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Billionaire Investor Wilbur Ross Tabbed for Commerce Secretary

by Countable | 12.30.16

President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Wilbur Ross Jr., an investor with an estimated $3 billion net worth, to be his Secretary of Commerce. Trump called Ross "a champion of American manufacturing [who] knows how to help companies succeed. Most importantly, he is one of the greatest negotiators I have ever met."

Who is Wilbur Ross?

Ross, 79, was born in Weehawken, N.J. His father was a lawyer (later a judge) and his mother, Agnes, a schoolteacher. He received a bachelor’s degree from Yale (his dad’s alma mater) and an MBA from Harvard. Then, just 24, he got his start in banking as head of the bankruptcy-restructuring arm of Rothschild Inc.’s New York office. It was as a senior executive there that he first made Trump’s acquaintance, helping the then-casino mogul to restructure his teetering empire in the late ’80s.

Before leaving Rothschild, Ross raised $450 million and began speculating in distressed businesses, primarily in the steel, coal, textile and telecom industries. In 2000, he founded WL Ross Co. LLC, since acquired by AMVESCAP PLC. He is still listed as the New York-based private-equity firm’s chairman and chief strategy officer.

En route to becoming a wildly successful "corporate turnaround specialist," Ross devised a game plan that earned him not only a large portion of his fortune but also the nickname “the king of bankruptcy.”

While his strategy of purchasing failing firms at a substantial discount and cutting costs, including some workers’ benefits, has certainly proved lucrative, it has also met with its share of controversy and, in one particularly unfortunate case, tragedy. Among his varied ventures was the Sago Mine, where 12 West Virginia coal miners lost their lives in an explosion about 24 hours after New Year’s Day 2006. The U.S. Department of Labor had cited the mine 208 times in 2005 for safety violations.

Twice divorced, he has two daughters by his first wife, Judith Nodine. His second wife, Betsy McCaughey, is a former lieutenant governor of New York. He is currently married to Hillary Geary, a magazine editor with whom he shares homes in New York and Florida. An art aficionado, he is known to have an extensive collection valued at $150 million.

What’s the outlook for his confirmation?

Despite his reputation as a "vulture capitalist" and the public relations hit that he and his company took over the Sago Mine disaster, Ross is considered by experts to the best possible pick “the Democrats could hope for.” In fact, he has been a registered Democrat for most of his life, even serving on the board of the federal U.S.-Russia Investment Fund during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Interestingly, Ross was an early supporter of Trump’s presidential bid yet only officially joined the Republican Party last month. And some members of organized labor view his restructuring style as injecting life into companies withering on the vine, thus saving otherwise doomed jobs.

A longtime critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he surprisingly voiced his approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) last year, in direct opposition to Trump, and criticized the controversial deal’s environmental, health and safety standards not strong enough, which could play well with Democratic lawmakers. Considered not nearly as hawkish as some of Trump’s other Cabinet choices, Ross is expected to have little trouble gaining confirmation.

You can tell your senators how to vote on Ross’s confirmation by using the "Take Action" button below.

What does the Department of Commerce do?

In a nutshell, it is tasked with setting favorable conditions for economic growth. The agency aims to promote job creation and sustainable development by negotiating optimal international trade terms and ensuring businesses’ access to high technology.

With a budget of $14.6 billion in fiscal year 2015, the Dept. of Commerce is composed of 12 bureaus and has more than 47,000 employees scattered throughout every state, five U.S. territories and more than 86 countries. It also administers the U.S. Census and counts the International Trade Association, the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (home to the National Weather Service) among its higher-profile agencies.

— Erin Wright

(Photo Credit: Video Screenshot)

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