Lakshmi Mittal’s meteoric rise to fame has taken the world by storm. The fifth richest person in the world and the richest Indian, with a fortune of $ 32 billion has surprised many. Named one of the “100 most influential people” in May 2007 by the Time magazine, Mittal has turned rusty state run enterprises into profitable ventures.
His early years in India were not very pleasant. He lived with his extended family on bare floors and rope beds in a house built by his grandfather. His father eventually moved to Kolkata where he became a partner in a steel company and made a fortune. Mittal was a keen student and his classmates remember him as sharp and brainy who was good with numbers. He graduated at the top from St Xaviers in Kolkata with a Commerce degree in Business and Accounting in 1969.
Mittal began his career working in the family’s steel making business in India and in 1976, when the family founded its own steel business, Mittal set out to establish its international division. He began by buying a run down plant in Indonesia. Shortly afterwards he married Usha, the daughter of a well-to-do moneylender. In 1994, due to differences with his father and brothers, he branched out on his own, taking over the international operations of the Mittal steel business, which was already owned by the family.
His success story started in the late 1980s, when Mittal moved into acquisition mode and bought mills in places like Trinidad and followed that up in Canada. The greatest coup was when he snapped up the loss-making Sibalsa Mill in Mexico for $ 220 million in 1992. The 20 year old facility was originally built by the Mexican government for around $ 2 billion. Most steel industry analysts say that the deal was extremely favourable and till recently the plant was the mainstay of LNM empire. His mills in Trinidad and Canada and Ispat Mexicana gave him a strong base in North America. In 1998, he consolidated his position in the continent by buying Inland Steel. In the mid-90s, Mittal decided that he needed a more central base for his rapidly growing empire and so he shifted to London.
Mittal has always insisted that he is on the lookout for buy outs anywhere in the world but he seems to have followed a clear pattern. In the early 90s, he focused mainly on North America. Then he shifted focus to Western Europe and bought plants in Ireland, France and Germany. These moves gave him a strong hold in the western European market. Astonishingly, the biggest profits are coming from Mittal’s riskiest and most ambitious buy outs. The giant Karmet Steelworks in Kazakhstan bought in 1995 was reckoned to be a knife-edge gamble when it was bought. Today its production has climbed to 5.2 million tonnes from a measly 2.2 million tonnes.
Fortune, they say, favours the brave and Mittal has had giant-sized slices of luck on his way. The Karmet plant is perfectly positioned to supply the steel-hungry Chinese market, which has developed an insatiable appetite for the commodity. Since Chinese demand is almost the sole factor driving global steel prices upwards, Karmet is now in a win-win position. If one goes by statistics, Mittal has in the last decade never let an opportunity pass. He has voraciously gobbled up steel plants around the world.
In the last three years, he has moved from Algeria to South Africa to Romania and the Czech Republic, grabbing nationalized rust buckets that were being privatized and which other steel makers were reluctant to touch. Mittal denies that he is concentrating mainly on Eastern Europe. “We take opportunities where we find them”, said a company spokesperson. After Mittal’s phenomenal success it is very essential to find out that what’s the glue that binds this disparate empire? The best explanation is that Lakshmi Mittal has a remarkable eye for a bargain and has figured the art of turning around rundown steel mills. Also, he is willing to walk away from a deal if the price is not right.
Rivals say that his investment per tonne has always been low throughout his career as a takeover artist. His success mantra seems to be that when he takes over a plant-whether in Kazakhstan or in Canada he flies in a crank team that always include a large number of Indian executives. No doubt, the success Mittal has achieved is also credited to them. In the recent times his taking over another steel conglomerate, Arcelor has led him to take the synonym of the ‘King of Steel’.
Typical rags to riches tale, his story is about the phoenix-like rise from obscurity to fame. He is showing no signs of slowing down. Time will surely make us witness in the numerous triumphs he is get to conquer.