Bi-weekly report on billionaires: seized yachts, board battles, bidding wars

While assorted fabulously rich men bid to build their empires, are summoned by Donald Trump and sail around in superyachts, one former tycoon is languishing in jail accused of fraud. Our bi-weekly look at the world of billionaires.
Andrei Melnichenko is in hot water over unpaid bills for one of his superyachts. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
Andrei Melnichenko is in hot water over unpaid bills for one of his superyachts. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
John de Mol

The creator of the Big Brother television show is in a bidding war.

John de Mol's investment vehicle, Talpa, had offered ?273 million (Dh1.05 billion) for Telegraaf Media Group (TMG), which publishes the top-selling Dutch daily De Telegraaf and also owns Sky Radio and several leading magazine titles.

But on Monday, a group led by the Belgian publisher Mediahuis raised its earlier offer and matched Mr de Mol's bid euro for euro.

Both bidders already hold stakes in TMG, nearly 60 per cent for Mediahuis and about 20 per cent for Talpa. This means that whichever side loses the bidding war will benefit from the higher selling price.

Mr de Mol is, of course, no stranger to gamesmanship. Over the years he has developed Big Brother and many other successful game shows, among them Fear Factor, Deal Or No Deal, Wife Swap and The Voice. Interestingly, the Talpa website includes a section called Employees, rather than where one might expect it, in a listing of the company's executives.

Mr de Mol began his career working for radio and television broadcasters in the Netherlands. At 24 he ventured on his own as an independent television producer. In 1994 he and his business partner Joop van den Ende founded Endemol, the company that would be home to many of their biggest successes. In 2000 Telefonica of Spain bought Endemol for US$5.3 billion.

Mr de Mol tends to keep his personal live private but his son, Johnny de Mol, provided some insight late last year when he discussed Family Island, a series he is hosting in which families are brought to a deserted island to see how they cope. When asked what influences children's behaviour, the younger de Mol said: "Most of the time it's because of the parents. Children need consistency, stability and clear rules. As long as you are steady and form a team with your partner."

Forbes says John de Mol is worth $1.4 billion (Mr van den Ende is up there too, at $1bn).

Narayana Murthy

Narayana Murthy has called off his fight with the board of Infosys, saying he is confident that the IT giant he co-founded will deal with the concerns raised about corporate governance.

The conciliatory comments on February 13 came after the company's founders, who still own 12.75 per cent of the group, had questioned a pay rise granted to chief executive Vishal Sikka, to $11m this year from $7.08m last year, and the size of severance payouts given to others, including up to 174m rupees (Dh9.5m) for the former finance head Rajiv Bansal.

The criticism from Mr Murthy and his fellow billionaires Nandan Nilekani and Kris Gopalakrishnan burgeoned into a public confrontation over governance at Infosys, which works for many of the world's biggest corporations, including Goldman Sachs and Toshiba. At one point, Murthy called for a board shuffle. On February 13, though, he softened his tone, calling the Infosys chairman R Seshasayee a man of "highest integrity."

"Let me stop. I have made a point, paying such large sums of money is confusing. Now they have to sort it out," Mr Murthy said in an interview. "I felt that I don't want it to snowball. I don't have the time. Neither should the board and the management be spending time on it."

Infosys board members have defended Mr Sikka's salary and said they had improved rules around severance payments since the agreement with Mr Bansal.

Mr Murthy's wealth is estimated at $1.8bn. The son of a schoolteacher, after his university studies he founded Infosys with six colleagues in 1981 and built the outsourcing model that propelled its growth. Since their initial offering in 1993, Infosys's shares have risen by about 40 per cent a year.

When Mr Murthy retired from the company in 2011, The Times of India wrote that he "will go down in the annals of Indian business history as a champion entrepreneur, a man who connected Bangalore to Boston, a flag bearer for corporate governance, a visionary leader."

Stephen Feinberg

Through his $30bn investment firm, Cerberus Capital Management, Stephen Feinberg has bought companies that refuel spy planes, train Green Berets, make sniper rifles and watch America's foes from space. He has handed out jobs, lobbying contracts and campaign cash to some of the most powerful people in the nation's capital. It is against this backdrop that, according to news reports last week, the US president Donald Trump has asked Mr Feinberg to lead a review of US intelligence agencies.

The prospective appointment has yet to be formally announced.

Mr Feinberg has no prior experience in government. His most direct involvement with the military was a stint in the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps that ended in 1981, during his senior year at Princeton University, where he majored in politics. But national secur­ity appears to have remained a passion.

A few years ago, he directed Cerberus to build a private, for-profit training ground for special-operations forces after visiting a Marine Corps facility and concluding it was subpar, according to New York magazine. After his firm came under pressure to sell a gun maker known as Remington Outdoor, which is a military supplier, he allowed other investors to divest while retaining his personal stake.

Mr Feinberg started Cerberus in 1992 and built it into one of the biggest and most successful investment firms in New York, amassing a fortune that Bloomberg pegs at $1.6bn.

