It was reported in Forbes this May that Bill Gates had slipped past Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helu. It's hardly an unfamiliar position for the former Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman and CEO, he held the spot for 13 straight years from 1995-2007 before Berkshire-Hathaway ($BRK.A) CEO (and close personal friend of Gates) Warren Buffett zipped past him.
Gates can't be TOO thrilled about it, his fortune of about $70 billion is still just a little over half what it was at when it briefly peaked at $136 billion in 1999 (and that's not factoring in inflation). That said, though, there's something to being number one. A certain aura, if you will. It's hard to say whether that aura matters much to men like Buffett, Gates, or Slim. One would hope that tens of billions of dollars would give them better ways to focus their time. However, for the rest of us, the top name on that Forbes list each year bring with it some bragging rights.
So here's a quick look back at the richest person in the world throughout history:
Carlos Slim Helu
Carlos Slim, as he's known, was born in Mexico City in 1940 and began his business career at age 12 when he purchased shares in a Mexican bank. And it all picked up speed from there. He continued growing his empire as a trader, reaching $40 million in value by the age of 26. However, he went from rich man to empire builder when he invested heavily in the oil industry in Mexico after it crashed in 1982. Buy low, sell high, they say. He hasn't necessarily sold yet, but Carlos sure bought low.
Buffett's long history of investment success is well documented, and he's been among the top five in the world for years. However, he's only briefly been number one, during 2007 and 2008. The Oracle of Omaha's secret is no secret, really. Basic value investing and holding quality stocks long enough for the rocky short-term moves that kill traders even out has made Buffett a very, very wealthy man.
Gates may not be a classic investor like Slim or Buffett, riding the success of a single company and his computer expertise to his fortune, but his return to the top spot proves that he's been pretty shrewd about moving his considerable fortune around since retiring from Microsoft. These days, aside from using his money to make more money, Gates is focused on the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which is focused on philantrhopy and has an endowment of over $36 billion.
One has to travel all the way back to the days of grunge and the Seattle sound before someone not named Gates, Buffett, or Slim was the world's wealthiest, but in 1994 it was Japanese businessman Yosiaki Tsutsumi. Tsutsumi, who made his fortune in real estate investments made through the Seibu Corporation, which he controlled, was the wealthiest man for 1993-1994 and 1987-1990. Things didn't end too well for Tsutsumi, though. He was arrested in 2005 for misstating the major shareholders in Seibu.
He joins Bill Gates as the two people who managed to Grover Cleveland the Forbes list, holding the top post on non-consecutive occasions. He didn't DOUBLE Grover Cleveland, like Gates, who was #1 from 1995-2007, again in 2009, and now, but it's still something.
Prior to 1987, the list gets a lot murkier, given that Forbes wasn't producing its list of the wealthiest in the world. However, it's a safe bet that Wal-Mart's (WMT) CEO Sam Walton probably occupied the top spot for a good chunk of the 1980s. Some combination of his children routinely show up among the wealthiest of the world, even after the man's fortune has been sliced and diced up after his death in 1992 when he was worth close to $65 billion (about $108 billion, inflation adjusted to today). On 2004's Forbes list, #5 through #10 were all Waltons, including Sam's wife, Helen, and children S. Robson, John, Jim, and Alice.
Henry Ford had a vision of creating a car that could be purchased by the common man. It worked. Ford's (F) Model T shifted the car from a luxury item owned by a select few to the item that virtually every family in America owns at least one of. By the time Ford died in 1947, he was worth an inflation-adjusted $188 billion.
John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie
Bill Gates started to fall off of his peak wealth as the value of his Microsoft declined after the Justice Department initiated an antimonopoly suit against the company for violating the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Two of the largest inflation-adjusted fortunes in history were held by two of the men who the law was created for. While both men really made their fortunes before the 20th Century, their peak value came during its earliest years. John D. Rockefeller was worth $336 billion inflation-adjusted at his peak, and Carnegie $309 billion. Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which he merged to U.S. Steel (X) and sold in 1901. Rockefeller, at one point, controlled 90 percent of the oil business in the United States through the aptly-named Standard Oil,a company he founded at age 31. Now try imagining what he might have been worth if people back then drove cars.
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