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Top 10 richest entrepreneurs in the world

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It looks as though even the richest people in the world haven’t escaped the clutches of a global recession. They too have become poorer, just like the rest of us, according to this year’s Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires.

This year, the world’s billionaires have an average net worth between them of US$3 billion, down 23 per cent in the last 12 months. The world now also has only 793 billionaires, down from 1,125 a year ago.

After slipping in recent years, the US is regaining its dominance as a repository of wealth. Americans account for 44 per cent of the money and 45 per cent of the list’s slots, up seven and three percentage points from last year, respectively.

10. Amancio Ortega
Net worth: US$18.3 billion

Amancio Ortega

A railway worker’s son, Amanico Ortega started out as a gofer in a shirt store. With then-wife Rosalia Mera, also now a billionaire, they started making dressing gowns and lingerie in their living room. That business went on to become one of the world’s most successful apparel manufacturers, and, today, Inditex has more than 4,000 stores in 71 countries, with sales of US$12.3 billion.

Ortega is chairman of Inditex, and the company exported its cheap chic Zara stores to four new markets last year: Ukraine, South Korea, Montenegro and Honduras. The company’s stock went up by one per cent in the past 12 months, but its fortune went down because of a weak euro.

Ortega also has personal investments in gas, tourism, banks and real estate. He owns properties in Madrid, Paris, London, Lisbon, plus a luxury hotel and apartment complex in Miami, a horse-jumping circuit, and an interest in a soccer league. He also shuns neckties and fanfare.

His daughter, Marta, works for Inditex, and recent speculation suggests she is being groomed to eventually replace her father.

9. Theo Albrecht
Net worth: US$18.8 billion

Theo Albrecht

Theo Albrecht runs the discount supermarket group, Aldi Nord. The firm is holding up amid the economic downturn, and sales were expected to hit US$31 billion in 2008.

After World War II, he and older brother Karl transformed their mother’s corner grocery into Aldi. The brothers split ownership in 1961, and Karl took the stores in southern Germany, plus the rights to the brand in the U.K., Australia and the U.S. Theo got the northern Germany stores and the rest of Europe. Unable to operate Aldi stores in the U.S., Theo developed discount food store Trader Joe’s, which now has more than 320 U.S. stores. Theo also owns a stake in grocery store chain Supervalu.

Theo became a recluse after being kidnapped for 17 days in 1971, and is said to collect old typewriters and love golf.

8. Lakshmi Mittal
Net worth: US$19.3 billion

Lakshmi Mittal

Indian immigrant, Lakshmi Mittal, heads the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, which was formed via hostile takeover three years ago.

Stock in his company makes up the bulk of his fortune, but his shares are currently at a four-year low, with steel prices down 75 per cent since last summer. The company was forced to pay heavy fines after a French antitrust investigation found 10 companies guilty of price-fixing in European steel markets.

Subsidiary company Arcelor posted a US$2.6 billion loss in the most recent quarter, and subsequently announced plans to slow acquisitions, cut capital expenditures, and pay down debt.

Mittal started out in the family steel business in the 1970s, and branched out on his own in 1994, initially buying up steel mills on the cheap in Eastern Europe. His company bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Australia’s Macarthur Coal last year. He also owns pieces of Mumbai’s Indiabulls Group, London’s RAB Capital, and owns stake in, and sits on the board of Goldman Sachs.

On top of his company stakes, Mittal also holds substantial cash and owns a 12-bedroom mansion in London’s posh Kensington neighbourhood.

7. Mukesh Ambani
Net worth: US$19.5 billion

Mukesh Ambani

Ambani oversees Reliance Industries, India’s most valuable company by market cap, despite stock falling by 40 per cent in the past year.

He is planning to merge his Reliance Petroleum with his flagship Reliance Industries. As part of the deal, he will exercise the right to buy back Chevron’s five per cent stake in Reliance Petroleum at US$1.20 per share—the same price at which he sold it three years ago. Today, the stock trades for US$1.80 a share.

Ambani increased his stake in Reliance Industries last October, paying US$3.4 billion to convert 120 million preferential warrants into shares. Reliance Petroleum, a refinery on India’s western coast, began operating in December despite falling global demand and declining margins.

Ambani’s late father, Dhirubhai, founded Reliance and built it into a massive conglomerate. After he died, Mukesh and his brother, Anil, ran the family business together for a brief time. But the siblings feuded over control, and their mother eventually brokered a split of the assets. In recent times however, the brothers may be looking to bury the hatchet, playing joint hosts at their mother’s recent 75th-birthday bash.

Ambani and his family have moved into a new 27-storey home which he built at a reported cost of US$1 billion. He is an ardent fan of Bollywood films, and his wife, Nita, oversees a school named after his father.

6. Karl Albrecht
Net worth: US$21.5 billion

Karl Albrecht

Germany’s richest person, Karl Albrecht owns discount supermarket giant Aldi Sud. The retailer is faring well amid the economic downturn, and analysts expect its 2008 sales to be up by 9.4 per cent to US$33.7 billion. Sales in the U.S. were up an estimated 20 per cent last year to US$7 billion, and the retailer plans to open 75 U.S. stores in 2009, including the first in New York City.

With younger brother, Theo, the brothers transformed their mother’s corner grocery store into Aldi after World War II. The brothers split ownership in 1961, and Karl took the stores in southern Germany, plus the rights to the brand in the U.K., Australia and the U.S, while Theo got northern Germany and the rest of Europe.