He expanded beyond his early speciality, buying the debt of distressed companies, to orchestrate leveraged buyouts. His highest-profile bet was the 2007 takeover of Chrysler, which the US government put into bankruptcy less than two years later. Current investments include supermarket chain Albertsons Cos, bowling-alley operator Bowlmor AMF and a company that sells Avon beauty products.

Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, said some of Mr Trump's ideas may prove constructive for America, tempering comments a year ago suggesting that his fellow Republican was not morally qualified for the White House.

"Well, I've gotten more mellow," Mr Munger said during the February 15 annual meeting at the publishing company Daily Journal in Los Angeles, which he chairs.

"He's not wrong on every­thing," said Mr Munger, referring to Trump. "Just roll with it."

Mr Munger, 93, spoke for nearly two hours to investors and students on a range of issues. He has been Mr Buffett's right-hand man for decades, helping build Berkshire into a roughly $410bn conglomerate with more than 90 companies including insurers, utilities, food producers and a railroad.

Berkshire also has large investments in dozens of stocks, including Apple and the four biggest US airlines: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Continental.

On February 14, Mr Berkshire revealed multibillion-dollar stakes in all five companies, marking a reversal of its longstanding aversion to the technology sector and antipathy to the "joke" that Mr Munger said that airlines once were. Berkshire is now Apple's fifth-largest investor, and the largest or second largest investor in the four airlines.

"The nice thing about the game we're in is that we can keep learning," Mr Munger said.

"I don't think we've gone crazy," he added. "I think we're adapting."

Mr Munger downplayed the effect of the scandal afflicting Wells Fargo, in which Berkshire is the largest investor with a roughly 10 per cent stake.

Wells Fargo was caught flat-footed by the public outcry after it settled regulatory charges that workers created as many as 2 million sham customer accounts to meet sales goals.

Mr Munger said the bigger problem for Wells Fargo was not its sales culture, but how it reacted. "The mistake there was that when the bad news came, they didn't recognise it," Mr Munger said.

Andrey Melnichenko

Authorities in Gibraltar seized one of the largest and most advanced superyachts in the world over an unsettled bill dispute between its billionaire owner and its German builder.

The yacht's owner is the Russian resources tycoon Andrey Melnichenko, the BBC reported on Monday. Mr Melnichenko's camp described the seizure as an "unfortunate episode" caused by a "technical problem". Indeed, by Wednesday the billionaire's representatives said the matter had been resolved and the ship released.

The website of the ship's builder, Germany's Nobiskrug, says it delivered the boat to the billionaire this month from its shipyard in Kiel. The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported that Nobiskrug had claimed ?15.3m overdue payments for the boat, named Sailing Yacht A.

The 143-metre-long, three­masted yacht cost at least ?400m and features an underwater observation pod and hybrid diesel-electric propulsion, the BBC said.

Mr Melnichenko's net worth is estimated at $13.2bn. He started out in business with currency exchange booths, then ventured into banking and after that into metals. His other possessions include Motor Yacht A, which is meant to resemble a submarine, and paintings by Claude Monet, some of which are now part of the shipboard decor. His wife, the former model Aleksandra Nikolic, has 33,000 Instagram followers.

Eike Batista

After becoming the world's eighth-richest man at his peak in early 2012, the Brazilian tycoon Eike Batista lost $35bn in a single year as his commodities empire collapsed. Things got so ugly that he became the world's first known negative billionaire. Yet after paying off some debts and restructuring a deal or two, he seemed to be posting a rebound. His net worth even climbed back into positive territory and is at about $100m according to Bloomberg.

Then he was arrested in late January on charges of money laundering and corruption. He spends his days now in a 15-square-metre cell in a Rio de Janeiro prison known for gang fights and sweltering temperatures. Not only that, he is facing new civil charges in Florida and the Cayman Islands that he wrongly squirrelled away millions of dollars offshore before Brazilian investigators could get to the assets.

Among the allegations is that Batista, acting on advice from a spiritual adviser named Ubirajara Pinheiro, tossed about $130,000 worth of gold coins into the Atlantic last year from the deck of a yacht festooned with flowers and perfumes for the occasion. Mr Pinheiro says he advised Batista to make amends with the sea goddess Lemanja by giving gold back to nature after his years of mineral extraction.

The civil lawsuit alleges that Batista was the mastermind of a fraud scheme to coax investors with promises of vast oil discoveries and a pledge to put up his own fortune if needed. The lawsuit led to a worldwide freeze on $63 million of his assets.

Still, the wheeling and dealing doesn't seem to stop. In 2014, Batista joined a South Korean company to develop dissolv­able oral film that can be used to freshen bad breath or treat erectile dysfunction. And he is now taking a shot at a whitening toothpaste that uses hydroxyapatite. It is called Elysium - after the isles in Greek mythology reserved for heroes in their afterlife.

* Agencies and The National

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Published: February 23, 2017 04:00 AM

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