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20 Things You Didn't Know about Wilbur Ross

Wilbur Ross

81-year-old Wilbur Ross may have had a long and illustrious career as an investor and political influencer, but recently, he’s been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Since a 2018 Forbes report found evidence of corruption, perjury, grifting and more, there’s barely been a day the beleaguered Secretary of Commerce hasn’t been in the papers. The jury may still be out on the exact extent, and consequence, of Ross’ shady dealings, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely he’ll end his career in glory. Keep reading to find out more.

1. He drove two hours to get to school

A good education is worth its weight in gold- or at least a lengthy car journey. In Ross’ case, the cost of a first-class education was a 2-hour daily drive to get him to and from the renowned college preparatory Xavier High School in Manhattan. After high school, Ross studied for his bachelor’s degree at Yale University, where he also earned some bucks by editing a literary magazine and working on the college radio station. After graduating from Yale, Ross obtained his MBA degree at Harvard Business School.

2. He worked for 24 years at Rothschild & Co

After graduating with his MBA from Harvard, Ross began his career in financial management firms and investment banks. In the late ‘70’s, he joined N M Rothschild & Sons (later to be renamed Rothschild & Co) as the head of the firm’s bankruptcy-restructuring advisory practice. Ross went on to serve 24 years with the company, taking in positions of ever-increasing seniority as the years went by.

3. He’s got history with Donald Trump

President Trump’s decision to nominate Ross for the position of United States Secretary of Commerce may have had something to do with pair’s shared history. In the 1980’s, Trump experienced a rare downturn when his three Las Vegas casinos were threatened with foreclosure. Ross, in his position as senior managing director of Rothschild Inc, managed to negotiate a deal with the casino lenders that allowed the gambling dens to stay open and Trump to keep hold of the reigns. All those years later, Trump finally managed to repay the good deed.

4. He launched his own business in 2000

After years of working with Rothschild & Co, Ross made the decision to put his entrepreneurial skills to the test by launching his own private equity fund, WL Ross & Company. After several years at the helm, Ross sold the company to the independent investment management company, Invesco, in 2006. Unfortunately for Ross, his activities in the company would come back to haunt him 10 years later when he was forced to repay $11.7 million, along with a fine of $2.3 million, after a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into the overcharging of fees.

5. He’s not afraid of danger

Ross has described himself as a man who likes to run into burning buildings… an unusual description, perhaps, but one that serves to highlight his investment philosophy of making bets on overlooked, neglected businesses such as steel milling, metal works, coal mining, fossil mining, wood work- and making huge profits in the process.

6. He’s received multiple honors

The list of honors Ross has received during the course of his career is long- too long, in fact, to roll of in its entirety. Leaving some of the glories and distinctions to one side, then, key highlights include: the Order of Industrial Service Merit medal from South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung for his help in the 1998 Korean financial crisis; the American Irish Historical Society Gold Medal for his “meritorious contribution to Irish American Life” and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star by the Japanese government for his work in strengthening Japanese-American relations.

7. He’s been married 3 times

If Jane Austin is to be believed, a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. As we’re talking about Ross, better make that three wives. Ross married his first wife, Judith Nodine, in 1961 and divorced her in 1995. His 2nd wife, New York Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey, didn’t fare much better: after marrying in 1995, the couple parted ways in 2000. Ross married his third (and at the time of writing, current) wife, society writer Hilary Geary, on October 9, 2004.

8. He’s a notable art collector

Ross has used a significant portion of his wealth on acquiring one of the largest and most admired art collections in the US. The collection, which is conservatively estimated to be worth in the region of $150 million, includes notable pieces in a range of styles, from surrealism to contemporary sculptures. His 25-piece collection of works by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, which includes some of the artist’s most famous pieces (including the highly prized The Pilgrim), is believed to be worth at least $100 million.

9. He has a two-day rule when it comes to art

Ross may have cash to splash, but when it comes to buying art, he likes to be prudent. He and his wife (both self-proclaimed “museum junkies”) have a strict rule: if they see something they like, they wait 2 days to see if the passion fades before they lay down the money. "Good art is expensive, and you don't want to make a lot of mistakes," Ross explained to Forbes.

10. He’s a political shape-shifter

In November 2016, Ross, who has been donating to Republican causes since at least 2011, became a registered Republican. Prior to that, he’d been a registered Democrat, making considerable contributions to the party’s political efforts by hosting fundraisers for party candidates in his New York apartment and even serving as an officer for the New York State Democratic Party.

11. He’s the oldest first-time cabinet appointee in history

In November 2016, Ross was tapped by President Trump for the position of United States Secretary of Commerce. 3 months later in February 2017, Ross was confirmed by the Senate in a 72-27 vote. Prior to Ross’ appointment, the record for oldest first-time cabinet appointee was held by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Phillip Klutznick. Klutznick was 72 at the time of his appointment, making Ross, who was 79 years old at the time of his, the new record holder.

