Steve Forbes: Watching the world's elite

Media mogul Steve Forbes is famous for publishing global rich lists and having run for the White House twice. But he is also a web-savvy ideologue with designs on the international market. Ian Burrell meets him
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The Independent Online

Steve Forbes, the hot-air balloon enthusiast and multimillionaire media baron, would like to think he knows a fair bit about the secrets of accumulating wealth.

Forbes is the president, CEO and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, which, in an era when seemingly every publication is obsessed with lists, publishes perhaps the most famous tables of all, identifying the world's richest individuals.

His own business is an inherited one (Forbes was founded by his grandfather, B C Forbes, in 1917, and Steve took over from his father, Malcolm, in 1990), but the dusty image conjured up by the notion of an 88-year-old family publishing company is misleading.

Steve Forbes is, if nothing else, forward-looking. He talks derisively of those who stand still or "push the clock from nine to five". And when he talks most enthusiastically about the media business, he is liable to be speaking about the possibilities of the internet.

The Forbes website was set up in 1997 and its CEO has since poured "tens of millions" into making it a editorial offering distinct from the magazine. "Our website is not magazine- related; we recognise it's a different medium," he says.

According to Forbes, one of the key attractions of the internet is that users can access websites at work and appear busy, while colleagues reading print publications at their desk are liable to look lazy. Within two to three years, the Forbes website will be generating greater advertising revenue than the magazine side of the business.

As the publisher of American Heritage magazine and a quarterly called American Heritage of Invention & Technology, he is irked that the US is being outstripped by South Korea in its embrace of broadband. He notes that Americans are looking to Korea for tips on how the internet will be used in future. "Kids are dressing up before going online," he notes. But despite Forbes's enthusiasm for the web, he is not writing off the traditional end of the business just yet. Print still has a credibility edge over online, he argues.

Accuracy is important to a magazine that produces such lists as the Forbes 400 (the richest Americans), the Forbes world billionaires list (which runs to more than 600 names) and the Forbes 2000 (the world's largest companies). Other lists focus on celebrities (alive and dead), sports clubs and private companies. Some of the figures have to be based on educated guesses, he admits.

"We make clear that these lists are in many cases estimates. If you own shares in a publicly owned company, there are filings there, and you can nail that down very precisely. But in terms of the value of a privately held company, you talk to competitors, equity funds, venture capitalists, to try to get a feel for what it might be worth, so you can get a rough estimate."

Donald Trump, he notes, has been "up and down" on the list. "He's on an upswing now, but 15 years ago he was in trouble - he went through a very rough period."

Individuals on the list are contacted in advance whenever possible. Some object that their wealth has been underestimated, though others are more likely to complain that their inclusion will lead to demands on their savings. "We had one classic case, where the fellow complained bitterly. He wasn't taking issue so much with our estimate, so much as the fact that he was in the midst of a divorce, and his wife didn't know how much he had."

Forbes is wearing a company tie embossed with motifs of motorcycles (which his grandfather used to ride) and hot-air balloons (a family tradition that includes ownership of a balloon museum in Normandy).

The Forbes family was also, until last year, the owner of the world's largest private collection of Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. The collection was sold to the Russian energy tycoon Victor Vekselberg for around £80m. One piece alone, the Coronation Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife at Easter 1897, was valued at around £15m.

Forbes has moved into television - Forbes on Fox is on the Murdoch cable channel on Saturday mornings - and radio, where, for the past nine months, 160 stations across the US have taken syndication of a weekend afternoon show featuring interviews with Forbes editors and writers.

In addition, he has a custom publishing business producing a magazine for every guest of the Four Seasons hotel chain in the US. Internationally, Forbes is seeking to broaden its footprint with editions in Russia, Poland, Dubai, China, Japan, Korea and, most recently, Turkey.

"If a market has possibilities, we will do it. Who would have said Poland? Yet Poland is now a crossroads between East and West," says the editor-in-chief. "Who knows what's going to happen in Turkey, but it could be a boom area, so we took a risk there."

Forbes says there is a "possibility" of a future UK edition, produced with a local partner. Forbes is a marginal publication in this country and, like US rivals Fortune and Business Week, is eclipsed by The Economist. Forbes claims that his magazine scores over its rivals because it has "more of an entrepreneurial spirit".

He says: "We still do the company story better than anyone else. We come to conclusions. We use numbers with more sophistication than others, but we always focus on people."

He is a frequent visitor to Britain, and has been watching events at the Financial Times. He admires its new editor, Lionel Barber, as "a very capable individual", and thinks the FT's strategy of trying to create a global newspaper (linked by some to the downfall of its previous editor, Andrew Gowers) could be a sound one.

"The FT gathers certain international information that I find interesting and don't find elsewhere. I think they should do very well. Making forays into new areas does not mean you need to neglect or hurt the home base," he says.

One of America's most influential right-wing economic thinkers, Forbes, 58, is never happier than writing his Fact and Comment column in Forbes. Does he think he influences opinion?

"You have to realise that what you say in a particular issue is probably not going to change the world. The key is persistence, having certain themes, and playing off the news to those themes. It starts to make a difference," he says.

His current themes are "entrepreneurship, democratic capitalism and, more particularly, tax cuts as an engine for growth".

His writing has won him four Crystal Owl awards for prescient comment on economic trends. Forbes recently published a book, Flat Tax Revolution (foreword by Newt Gingrich), based on the credo of a flat 17 per cent rate of tax. He also campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000 and founded Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, which describes itself as "pro-growth, pro-freedom and pro-family".

Forbes also publishes a "Misery Index", identifying the countries which tax their citizens most heavily.

"As you would expect, the French are right up there on the misery index," he growls. "Britain is moving up. Take note, Mr Brown. You are losing your advantage here from the Thatcher years. Countries are starting to pay attention to this list now." Mr Forbes has spoken.