Lakshmi Mittal will be relaxing now in his luxurious London home, just over a week after launching an ?18.6bn (?12.7bn) hostile bid by his Mittal Steel company for Luxembourg-based Arcelor in an effort to build a huge steelmaker with an output three times larger than its three closest rivals combined. The move sparked a furious reaction from Guy Doll?, Arcelor?s chief executive, who has portrayed the Indian billionaire as a man not to be trusted, and from political leaders in France and Luxembourg, who have urged resistance. The 55-year-old responded with a hectic charm offensive as he toured European capitals in his Gulf Stream jet to press his case.
?This is the biggest battle Lakshmi has faced but he won?t be put off,? says a former employee. ?He?s tough and savvy but he?s dealt with politicians before and normally comes out on top.? Nonetheless, the extent of the furore has surprised the quietly spoken Mr Mittal, who ? up to a $4.5bn deal 15 months ago to buy the US?s International Steel Group and make his company the world?s biggest steelmaker ? has generally shunned publicity. Although share prices in both the Netherlands-based Mittal and Arcelor have risen, denoting some enthusiasm for the transaction, steel experts are divided as to the wisdom of uniting Mittal with the world?s second biggest steelmaker, a company with a differing style and traditions. ?This deal looks like a giant bet,? says Georges Ugeux, chairman of Galileo Global Advisors, a New York financial group.
The inherent riskiness of the move fits in with the thrust of Mr Mittal?s 30-year love affair with steel ? an industry only recently rehabilitated (partly thanks to China?s surgingdemand) from its image as a business graveyard. Mr Mittal?s forays in the field started in his 20s, when he began work in a steel company started by Mohan Mittal, his father, in 1952 in Calcutta. Since then, Lakshmi Mittal has built up through acquisitions a global business spanning four continents and 220,000 employees. A highlight was a 1995 move to buy for $700m a virtually derelict steel plant in Kazakhstan that his company transformed into one of the world?s most efficient steel mills. He later added plants in countries as removed as the US and South Africa, and developed a particular knack for taking over formerly communist-run operations including in Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine; and he has a minority share in a leading Chinese steel maker. Mittal is 88 per cent owned by Mr Mittal and his family ? making him one of the world?s richest men, worth roughly $18bn.
The entrepreneur?s family comes from the Marwari merchant caste in Rajasthan in north-west India, known for its trading and deal-making mentality. Some of this style was illustrated at a private dinner Mr Mittal hosted for Mr Doll? at his London home on January 13, two weeks before the formal bid for Arcelor. Mr Doll? was taken aback when Mr Mittal asked him over a pre-meal drink whether he would be open to a merger. The Frenchman said No, and the conversation turned to other things.
Schooled in continental European business formalities, Mr Doll? later criticised Mr Mittal for breaking what he saw as ?the unwritten rules? of commercial conduct. But to Mr Mittal such informal conversations are part of business life. ?Mr Mittal is urbane and diplomatic but there?s a streak in him of the hustler,? says someone who knows him well. ?He has an agenda and he expects an outcome from every meeting.?
Part of the style is that while Mr Mittal knows what is on the agenda, others may not. ?Mr Mittal is confident and forthright and you feel good when you are around him, but he is sometimes difficult to pin down,? says Rodney Mott, a leading US steel executive and former chief executive of ISG, who worked briefly for Mr Mittal until last April before leaving over a disagreement. Mr Mott ? who says he bears Mr Mittal ?no grudges? ? says of Mr Mittal?s style: ?There?s an element of ?command-and-control? about him and he can be intimidating.? A contrasting view comes from Wilbur Ross, a US billionaire financier who, as former chairman of ISG, has become a non-executive of the Mittal board since the takeover. Mr Ross says that ? even though Mr Mittal owns such a huge part of the company, a stake that would be diluted to just over half should the Arcelor takeover go through ? ?he is a lot less dictatorial as a chief executive? than many others he knows in conventional US companies.
In India, Mr Mittal is widely feted ? at least in public ? as a business hero whose endeavours have highlighted the talent in one of the word?s fastest expanding economies. The applause has grown in the past year as Mr Mittal announced plans for a $9bn steel plant in eastern India, his first investment in his homeland. ?If you look at his ambition and persistence, it blows your mind,? says Vikram Kirloskar, chairman of Kirloskar Systems, an Indian industrial group. ?I?m a huge admirer,? says Lord Paul, an India-born businessman who chairs the London-based Caparo engineering group. Under the surface, however, some in the Indian business community consider Mr Mittal with disdain, particularly over stories of his lavish lifestyle ? illustrated by his extra?vagant London home, bought for a reputed ?70m (?103m), and the six-day wedding party for his daughter two years ago in Paris. Mohan Mittal, too, is said to have warned his eldest son about the potential dangers of growing too fast and sailing too close to the wind. Lakshmi is considered less close to his father than his two younger brothers ? Pramod and Vinod ? who together run Mumbai-based Global Steel, a relatively small steel company. Like Mittal, Global Steel has evolved from Mohan?s original steel business but its record, in contrast, looks pedestrian.
As financial experts ponder the merits of the Arcelor bid, it is worth recalling Mr Mittal?s difficult period in the late 1990s when steel prices were low. Back then, a relatively small part of Mr Mittal?s empire was in a publicly quoted arm and the rest was in a private group whose finances were opaque. The private and public parts of the empire were united in a single company that was formally registered only last year, taking in ISG. ?Everyone knew Mr Mittal was in trouble around 2000,? says one steel industry expert. Fortunately for the steel magnate, external events came to his rescue, in the shape of China?s sudden jump in demand, laying the foundations for his company?s future growth. As Mr Mittal ponders the likely outcome of his bid for Arcelor he will no doubt consider that ? like all hustlers the world over ? he will need some extra luck in the future if he is to come out on top.
More comment and analysis on Mittal Steel?s bid for Arcelor at www.ft.com/steel
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