Carlos Slim

 A Review of Carlos Slim: The Richest Man in the World/The Authorized Biography

I really wanted this biography to be a good one. I mean “really wanted.” For me Carlos Slim personifies the very word “tycoon.” I find stories about men who started off with little in life, worked hard to save up a grubstake, and then parlayed it into a fortune over time far more interesting and inspiring than most of the post-1995 stories about tech people who went from zero to billions almost overnight mostly by virtue of having been in the right place at the right time. Yes, luck often played a significant role in their success. Whereas with the traditional tycoon route to success it’s far more the result of a long term commitment to building something lasting.

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So How Did Carlos Slim Become the World’s Richest Man?

When I’m asked how tycoons make their fortunes the One Red Paperclip story often comes to mind. If you are not familiar with it it’s the one about a man who started a chain of Craig’s List barter trades with a red paperclip and ended up with a house. It took him just 10 or 12 trades to accomplish this feat. Tycoons apply the same basic principle to building wealth although the mechanism is not quite the same. Both stories are about building wealth through incremental improvements in the value of assets over time. It’s the opposite of trying to strike it rich with just one deal. Think of the differences as those between a football team that wins because it has a strong ground game consistently moving the ball down the field instead and one that relies on the occasional “Hail Mary Pass” to win.

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Carlos Slim: How Great Fortunes Are Made

If you study the history of how great fortunes have been made over the past 160 years or so [1], you come to understand that there are just a few growth strategies or “tycoon plays.” One way is to focus on building up a single company to a colossal size. Think of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and the Google Guys as examples. However, the more common way is through a combination of building a single company with sales growth and wheeling & dealing in acquisitions. A third way is to be a deal-maker exclusively who just wheels & deals in companies.

It’s important to understand that even the single company builders have to eventually resort to acquisitions because it’s the only proven way to maintain high growth over a prolonged period of time. Do you want to shoot for billionaire or tycoon status? If you do, you will need to sustain a hyper rate of growth over many years.

Frankly, I can’t think of any company off the top of my head that grew to a large size without acquisitions. If you know of one, let me know.

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I had read not all that long ago that Carlos Slim didn’t speak English, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that he does and quite well too.

Here is highlite from the interview. He repeats the fact that tycoons are driven by a need to build something great. It’s not about merely accumulating money quickly so as to be able to show off to anyone. That type of goal rarely works for anyone.

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Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill. — Warren Buffett

The answer to the question of how Carlos Slim Helu became so wealthy can be traced in large measure back to his childhood. Carlos was fortunate enough to receive an early start in his business training from his businessman father. There’s a school of thought that kids who grow up in a family where dad (or mom) is an entrepreneur are far more likely to become entrepreneurs themselves. I participated in an extended debate over this years ago with a couple of colleagues. At first I resisted the proposition but came to accept it over time. I know a well-known entrepreneur who explained how he got the entrepreneurial bug early on this way. One evening, when he was about 10 years old, he sat silently in the living room listening to his dad negotiate a bank loan over the telephone. That’s when it hit him that he wanted to be a businessman too. Most of my successful entrepreneurial associates had entrepreneur fathers.

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