Karl has retired from daily operations and is fiercely private; little is known about him other than that he apparently raises orchids and plays golf.

5. Ingvar Kamprad & family
Net worth: US$22 billion

Ingvar Kamprad

Ingvar Kamprad peddled matches, fish, pens, Christmas cards and other items by bicycle as a teenager. He started selling furniture in 1947 and opened his first Ikea store 50 years ago; the stores’s name being a combination of initials of his first and last name, his family farm and the nearest village.

Although he retired in 1986, Kamprad, the company’s “senior advisor”, still reportedly works tirelessly on his brand. The discount furniture retailer now sells 9,500 items in 36 countries, and prints catalogues in 27 languages. Ikea revenues were up by seven per cent to US$27.4 billion in the 2008 fiscal year. Ellison’s three sons all work at the company.

But despite his massive fortune, the thrifty entrepreneur flies economy class, frequents cheap restaurants and furnishes his home mostly with Ikea products.

4. Lawrence Ellison
Net worth: US$22.5 billion

Lawrence Ellison

Database titan, Lawrence Ellison, continues to engulf the competition. His company, Oracle, a major enterprise software company, has racked up 49 acquisitions in the past four years.

Ellison bought BEA Systems for US$8.5 billion last year, and is still sitting on US$7 billion in cash. His revenues have gone up 11 per cent to US$10.9 billion in the six months ended November 30 last year, and his profits are also up 11 per cent to US$2.4 billion. However, his stocks have gone down by 25 per cent in the past 12 months.

Ellison also invested US$125 million in Web software outfit Netsuite, which he took public in 2007; stock has fallen by 80 per cent since. His shares however are still worth US$300 million.

A Chicago native, Ellison studied physics at the University of Chicago, but didn’t graduate. He started Oracle in 1977 and went public 1986, a day before Microsoft.

Ellison owns the 453-foot Rising Sun; a smaller leisure boat than a superyacht. He is squabbling in court with Swiss boating billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli over the terms of the next America’s Cup, and recently unveiled the hulking 90-foot trimaran he intends to use to win it.

3. Carlos Slim Helu & family
Net worth: US$35 billion

Carlos Slim Helu

The economic downturn and plunging peso shaved US$25 billion from the fortune of Latin America’s richest man; the global recession testing his ability to live up to the principles he sets for his employees: “Maintain austerity in times of fat cows.”

Son of a Lebanese immigrant, Slim Helu bought fixed line operator Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex) in 1990 and now controls 90 per cent of Mexico’s telephone landlines. He would be a billionaire based on his dividends alone.

Slim Helu’s biggest holding is his US$16 billion stake in America Movil, Latin America’s largest mobile phone company with 173 million customers. America Movil and Telmex are reportedly planning to jointly invest US$4 billion to bolster telecom infrastructure in Latin America.

Slim Helu is also buying up cheap media, energy and retail assets, and last year took stakes in New York Times Co., former billionaire Anthony O’Reilly’s Independent News & Media and Bronco Drilling. He also increased his position in Saks.

Slim Helu is a baseball statistics enthusiast and art collector.

2. Warren Buffet
Net worth: US$37 billion

Warren Buffet

Last year, America’s most beloved investor was the world’s richest man. This year, he has to settle for second place after losing US$25 billion in 12 months, with shares of his company Berkshire Hathaway down 45 per cent since last March.

Buffet injected billions of dollars into Goldman Sachs, GE in exchange for preferred stock last autumn and gave insurance firm Swiss Re a boost in February with a US$2.6 billion infusion.

He admits he made some “dumb” investment mistakes in 2008, and is optimistic about America’s future, saying: “Our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time. It has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so.”

Buffet also scoffs at Wall Street’s over-reliance on “history-based” models, saying: “If merely looking up past financial data would tell you what the future holds, the Forbes 400 would consist of librarians.”

The son of a Nebraska politician who delivered newspapers as a boy, Buffet filed his first tax return at age 13, claiming a US$35 deduction for a bicycle. He studied under value investing guru Benjamin Graham at Columbia University and took over textile firm Berkshire Hathaway in 1965.

Today, Berkshire Hathaway is a conglomerate holding company invested in insurance (Geico, General Re), jewellery (Borsheim’s), utilities (MidAmerican Energy), and food (Dairy Queen, See’s Candies). It also has non-controlling stakes in Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo.

1. William Gates III
Net worth: US$40 billion

William Gates III

Software visionary and chairman of software giant Microsoft, Bill Gates regains the title as the world’s richest man, despite losing US$18 billion in the past 12 months.

Gates retired from full-time work at Microsoft last summer to devote his talents and riches to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world.

His organisation’s assets were US$30 billion in January, and an annual letter praised endowment manager Michael Larson for limiting the company’s losses last year to 20 per cent.

Gates decided to increase his philanthropic donations in 2009 to US$3.8 billion, up 15 per cent from 2008. Last September, Microsoft Office veteran Jeffrey Raikes was appointed CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting hunger in developing countries, improving education in America’s high schools and developing vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

While Gates has retired from full-time work with Microsoft, he still remains Microsoft’s chairman. He sells shares each quarter and redeploys proceeds via investment vehicle Cascade, with more than half of the company’s fortune invested outside Microsoft. Microsoft’s stock has gone down by 45 per cent in past 12 months.

A “creative capitalist”, Gates wants companies to match profit-making with doing good.

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