Charlie Rose has a fantastic interview with Wilbur Ross, who played Willy Tanner (the dad) on Alf before becoming an investor in distressed businesses, most notably in the coal, steel and auto parts industries. This profile describes Ross’s start thus:
In 2001, when LTV, a bankrupt steel company based in Cleveland, decided to liquidate, Ross was the only bidder. Ross suspected that President Bush, a free trader, would soon enact steel tariffs on foreign steel, the better to appeal to prospective voters in midwestern swing states. So in February 2002, Ross organized International Steel Group and agreed to buy LTV’s remnants for $325 million. A few weeks later, Bush slapped a 30 percent tariff on many types of imported steel—a huge gift. “I had read the International Trade Commission report, and it seemed like it was going to happen,” said Ross. “We talked to everyone in Washington.” (Ross is on the board of News Communications, which publishes The Hill in Washington, D.C.)
With the furnaces rekindled, LTV’s employees returned to the job, but under new work rules and with 401(k)s instead of pensions. A year later, Ross performed the same drill on busted behemoth Bethlehem Steel. Meanwhile, between the tariffs, China’s suddenly insatiable demand for steel, and the U.S. automakers’ zero-percent financing push, American steel was suddenly red hot. The price per ton of rolled steel soared, and in a career-making turnaround, Ross took ISG public in December 2003.
After pulling off a quick turnaround in the twentieth century’s iconic business—steel—Ross set about doing the same with the troubled iconic industry of the nineteenth century. In October 2003, he outdueled Warren Buffett for control of Burlington Industries, a large textile company that failed in late 2001. In March 2004, he snapped up Cone Mills, which, like Burlington, was based in Greensboro, North Carolina, and bankrupt. As with the steel companies, the PBGC took over some of the pensions, the unions made concessions, and thousands of laid-off workers were recalled. Most important, debt was slashed. Today, International Textile Group has just about $50 million in debt, less than the two companies were paying in interest a few years ago.
In the Charlie Rose interview Ross discusses his analysis of LTV, which is basically a classic Graham net current asset value analysis:
Ross: We’re in the business not so much of being contrarians deliberately, but rather we like to take perceived risk instead of actual risk. And what I mean by that is that you get paid for taking a risk that people think is risky, you particularly don’t get paid for taking actual risk. So what we had done we analysed the bid we made, we paid the money partly for fixed assets, we basically spent $90 million for assets on which LTV had spent $2.5 billion in the prior 5 years, and our assessment of the values was that if worst came to worst we could knock it down and sell it to the Chinese. Then we also bought accounts receivable and inventory for 50c on the dollar. So between those combination of things, we frankly felt we had no risk.
Charlie Rose: And then next year you bought Bethlehem.
Ross: Yes, but before that even, what happened, out came BusinessWeek asking, “Is Wilbur Ross crazy?”
The joke was, right when everybody was saying, “This is too risky. It’ll never work,” the big debate in our shop was, “Should we just liquidate it and take the profit or should we try to start it up?” That’s how sure we were that we weren’t actually taking a risk, but I wanted to start it up because if you liquidate it you make some money, but you wouldn’t change the whole industry and you wouldn’t make a large sum as we turned out to do.