When investor Wilbur Ross was in college at Yale University, he enrolled in an English course that required writing 1,000 words a day. After two weeks, he says, he ran out of things to write about. His decision to drop out, he says, "probably saved me from a life of poverty."
Ross is now worth $1.7 billion.
After four decades on Wall Street, the 70-year-old "king of bankruptcy" — as a finance magazine once called him — has become famous for his ability to spot troubled companies, turn them around and sell them for a profit.
Investors like Ross are often called "vultures" that pick off the carcass of a dying company. They're accused of destroying jobs for short-term profit. Some are referred to as "bottom feeders." A recent article called another bankruptcy investor a "Midas of misery."
Ross prefers to compare himself to another bird: the mythological phoenix that rises from ashes. Ross says he takes dying companies and "rehabilitates them and makes them into something." He insists his work creates jobs and profits.
Ross is best known for buying up dying steel companies, including LTV and Bethlehem Steel, and rolling them up into a new company, International Steel Group. In 2005 he sold ISG to ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company, for $4.5 billion. His firm, WL Ross & Co., made $2.5 billion from the deal; Ross himself reportedly took home $300 million.
"That industry, the way it was headed, was going to go to zippo," Ross says. "We made a huge rate of return, but there are 100,000 good people and their families that have employment at a very high level that wouldn't have had it so I feel very good about that."
Dave McCall, a director of the United Steel Workers Union who worked with Ross at ISG, recalls telling Ross that if he wanted to make a short-term profit, he could understand not wanting to start up the company. "But if you want to be part of a long-term change in the industry, and want a long-term viable company, we could restart the facilities under our ideas about how to perform work in the steel industry," MCall says he told Ross.
Workers in another industry don't have such a positive view of Ross.
"Ross didn't save any coal jobs," says Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mineworkers of America, referring to Ross' creation of International Coal Group from the ashes of bankrupt Horizon Natural Resources in 2004.
Smith says Ross never responded to repeated efforts to reach out, and he says Ross hired "a union-busting group" to run the new coal company. ICG confirms it has no union workers among its 2,500 employees.
More recently, Ross has moved from troubled manufacturers to struggling real estate finance companies. He's recently bought businesses that make money by collecting payments on subprime loans.
His job is a far cry from literature, but Ross says restructuring moribund companies still requires creativity and organization of thought.
Asked whether he ever plans to return to writing, Ross laughs and dismisses the thought.
"I have enough trouble dealing with the facts, let alone trying to deal with fiction," he says.