Carlos Slim: Shy psychic billionaire shopping for Saks?

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While his name may conjure up images of Wild West gunslingers, Carlos Slim is, by all accounts, among the shyest multi-billionaires in the world. However, as he increases his holdings of The New York Times (NYT) and appears to be considering a possible takeover of Saks (SKS), it seems likely that his deeply cherished privacy is soon to be invaded.

Wondering where Carlos Slim Helú ("Slim" is adapted from "Selim") gets his money? The son of a Lebanese-born dry goods salesman, he studied engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. After playing around in the stock market, he purchased a soda company and a printing company, followed by a tobacco company in 1981. This, in turn, led to a buying spree in the early eighties. Over the years, a combination of rising values and almost preternaturally wise investing has transformed him into Mexico's most powerful mogul.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Slim is currently responsible for approximately 7% of Mexico's annual economic output. Although his companies are involved in everything from airlines to soft drinks to bicycles, the jewel in his crown is Telmex (TII). Through it, he controls 92% of all landlines in Mexico, as well as 73% of all cell phones. Given his much-vaunted interest in the Times, some analysts have surmised that he is trying to extend his prestige north of the Rio Grande.

Although Slim has increasingly opened up to the press, he still shows a considerable reticence to discuss key aspects of his business. When reporters have written unflattering accounts about him, he has allegedly threatened to withdraw advertising from their papers, and has even become a part-owner in some publications after they printed critical reports about him. Even his critics, however, acknowledge that Slim, "despite all his faults, doesn't appear that bad."

According to most accounts, Slim made his fortune by buying ailing companies, fixing them up, and turning them into monopolies. However, as he is among the top three richest men in the world, this explanation is extremely unsatisfying. For a better understanding of his incredible business acumen, one might want to take a good look at his accomplices. A close friend of Slim's, futurist Alvin Toffler, provides an interesting clue to the mogul's investment strategy.

For the past 30 years, Toffler has argued that the world is entering a "third wave" post-industrial society, in which the flow of information is key for the production of money. At the same time, Slim has pursued investments, including Telmex, that have given him a stranglehold on the pipeline of electronic information flowing through Mexico. The connection between Toffler's predictions and Slim's investments is hardly accidental: when the two first met in 1993, Slim was carrying a well-thumbed, heavily-annotated copy of one of Toffler's books.

Slim admits that much of his fortune has come from his ability to recognize opportunities before anyone else, a skill that he attributes to his analysis of Toffler. Today, he reviews the futurist's manuscripts before they are published.

While analysts ring the death knell for American print journalism in general, and The New York Times in particular, Carlos Slim has poured millions into the paper. Given his knack for prescient investing, it is worth asking what, exactly, Toffler has been telling the shy Mexican mogul.


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