Wilbur L. Ross Jr., whose company owns the Upshur County mine that suffered an explosion early Monday, said, “It is a horrible thing. As you know, we have an extremely good safety record. We have gotten a lot of awards.“Our heart goes out to the men and their families. We are doing everything we can to try to recover them as quickly as possible. That is our preoccupation at the moment. I hope the men get out all right.”Beginning in 2002, Ross, a billionaire New York investment banker, began creating companies to acquire financially troubled or bankrupt companies in the steel, coal and textile industries in the United States. Many acquisitions came at bargain-basement prices.Ross has also acquired interests in auto parts manufacturing, banking and insurance companies in Japan and Korea.
In the United States, Ross named his companies the International Steel Group, International Coal Group and International Textile Group.International Coal Group acquired the Upshur County mine when it bought out the bankrupt Anker Coal Group, once run by the late John J. Faltis, on March 31, 2005.Ross formed ICG with the assets of CoalQuest Development LLC, which he also bought on March 31, and of Horizon Natural Resources Co., which he acquired on August 17, 2004, at a Lexington, Ky., bankruptcy court auction.Ross made a combined bid for Horizon, then the nation’s fourth-largest coal company, with Massey Energy Co.ICG bought Horizon’s 14 nonunion operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois.Massey bought two union operations from Horizon: the Cannelton complex in eastern Kanawha County and Starfire Mine in Perry County, Ky. Massey soon reopened Cannelton using nonunion workers.The Addington Brothers of Ashland, Ky., created Horizon Natural Resources.Ross created the International Steel Group in 2002. It became the nation’s largest steel producer after acquiring LTV Corp. (once Jones & Laughlin Steel), Bethlehem Steel Corp., Acme Steel, Ispat Inland Steel and Weirton Steel.In April 2005, Ross sold ISG in a $4.5 billion deal with Aditya Mittal, president of Mittal Steel Co., based in London.When ISG purchased Weirton Steel in May 2004, it rescued the company from bankruptcy.But last year, Mittal cut the work force at Weirton from 2,100 to 1,300. The Weirton mill employed more than 14,000 steelworkers in the mid-1970s.
Mittal Steel, according to the company’s Web site, is the world’s largest steel producer, operating steel mills in 14 countries and employing about 175,000 people.In an interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail last year, Ross said low wages, poor fringe benefits and weak environmental standards help many other countries produce steel for lower prices than it can be produced here.Ross also said the lack of national health care in the U.S. is a “scandal” that makes it hard for U.S. companies to compete with imports from nations offering their citizens health care.After buying troubled companies, Ross typically consolidates operations, lays off people and renegotiates union contracts.Fortune magazine recently dubbed Ross “The Bankruptcy King,” while Business Week reported that Ross supervises a “growing empire of the damned.” An article in New York magazine called Ross the “Bottom-Feeder King.”Ross, now 67, was executive managing director for 26 years at Rothschild Inc., a global investment bank that is part of Rothschild family holdings. On April 1, 2000, Ross formed WL Ross & Co., and opened offices in New York City, Tokyo and Seoul. In the United States, Ross has also acquired textile mills, including Burlington Industries in August 2004 and Cone Mills in March 2005. These North Carolina mills make mattresses, upholstery, denim and other fabrics.
“We believe our operations at the International Textile Group can compete,” Ross told the Sunday Gazette-Mail.“By consolidating facilities into fewer large ones, we think we are the most efficient of all American producers. Textile workers get $11 or $12 an hour. Steelworkers get a lot more. Even so, it is very hard to compete with 90-cent-per-hour labor in China,” Ross said.To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.