Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor considered the “king of bankruptcy” for buying beaten-down companies with the potential to deliver profits, is expected to be President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, two officials with knowledge of the decision said.
Ross helped shape the Trump campaign’s economic agenda, particularly its hard-line stance on the need to renegotiate — or withdraw from — free trade agreements. Trump’s advisers have been split on that issue, which some economists warn could spark a damaging trade war, but Ross’ nationalist views are considered in line with the president-elect’s.
Trump recently reiterated his pledge to withdraw from the sprawling Asian trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama had hoped would be key part of his legacy. Trump has also threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, label China a currency manipulator and slap double-digit tariffs on imports from China and Mexico.
Ross built his fortune buying the distressed companies that were once at the heart of American manufacturing. Among his most notable investments was the purchase of some of the nation’s largest steel mills in the early 2000s, including Cleveland-based LTV Corp. and Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel. Ross later sold his steel conglomerate to Mittal Group for about $4.5 billion.
Ross applied a similar strategy to other industries as well. His metallurgical coal company was headquartered in West Virginia, cobbled together from the remnants of bankrupt mining company Horizon Natural Resources and smaller coal companies. Shortly after the company went public in 2005, an explosion at its Sago Mine in West Virginia killed a dozen people. Ross sold the business to Arch Coal in 2011 for $3.4 billion.
And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ross purchased several failed banks, including BankUnited in Florida, as well as some European banks.
More recently, Ross has invested in troubled oil and gas companies, taking advantage of the glut of supply and weak demand that have tanked big-name businesses. He remains chairman and chief strategy officer of WL Ross & Co., which is now part of investment firm Invesco.
Ross is a trustee of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think bank, and a noted art enthusiast with a taste for Chinese and Vietnamese works and who boasts a $100 collection of works by surrealist Rene Magritte.
Trump met with Ross on Sunday at Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey. They discussed job creation, trade deal negotiations and American manufacturing, according to a spokesperson for the transition team.
Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Trump said he was considering Ross to lead the Department Commerce. Ross demurred when asked if he wanted the job.
“Well, time will tell,” he said.