Behind an immense desk in his midtown Manhattan office, Wilbur Ross, hunched over a computer, cuts a slender, almost fragile figure, dwarfed by his spacious surroundings. But diminutive is hardly what comes to mind at the mention of Ross' name. Everything about Ross seems outsized, from his stature as a doyen of corporate turnarounds to the breadth of private equity assets he and his firm have managed since 2000 -- more than $10 billion worth -- to the sprawling global enterprises he has cobbled together from moribund companies in an array of industries.
In the annals of private equity distressed investing, there is no one quite like Ross. His risky, seemingly quixotic ventures into ragged Rust Belt industries such as steel, coal, textiles and auto parts have attempted to reinvent segments of the economy left for dead. His earliest gamble, amalgamating Bethlehem Steel Corp., LTV Corp. and other ailing companies into International Steel Group starting in 2002, appeared grandiose in its ambitions and was highly controversial. But its outcome, bestowing what amounted to a spectacular 1,100% profit for Ross when the business was sold to Indian mogul Lakshmi Mittal's LNM Group in 2004 for $4.5 billion, was enough to prove that Ross wasn't in fact, as some media outlets suggested at one point, entirely "crazy."
That endeavor led to a succession of industry platforms, notably International Coal Group Inc. and BankUnited FSB. Some have been more successful than others. But with the big exception of a textile industry rollup that has struggled and a business that filed for Chapter 11 about a decade ago, these investments have burnished a long and successful track record in bankruptcy and earned him respect that shows through in his dealings with unions. "He's pragmatic and very open-minded," says Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, who has known Ross for about a decade. "Private equity and labor can work together if you've got people like Wilbur who have an inclusive vision and who aren't looking out just for themselves."
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