Saturday, March 13, 2010

In Profile: The World's Richest Man, Carlos Slim

IN FICTION, billionaires are larger than life characters, lighting cigars with burning $100 notes and bathing in solid gold bathtubs. But fact is rarely as colourful as fiction, and the Mexican man who last week replaced the nerdy, smaller than life Microsoft founder Bill Gates as the wealthiest man in the world sadly does not drink margaritas made with gold leaf or fire platinum pistols in the air to celebrate a good day at the market.

Telecoms mogul Carlos Slim, with an estimated wealth of $53.5 billion, crunches numbers in a tattered notebook and wears cheap ties from his own department stores. Until recently few people outside Mexico had heard of the self-made billionaire who lADVERTISEMENTikes to boast that he doesn't own a computer.

Depending on who you talk to, Slim is a hero who has saved the Mexican economy or a villain whose dominance in the telecoms market has stunted economic growth and ripped off consumers. When recession hits, Slim goes on a shopping spree, buying up distressed companies and turning them around. He acquired numerous companies on the cheap during Mexico's 1982 financial crisis. But it was his purchase of the Mexican telephone monopoly, Telefonos de Mexico, known as Telmex, from the government in 1990 that catapulted him into the ranks of the world's richest men. His critics say his political connections won him the company; he claims he simply bid the highest.

In modern history, no-one has dominated a major economy the way Slim does that of Mexico. Beyond his iron grip of telecommunications, Slim and his heirs control more than 200 companies – he says he's lost count. His business interests include construction, cigarettes, banks, hotels, insurance, real estate and retailers. In recent years, he has extended his reach beyond Mexico, buying up shares in Saks Fifth Avenue, the New York Times Co and the Independent News and Media in Britain, which owns The Independent.

Critics accuse him of bullying would-be competitors and regulators. "Going down in history as an evil monopolist who fleeced Mexican consumers is not an image of himself that he likes, but it's a true image," said Denise Dresser, a political scientists and one of the few people in Mexico who have spoken out against Slim. Mexico's Federal Competition Commission has been looking into Slim's companies. But commentators in Mexico say they cannot compete with his might.

So vast and diverse are his business interests that a recent book claimed it is impossible for an ordinary Mexican to go 24 hours without putting money in Slim's pocket. "It's like the US and the robber barons in the 1890s. Only Slim is Rockefeller, Carnegie, and JP Morgan all rolled up into one person," said David Martínez, a New York-based Mexican investor.

Looking at his early life, Slim seems to have been destined to make money. He was born on 28 January 1940 in Mexico City to a Lebanese father and a mother whose parents were Lebanese. In 1911, his father Julián opened a dry goods store in downtown Mexico City. The store's success allowed him to acquire real estate in rapidly growing Mexico City.

Slim showed an early interest in numbers and money – encouraged by his father who gave him a savings book and taught him how to track and analyse his income and expenses. Today those boyhood ledgers sit on the bookshelf in his office, recording his childhood outgoings on doughnuts and soft drinks. They sit alongside books on billionaires Warren Buffett, John D Rockefeller and J Paul Getty. At 12, Slim bought his first stock, in Banco Nacional de Mexico. After graduating from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico he abandoned his first career in engineering for business.

People who have met Slim describe a talkative, friendly, gracious, unassuming man, an insomniac with a quick temper and a keen sense of thrift. On holiday in Venice, he once haggled with a shop owner for several hours to get a $10 discount on a tie. His two extravagances are his beloved Cohiba cigars and his fine art collection, which includes sculptures by Auguste Rodin, and works by Renoir, Van Gogh and Diego Rivera.

He devours history books and stays up at night reading about the military strategies of Genghis Khan. A baseball fanatic, he supports the New York Yankees and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. His other passion is old movies, his favourite being El Cid, about the Spanish nobleman who became a heroic military leader and shook up society. Explaining why he prefers old films over modern ones, he says that in that era, "the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad".

In a country where the rich and famous drive around in limousines, with a security detail and lots of attitude, Slim stands out as a modest man. On a recent business trip to Washington DC, he hired a Ford and drove himself around to meet business leaders unannounced. Those who have done business with him speak of his phenomenal memory and genius for figures – he has the financial data about all the world's leading telecommunications companies committed to memory. Former associate Randall Stephenson said of Slim, "He's probably the most intelligent businessman I've met."

Read the rest here.