New Internationalist

Carlos Slim Helu

Issue 368

Carlos Slim is a man with a mission. The Mexican tycoon is already Latin America’s richest person with a net worth of more than $14 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The grey-bearded, swashbuckling 63-year-old controls a dizzying array of companies across Latin America. And now he is looking north. In recent years he’s snapped up the ailing US internet provider, Prodigy, as well as CompUSA, the Dallas-based, big-box computer retailer.

It is fair to say that the average Mexican would have difficulty getting through the day without adding to Mr Slim’s fortunes. You name it and just-plain-Slim, as he’s known locally, has probably got a slice of the action. His Grupo Carso conglomerate includes 305 Sanborns stores in Mexico as well as mining operations, auto parts makers and Cigatam, the country’s leading cigarette maker. Together his companies make up more than half the value of the Bolsa, the Mexican stock exchange.

Not bad for the son of Lebanese immigrants. Carlos Slim’s father, Julian, fled the Ottoman Empire’s military draft as a teenager and wound up in Mexico in 1902. A few years later, at the height of the Mexican revolution with Pancho Villa marching on Mexico City, Slim’s father took a gamble and bought up some prime real estate in the city core – a shrewd move as it turned out.

That was courage,’ says Slim, ‘He taught me no matter how bad a crisis gets, Mexico isn’t going to disappear, and that if I have confidence in the country, any sound investment will eventually pay off.’

Like the wizened American investment guru Warren Buffet, Carlos Slim has a nose for bargains. With the Mexican economy mired in debt in the mid-1980s and company values at record lows Slim decided to go shopping, picking up dozens of businesses for a song. Less than a decade later the market value of those firms had jumped an average 3,000 per cent.

But Slim’s biggest coup was the purchase in 1990 of controlling interest in Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex), the Mexican national telephone company. Strong-armed by the IMF and the World Bank to open the economy to market forces, the Government began a massive privatization campaign, selling off hundreds of state-owned companies.

As it happens Slim was good buddies with then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In 1993, at a gala fundraising dinner, Slim – along with 30 other business leaders – pledged an average $25 million each to Gortari’s PRI party. (Salinas left office in 1994, was charged with massive fraud and corruption and has been in exile in Ireland ever since.)

A few sore losers complained that friends in high places gave Slim a leg-up on the Telmex deal, a charge that he strenuously denies. In any event Slim creatively partnered with Southwestern Bell Corporation and France Telecom, and scooped up Telmex for a cool $1.7 billion. Today the company has a market value of $37 billion, a landline monopoly in Mexico and 70 per cent of the country’s long distance market. Since the 1990 acquisition Slim has used Telmex profits to jump into the digital age. His American Movil is a leader in the Latin America mobile phone industry and now has 41 million subscribers across the region.

Despite his colossal wealth, Slim is thrift-conscious. He has few extravagances. For decades his headquarters has been a drab, two-storey concrete building surrounded by skyscrapers in Mexico City’s glitzy Lomas district. His world-class collection of Rodin sculptures is now in a museum. He does have an addiction to fine Cuban cigars and a weekend home in Cuernavaca but that’s about it.

After the recent death of his wife, Soumaya, his main preoccupations are his children and his work. His three sons (Carlos Slim Domit, Marco Antonio and Patrick) now run the day-to-day operations of the three major arms of his business empire.

Lately, the mercurial tycoon has repackaged himself as a nationalist critic of what he calls Mexico’s failed neo-liberal economic model – a curious charge from someone whose business empire has blossomed under NAFTA. But Slim has the crafty self-interest of a seasoned politician. Playing the nationalist card makes good business sense, especially since US-based giants like AT&T are challenging his Telmex monopoly. Slim wants to protect his home base at the same time as he looks abroad and he knows the power of populism. His foundations run by Telmex and Grupo Carso give away millions every year in scholarships. Heck, he’s even got the unions on his side. Francisco Juarez Fernandez, leader of the 49,000-strong telephone workers’ union told a rally in Mexico City: ‘We’re not going to accept turning over the market to foreigners?’

Like his father before him, Carlos Slim is now eyeing the Mexico City real estate market. And he’s counting on ex-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani for help. Slim recently led a group of business interests who paid Giuliani’s consulting firm $4.3 million for a report on how to clean up the city’s historic centre. Both the mayor and the police chief embraced the report’s recommendations. Not surprisingly, they echo Giuliani’s approach in New York – which was basically to make it impossible for the poor to live there. The report calls for a crackdown on street vendors, prostitution, graffiti and homeless kids who watch parked cars for a few pesos. Critics fear the project is an attempt to boost property values for real estate speculators while pushing the poor to the city’s crowded suburban slums. Slim is not deterred.

Those who say that I am taking over the city centre, that I have already bought up everything? are not going to stop me from continuing my project.’

Carlos Slim Helu Fact File
Name
Carlos Slim Helu
Job
Multi-tasking Mexican business leader
Reputation
Family man; thrifty and clever capitalist; Mexican nationalist when it suits his purposes.
Sense of humour
After announcing a $3.5 billion project to provide internet services throughout Latin America: ‘My children gave me a laptop for Christmas, but all I know how to do so far is push the on button.’
Low cunning
‘The North American Free Trade Agreement should have done what the European Union did, assigning resources to bring all countries up to the same speed? We should have included free labour movement in our trade agreement.’
Sources
‘Giuliani’s Mexico City Game Plan’, The Narco News Bulletin, http://www.narconews.com; ‘Yo Quiero Todo Bell’, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.01/slim_pr.html; ‘World’s richest people’, http://www.forbes.com/finance/lists/10/2003; Carlos Slim: ‘The key is the Internet, Business Week, http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_08/b3669023.htm; ‘Mexico City’s historical centre is cleaning up’, Laurence Iliff, The Dallas Morning News, 3 Nov 03.

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