Andrey Melnichenko probably is not a familiar name in America. That's largely due to the fact that he was born in Belarus, and has spent most of his career in Russia.

However, there's a valuable lesson to be learned from Russia's 12th wealthiest man. That lesson: Be sure to seize that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when it arises, because it can really pay off.

Communism falls but once
Melnichenko grew up in communist Russia and won a place to attend the respected Boarding School of the Specialized Education and Research Centre, where he excelled. Then, upon graduation, he was admitted to the prestigious School of Physics at Moscow State University.

However, he ended up leaving school in 1991, which was the year communism fell. Instead of finishing school right away, he and some schoolmates took advantage of the unique opportunities that opened up in a newly capitalist Russia, and started a number of businesses involved in tourism, selling computers, and a chain of currency-exchange booths.

His big business break came in 1993, when he co-founded MDM Bank, which handled the accounts of oil tycoon Roman Abramovich, and other businessmen favored by the Kremlin. From 1993 to 1997, he chaired the management board of the bank, while also returning to school as he transferred to Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, and then graduated in 1997.

Upon graduation, he bought out his partners at the bank, and became its sole shareholder. It was that ownership stake in the bank that he used to build his vast business empire. 

Diversifying his portfolio
That empire started a few years later when he co-founded MDM Group with Sergei Popov, and began buying industrial assets in Russia. They created TMK, which is now Russia's largest pipe exporter, Siberian Coal Energy Company, or Suek, power generator SGK, and the mineral and chemical company EuroChem.

However, in 2006, the business partners began to split up the assets, with Popov slowly acquiring the bank, while Melnichenko exchanged the bank for 92.2% stakes in EuroChem, Suek, and SGK. Those businesses have grown in value over time, and combined are currently worth $8.5 billion according to Forbes.

If there's one thing Melnichenko is known for around the world it's not the valuable businesses he owns, but what he has done with the wealth those businesses have generated. He has used his wealth to have some of the most spectacular yachts built. The most well-known is a $300-million submarine-style 394-feet superyacht known as A.

However, he's also reportedly commissioned the largest-ever sail-assisted yacht, which is said to be 482 feet long. Both vessels are his reward, if you will, for taking advantage of the opportunity to be an entrepreneur when Russia opened up for capitalism.

Andrey Melnichenko's A. Photo credit: Eric Tessmer, via Flickr.

Investor takeaway
Andrey Melnichenko's story started when he left school so that he could take full advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become an entrepreneur and business owner as soon as communism fell in Russia. It's a rare opportunity, to be sure.

Each one of us will have our own opportunity to make a wealth-changing decision. Maybe it's a stock market crash where we can be greedy while others are being fearful, the opportunity to get into the ground floor of a start-up, or taking the risk to buy stock in a company with revolutionary technology. The key to building life-changing wealth is to take advantage of that opportunity when it does present itself.

Editor's note: This article has been revised to correct several minor inaccuracies per the request of Melnichenko's public relations firm.