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A tale of two tycoons

Paran Balakrishnan | November 01, 2004

It has been an extraordinarily eventful month for tycoon Wilbur L Ross. A few weeks ago the 67-year-old money manager turned steel baron married for the third time and friends predicted he would soon be slowing down to enjoy the 'finer' things of life.

In the event, his new 53-year-old society bride couldn't have seen much of him since their nuptials. On Wednesday he was beaming for the cameras alongside Lakshmi Mittal, the world's new King of Steel, fielding questions about newly formed colossus Mittalco and how it will straddle the globe.

Ross, who sold his two-year-old company to Mittal, is, inevitably, the junior partner in this deal. But he has also pulled off a coup of staggering proportions.

It's barely two years since he defied the critics and snapped up five ageing steel plants in quick succession. His steel empire put together at breakneck speed had the capacity to turn out 20 million tons of steel annually. After 57 years of independence India's steel mills produce only about 33 million tonnes.

The non-stop round of dealmaking was first rewarded 10 months ago when Ross took his International Steel Group (ISG) public and its IPO was a hit even though investors are usually allergic to the steel industry. But the best came this week when he capped the foray into steel by selling ISG to Mittal at a staggering profit.

What are the returns for this astonishing two-year run? It's reckoned that he pumped in about $2.2 billion to buy distressed steel companies on the cheap. This week he has, like an exultant croupier, raked in $4.5 billion, which he will share with a clutch of investors who bought his story that the steel industry was scheduled for a global bounceback. What's more, his 8 per cent stake in Mittalco is also worth several billion.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Ross and Mittal -- according to their own versions -- hit it off instantly. Each man understood what the other was doing, albeit on slightly different stage.

For the last two years Mittal has concentrated primarily on the decaying Communist era steel works of eastern and central Europe. Ross, by contrast, decided to exploit the opportunities thrown up on home turf in the United States.

The first move came when he bought a steel mill in Cleveland belonging to LTV Corporation which had been declared bankrupt. Before making his first move Ross had already cultivated the country's steel industry unions. As a result, he quickly extracted a slew of concession from workers every time he bought a plant.

But there are differences between the two tycoons. Mittal is an industry veteran who loves to put on a hard hat and stride around his fiery plants. Ross, by contrast, is a banker who worked with Rothschilds for most of his highly successful career.

He quit a few years ago because he spotted huge potential in distressed industries like steel. In the last few years he has also made big investments in the textile industry. He doesn't like the tag of "vulture" investor who puts money in distressed properties.

Whether he qualifies as a "vulture investor" or not, Ross has certainly pumped new life and optimism into the companies that he has taken over. Take a look at the Weirton mill, which he bought only five months ago for $253 million. At the time Weirton had declared bankruptcy and its workmen were on the brink of losing their jobs.

Today the company is making all the steel it can produce from its blast furnaces and its accumulated losses will soon melt away. The mood at the plant has altered so much that its workers declared this week they were confident about their jobs even though they had overnight become part of the giant Mittalco.

One reason for their confidence is that Rodney Mott, the chief executive hired by Ross, will continue as the chief of Mittal's North American empire.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from Ross's dealmaking spree? Sure. Contrarians don't always come out in front but it sure beats riding with the herd.

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