Lakshmi Mittal: On his mettle... the man who would be king of the world steel market

A day in the life of the Chairman and chief executive, Mittal Steel
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The Independent Online

7am

Lakshmi Mittal, the man of steel, rises early at the Kensington Palace Gardens pad once dubbed the most expensive house in London. At a reputed £70m, the 12-bedroom residence was chicken feed for Mittal.

Not everyone who gets described as a billionaire can truly be said to have earned the label, but Mittal is the real deal. The 55-year-old is the richest man in England, and one of the richest in the world, with assets of something like £15bn, most of it from his near 90 per cent stake in Mittal Steel.

Today is an important day in deciding what happens to that wealth in the future. Since January, Mittal Steel has been pursuing a takeover bid for Luxembourg-based Arcelor. The man involved in one of the first "cash for influence" scandals to hit New Labour is used to kicking up a fuss, but even he might be surprised at the hostility his move has generated. Arcelor is desperate to fight him off, and seems to have the support of most European governments. At this point, the European steel industry just doesn't want him to take control of Arcelor. Steelworkers too, are worried for their future.

There is a hint, a slight smell in the air, that some of the objections may be down to a question of race. Mittal was born in India, though he has been based in the UK for years.

Such dark thoughts are far from his mind when he picks up the phone to call the Arcelor chairman, Joseph Kinsch, and fire his next salvo. He is upping his bid by one-third and offering to dilute the family interest in what would become the merged company to less than 50 per cent. If it wasn't already clear that he wants this deal done and quickly, it is now.

At the heart of the cash for influence scandal in 2001 was a letter that Tony Blair sent to the government of Romania backing Mittal's purchase of that country's state-owned steel company. Mittal was, and is, a huge donor to the Labour Party.

This time, he hopes he won't need intervention from the Prime Minister to secure his deal. But politics are never far from the surface in the steel industry.

12.30pm

For a steel man, Lakshmi Mittal holds his press conferences in some quaint places. The Cavendish Conference Centre on Duchess Mews is in the heart of the West End, but it is tucked away from the bustle of Regent Street and looks more like a sleepy country home than a place to launch an acrimonious takeover bid. The venue is a sign, perhaps, that for all his money and influence, Mittal remains an outsider, at least as far as the City is concerned.

In a quote that could only ever return to haunt someone so inevitably in the public eye, Mittal's father, Mohan, once told him: "The day you go high profile is the day you begin to fall." If the most famous steel-maker in the world launches a hostile takeover bid, high profile is the only way it can be done.

While his son Aditya, who is 29 but could pass for 19, does a presentation on the merits of the revised offer, Mittal nods in agreement and applauds. He looks like any proud Dad rather than a tycoon on the make. When it comes to questions, he is happy to take a back seat while his son, also president and chief financial officer, comfortably fends off reporters.

Only when the Mittals are asked about the objections from the European governments does Dad step in. "Since we announced the first offer, we have been in constant dialogue with all of the governments," he says. "The Belgians have now agreed that it makes sense. France and Luxembourg are examining it."

Mittal believes that the steel industry must consolidate or die, and that Europe will realise he is right at some point. "There was a strong reaction at the beginning," he says. "But the tone has changed. In the end it will be the shareholders who decide, and we are quite happy with that."

3pm

Of his early-morning conversation with Arcelor's Kinsch, he will only say that he hopes to have another one presently. "I hope we will soon be in talks. The sooner we start the better."

The increase in the value of the offer is so striking, it almost smacks of desperation; it hints that Mittal doesn't just want this deal, he needs it. Mittal is unruffled by the suggestion, though he does take a sip of water before replying. "It is not desperation. It just shows that consolidation is important in this industry."

Mittal speaks slowly, with a demeanour that puts you in mind of a kindly chemist who is trying to explain how best to cure what's wrong with you. On occasion, he gets his words jumbled - saying "before" when he means "since" - but everyone knows what he means. Nor is he without charm. A journalist who tries to split hairs over something Mittal may or may not have said a month ago is dealt with sweetly. Mittal makes a joke, laughs at himself, winks and moves on.

Some in the City thought Friday an odd time to make an increased share offer, given the nervous week endured by the equity markets. Mittal is unmoved. "We don't see nervousness in the steel market, we see fundamentals. The decision to improve the offer wasn't based on yesterday's share prices," he says.

Asked about the understandable concern of steelworkers that he could put many of them out of work, he is unequivocal. "There will not be any retrenchment or lay-offs. There will be no job cuts."

8pm

Back at home with his wife, Mittal awaits the outcome of an Arcelor board meeting tomorrow.

By demonstrating a willingness to dilute the family stake in a combined Mittal/Arcelor, the steel magnate believes he has done enough.

There is no question who will run the combined company of course, but would he be prepared to split the role of chairman and chief executive - a sop to the corporate governance crowd? "Don't ask," is his simple response, though given how much the idea makes him laugh, it seems fair to assume the real answer is "definitely not".

No one doubts the strength of Mittal's dynastic ambitions. Whatever happens to this bid, Mittal Steel will remain a family affair. "This is in the interests of shareholders," he says. "Now is the time for Arcelor management to decide."

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