12. The worst day of his life involved the death of 12 miners

We all have the occasional bad day at work, but few involve the death of 12 innocent civilians. In 2006, a dozen miners were killed in a methane explosion at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia. The mine was owned by the International Coal Group (ICG), a corporation founded by Ross in 2004. Following the tragedy, an investigation into the explosion found the mine in violation of 208 safety citations. The families of the victims rounded on Ross for his involvement in the incident and for the ICG’s systematic failure to address basic safety requirements; despite defending the groups management at the time, Ross has since gone on to claim the day as the “worst day of (his) life."

13. He was removed from Forbes’ billionaire list

Nothing quite beats the ignominy of being “outed” as a billionaire and then having the true state of your finances reveled to the nation. Unfortunately for Ross, that’s exactly what happened in 2017. After ranking on Forbes magazine’s 2017 “billionaires list”, Ross enjoyed a brief moment of chest-puffing pride before evidence emerged that showed him to be nothing quite so grand. According to the financial disclosure forms he filed after his nomination for Secretary of Commerce, Ross’ assets were worth considerably less than previously thought. Still, we’re sure the $700 million he actually had in the bank helped get him through the embarrassment.

14. He’s been accused of insider trading

In December 2017, Ross’ reputation suffered another blow, this time at the hands of Irish politician and Member of the European Parliament, Luke Ming Flanagan. In a report commissioned by Flanagan into the 2008 eurozone banking crisis, Ross was accused of selling off his majority interests in the Bank of Ireland for a huge profit after becoming privy to inside information about the bank’s shady accounting practices. According to the report, Ross “had access to the loss details that Bank of Ireland kept hidden from retail shareholders”. Unfortunately, for Ross, this wouldn’t be the last of his woes.

15. He has a reputation for shady dealings

In summer 2018, Forbes reporter Dan Alexander laid out some damning evidence highlighting Ross’ involvement in some shady business practices. According to Alexander, Ross had been holding financial stakes in companies “co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (and) a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation." The report also suggested that when questioned by federal officials about the holdings, Ross lied under oath about his intention to divest himself of his interests. On top of that, there was that little matter of claiming to be a billionaire, when really, he was just a common multi-millionaire all along…

16. He’s a first-class grifter

In addition to shady business practices, Forbes has also accused Ross of stealing or siphoning upwards of $120 million in funds from his business partners and customers. As well as failing to pay building contractors for their work on his Hampton’s residence, Ross is reported to be in the habit of taking great handfuls of Sweet and Lo packets from his local restaurant, so he can avoid buying them himself. Well, these things to add up.

17. He’s not known for his charitable attitude

The Saco mining disaster of 2006 isn’t the only time Ross has faced criticism for his callous attitude to the working conditions of the average Joe. In January 2019, the Secretary of Commerce drew some harsh headlines after shrugging off reports of federal workers relying on food banks to get them through the missed paychecks resulting from the government shutdown. Ross offered the suggestion they should just get a bank loan to keep up with their bills- apparently overlooking the fact the nation’s four biggest banks don’t offer personal loans at all, and even if they did, the idea of any kind of loan is a difficult pill to swallow when you have no idea when you’ll be able pay it back.

18. He sometimes misses the point

In May 2017, Ross escorted President Trump on his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia. Ross apparently saw the visit as a success, taking the lack of protests as a sign of a warm welcome. What Ross was missing, and what Twitter commentators were all too happy to point out, is that Saudi Arabia has a less than friendly attitude to dissenters and a longstanding tradition of employing violent tactics against anyone who dares raise their voice. “In theory, that could be true, but boy there was certainly no sign of it,” Ross responded to the comments. “There was not a single effort at any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood.”

19. He’s been accused of gerrymandering congress in unconstitutional ways

As Secretary of Commerce, Ross is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Census- something that’s proved controversial after to his decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census. The decision came under attack from more than two dozen states and cities, who cited research from the Census Bureau that suggested the inclusion of a citizenship question would risk the accuracy of the census by discouraging non-citizens from participating. Ross has also been accused of being complicit in efforts to weaken minority voting rights, and in committing perjury by declaring otherwise. In January 2019, U.S. District Jesse M. Furman blocked the addition of the question from the census, and in June, the House Oversight Committee moved to hold the beleaguered Secretary of Commerce in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena requesting information about his fight to add the question in the first place.

20. He’s donated $10 million to Yale

Despite it being many, many years since Ross spent out his student days at Yale University, he hasn’t forgotten his old Alma mater. In 2016, Ross proved he’s sometimes capable of the occasional good deed when he pledged $10 million to help build the new Yale SOM campus. His affiliation with the university doesn’t end with donations; he’s also a former board member of the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Council, and, since 2004, an active member of Yale School of Management Board of Advisers.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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