd be a delay due to his U.S. citizenship, which he doesn't have.
Months later, he said he got an email from the Belize affiliate, Financial Alliance Ltd., saying his money would be wired within 15 days. He's still waiting. A Dutchman seeking to reclaim $500,000 told a similar tale.
The "Swissness" Lillevyali promoted was the key to the whole operation, according to Dmitry Pronyushkin, a client who's suing Ankor Invest in Moscow. He's set up a website to warn people away from any attempts by Lillevyali or his associates to raise new funds.
"They had the facade of a decent company, the Swiss offices, that's why so many decent people believed them," he said.
A woman who answered Ankor's phone on Wednesday said the company is aware of the lawsuit. When asked if Ankor is still operating despite being decertified by the central bank, she said, 'Yes. Who cares if we don't have a license. We do have clients." Then she hung up.
As the hunt for Lillevyali continues and his stranded clients pursue legal action across Europe-investors have filed criminal complaints in Russia and Switzerland-other companies founded by the investor appear to be suffering as well.
GL Med, an anti-ageing clinic in Moscow that charges a reported $50,000 for year-round treatments, is now dark and empty. A man who answered the front door, which is protected by a designer gate adorned with gold-plated G and L handles, said the clinic was experiencing "temporary difficulties."Lillevyali said GL Med is looking for ``a new partnership'' to stay afloat.