Mexico's Richest Man Buys Stake In New York Times

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is barely known in the U.S. Most of his wealth was created through the privatization of Mexico's telephone company. Slim recently bought a 6.4 percent stake in The New York Times Company.

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Some magazines rank him as the richest or second richest person in the world and we are not talking about Bill Gates, not even Warren Buffet. We're talking about Carlos Slim. The Mexican billionaire is barely known in the United States, but he does plenty of business on this side of the border and recently bought a large stake in The New York Times. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this profile.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Carlos Slim and his companies dominate Mexico, from retailing to telecommunications to real estate. Carlos Slim has his fingers in almost every aspect of Mexican life. His companies sell enchiladas and lipstick, they build dams and oil drilling platforms. They're the fixed-line phone company, Telmex, and the dominant cell phone service, Telcel.

(Soundbite of Telcel advertisement)

BEAUBIEN: Companies controlled by Slim and his family make up one-third of the Mexican stock exchange. Eduardo Garcia, the editor of Centil Commun(ph), a financial publication in Mexico , Citysays some Mexicans admire Carlos Slim and others hate him.

Mr. EDUARDO GARCIA (Editor, Centil Commun): He has become so wealthy in a country with so much poverty that it's been insulting for many.

BEAUBIEN: Garcia says Slim is an incredibly talented businessman who originally got rich by buying up faltering companies during Mexico's economic crisis in the 1980s.

Mr. GARCIA: When he acquired in the early '90s, the telephone company, that's when he was catapulted into a different league.

BEAUBIEN: Slim gained control of the state-run phone company under a deal that prohibited anyone else from entering the market for at least seven years. Garcia says Slim's reputation in Mexico as a monopolist has overshadowed his talents as a thrifty, high-stakes turn around artist.

Mr. GARCIA: Probably we don't pay right now the highest telephone rates in the world but we were paying them for many years and that's what has actually brought him so much wealth.

BEAUBIEN: But Garcia says Slim shouldn't blamed for this. He says the government could have done more to regulate Slim and force TelMex to open up to competition. Denise Dresser, who teaches political science at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, is less charitable.

Dr. DENISE DRESSER (Professor, Political Science, Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico): He is symptomatic of an economic structure that is not one of democratic capitalism. It's a hybrid, it's a mixture ,of state-run capitalism and oligopolistic capitalism, and that has allowed him to become of the wealthiest man in the world.

BEAUBIEN: Dresser says Mexico's elite actively work against opening up the economy to competition in a country where the minimum wage is less than $5.00 per day. Dresser says Mexico's business climate stifles social mobility, traps millions of people in poverty and is a significant drag on economic growth.

Ms. DRESSER: I think there are too many people and too many businessmen in this country who see Carlos Slim as an model instead of seeing him as a symptom of everything that's wrong with Mexico's economic structure.

BEAUBIEN: Mexico needs to compete in the global economy, she says, yet many large Mexican firms, including Slim's, are unused to even competing at home. Carlos Slim is a portly, 68-year-old. He dresses in dull business suits. Looking at him, you wouldn't think this could be the richest man in the world.

(Soundbite of press conference)

BEAUBIEN: At a press conference in August with former President Bill Clinton, Slim pledged $25 million to several Clinton Foundation projects in Mexico and South America. The event was in one's Slim's offices, filled with original paintings by El Greco and sculptures by Rodin. Clinton, recounting how the initiative got started, teased Slim over his wealth.

Former President BILL CLINTON (United States): Then our friend Carlos Slim, who already is giving away his money as fast as he can make it almost- nobody can give money way that fast…

(Soundbite of laughter).

BEAUBIEN: Others laughed but Slim's eyes darted around the room as if he was uncomfortable with Clinton highlighting his vast fortune. He has a reputation for being incredibly frugal, even stingy. Slim is starting to give away some of his vast fortune, although critics here say not enough of it. His charities focus mainly on basic health care and education for the poor. Even if he is pulling back from the day to day operations of his companies, Carlos Slim earned billions of dollars last year in a country where the average citizen survives on a few hundred dollars a month. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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