Who Is Wilbur Ross?

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr. (b. 1937) is a billionaire investor who spent a quarter-century working as a bankruptcy restructuring advisor for Rothschild Investments. Despite his wealth, he has been dubbed the "king of bankruptcy" for a record of leading failing companies.

In the early 1990s, he helped a struggling casino magnate—Donald Trump, whose Atlantic City properties were bankrupt and whose net worth was estimated at negative $1.4 billion (Trump held that it was positive $1.5 billion)—to hold onto his stake in the Taj Mahal and keep his name on the sign. "The Trump name added value to the casino," Ross, then senior managing director at Rothschild, told Bloomberg in 1992.

Key Takeaways

  • Wilbur Ross is a billionaire business tycoon and investor.
  • He served as U.S. commerce secretary under President Trump.
  • Known as the "king of bankruptcy", Ross has been mired in controversies and alleged scandals.

Wilbur Ross in Politics

On Nov. 30, 2016, Trump's transition team confirmed reports that Ross, 79, had been tapped for secretary of commerce. He was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 27. Ross took on a dizzying array of responsibilities at the Commerce Department, including running the Census Bureau, the National Weather Service, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

His main task was directing trade policy, and on this front he has echoed Trump's rhetoric, calling for the U.S. to free itself from the "bondage" of unfavorable trade agreements. In a CNBC joint op-ed with Trump's economic policy advisor, Peter Navarro, in July, Ross criticized previous governments on their trade negotiations. "When our politicians and diplomats negotiate trade deals, we lose because they don't know a good deal from a bad one," they wrote. The op-ed went on to criticize the Clinton administration and its handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

While both are billionaire investors, Ross represented a sharp break from his predecessor, Penny Pritzker, who pushed for the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other free trade deals.

Wilbur Ross in Business

Known as the "king of bankruptcy" or, less flattering still, a "vulture investor," Ross has specialized in buying up distressed assets and turning them around. He left Rothschild in 2000, when the tech crash provided ample buying opportunities, and founded WL Ross & Co. LLC with $440 million in investor funds. He has focused on the Midwest and industrial sectors such as steel, coal, textiles, and automotive components. WL Ross & Co. was acquired by Amvescap PLC—now Invesco Ltd.—in 2006. 

Although he was once a registered Democrat and supported Jeb Bush at the beginning of the Republican primaries, Ross expressed support for Trump early on, saying in March 2016 he would vote for the party's nominee. He told CNBC, "You're going to see a different Donald if and when he becomes the nominee."

Ross is an avid art collector. He owns 25 works by René Magritte, and his total collection is estimated to be worth $150 million. 

Paradise Papers and Controversy

In November 2017, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung dumped over 13 million leaked files, dubbed the Paradise Papers, which disclosed the financial interests of world politicians, leaders, and celebrities. Documents showed alleged ties between Ross and Russia.

According to the leaks, Ross had financial ties to shipping firm Navigator Holdings, which earns millions a year shipping oil and gas for Russian firm Sibur. Moscow-based Sibur is home to two investors sanctioned by the U.S—Gennady Timchenko, and Leonid Mikhelson. Timchenko has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 because authorities believed he was linked to a Russian inner circle. Furthermore, President Vladimir Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalo, holds a 3.9% stake in the company. 

In August 2018, Forbes reported that Ross's business partners and workers accused Ross of illicitly siphoning or stealing a total of $120 million.