Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Billionaires: the biggest stories of 2019

The world's wealthiest people this year dealt with divorce, retirement, presidential runs and ventures into space

Amazon.com‘s Jeff Bezos and his former wife MacKenzie Bezos announced their separation in January.  AFP
Amazon.com‘s Jeff Bezos and his former wife MacKenzie Bezos announced their separation in January.  AFP

From an embarrassing window smash to the purchase of one of the world's most famous jewellery brand, here is a round-up of the biggest stories involving some of the world's wealthiest people in 2019.

Jeff Bezos gets divorced

MacKenzie and Jeff Bezos announced they would divorce after 25 years of marriage in a joint Twitter statement in January. This was followed a National Enquirer story that revealed he had been having an affair with a former news anchor.

In April, Amazon, the world's biggest online retailer, said in a filing that 4 per cent of its outstanding stock or 19.7 million shares would be registered in Ms Bezos' name after court approval of the divorce.

Ms Bezos, a 49-year-old novelist, said in an April tweet that she gave Mr Bezos, 55, all of her interests in The Washington Post newspaper and space-exploration company Blue Origin. In a statement posted on Twitter, Ms Bezos said she was grateful to have dissolved her marriage with her former spouse "with support from each other".

The divorce was formalised in July, giving Ms Bezos the 4 per cent holding valued at $38.3 billion (Dh140.7bn). Mr Bezos retained a 12 per cent stake worth $114.8bn and remains the world’s wealthiest person.

In the meantime, Ms Bezos said she signed The Giving Pledge, a campaign formed by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett that encourages the ultra-wealthy to donate at least half of their fortunes to charitable causes. “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she said in a letter.

Mr Bezos has not signed The Giving Pledge, but has contributed to philanthropic causes. Last year, he committed $2bn to a charitable fund that will focus on opening nursery schools in low-income neighbourhoods and donated money to charities that help homeless families. So far, he has given $100 million to that fund.

Mr Bezos has also said that he considered his self-funded company Blue Origin and his purchase of The Washington Post as “contributing to society and civilisation".

The couple married in 1993 and have four children. Mr Bezos founded Amazon in their Seattle garage in 1994.

Things did not go to plan for Tesla chief executive Elon Musk when he unveiled the Cybertruck. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY
Things did not go to plan for Tesla chief executive Elon Musk when he unveiled the Cybertruck. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Elon Musk goes into new frontiers

In March, a SpaceX rocket with an unmanned crew capsule successfully blasted off for the International Space Station, in a historic milestone for Elon Musk's space company.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, carrying a test dummy nicknamed Ripley.

"I'm a little emotionally exhausted because that was super stressful, but it worked," he told reporters after the launch.

In contrast, Mr Musk had a less-than successful launch of the Tesla Cybertruck in November. At the event in Los Angeles, Mr Musk told the audience the distinctive-looking pick-up “won't scratch and dent” before Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen took a metallic ball and tossed it at the vehicle — smashing the front driver-side window.

“Maybe that was a little too hard,” Mr Musk said, when the window broke.

Jack Ma joined Twitter on Monday and has tweeted about his foundation pledging urgent medical supplies to the US, Africa and Asia. Photo: AFP
Jack Ma joined Twitter on Monday and has tweeted about his foundation pledging urgent medical supplies to the US, Africa and Asia. Photo: AFP

Jack Ma retires

Jack Ma formally stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba in September. Twenty years after co-founding the Chinese e-commerce giant, he handed over the reins to chief executive Daniel Zhang.

Mr Ma marked the occasion, which coincided with his 55th birthday, with a four-hour celebration with thousands of guest and employees.

"After tonight I will start a new life. I do believe the world is good, there are so many opportunities, and I love excitement so much, which is why I will retire early," Mr Ma said at the event.

The former English teacher had amassed a $41.8bn fortune — a trove surpassed only by India’s Mukesh Ambani in Asia, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His record-breaking rise from a bootstrapped entrepreneur working out of his apartment in Hangzhou city in eastern China in 1999 to jet-setting e-commerce mogul is one for the history books, mirroring China’s own evolution from technological laggard to the world’s No 2 economy.

The total amount of goods sold across Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms rose 25 per cent last year to $853bn. By comparison, Amazon reported total sales of $277bn.

Mr Ma's exit came as Alibaba has grown to become Asia's most valuable listed company, with a market capitalisation of $460bn. It employs over 100,000 people, and has expanded into financial services, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Mr Ma has stayed on as a member of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group with the right to nominate a majority of the company’s board of directors.

Adam Neumann is ousted from his own company

It has been a rollercoaster year for WeWork — not least for its co-founder Adam Neumann, who was ousted as chief executive in September. The company scrapped its plans to go public as concerns mounted over its sky-high valuation and Mr Neumann’s controversial behaviour.

WeWork’s largest shareholder SoftBank rescued the shared office space company with a $9.5bn bailout package in October.

If the company does go public, Mr Neumann could still come away with a nice profit as he holds about 24 million “profit interests” in the start-up, the Financial Times reported this month. Mr Neumann’s profit interests could convert into stock worth between $110m and $350m. That is in addition to SoftBank’s exit package for Mr Neumann, which includes a $500m credit line, a $185m consultancy gig and the right to sell up to $970m worth of shares.

Bernard Arnault buys Tiffany

French conglomerate LVMH agreed to buy Tiffany & Co for more than $16.2bn in November in the largest ever luxury-goods deal. The owner of the Louis Vuitton brand agreed to pay $135 a share for the US jeweller.

LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault is challenging Cartier-owner Richemont for dominance in the global jewellery business. While LVMH’s stable of 75 brands includes Christian Dior fashion and Dom Perignon Champagne, the company has not been as prominent in jewellery as in fashion or cosmetics. Acquiring Tiffany would more than double LVMH’s jewellery scale and boost its market share to more than 18 per cent, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Deborah Aitken.

The deal cements a successful streak for Mr Arnault’s company, which is worth about €200bn (Dh820.8bn) after its stock price quadrupled during the past eight years. To fuel growth, Europe’s richest person has embraced acquisitions, spending more than $12bn on 19 deals since the start of 2016, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

A day after the Tiffany acquisition was announced, Mr Arnault’s net worth jumped 2.8 per cent, or $2.85bn, to $107.8bn, according to Forbes. He was previously in third place of the world’s richest, behind Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The Tiffany deal boosted LVMH shares and led him to overtake Mr Gates.

Once Mr Arnault acquires Tiffany in the all-cash deal in mid-2020, his net worth is expected to pass Mr Bezos, the Daily Mail reported.

Democratic US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Reuters
Democratic US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Reuters

Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg enter US Presidential race

This year, two billionaires put their hats in the ring for the 2020 US Presidential race as Democratic candidates.

Tom Steyer reversed course in July after deciding earlier this year he would forgo a run. Mr Steyer, 62, had been one of the most outspoken and deep-pocketed liberals advocating for President Donald Trump's impeachment. Despite becoming a national voice on the impeachment issue, Mr Steyer made no mention of it in his campaign announcement. Instead, he said his campaign will focus on reducing the influence of corporations in politics.

"The other Democratic candidates for President have many great ideas that will absolutely move our country forward, but we won't be able to get any of those done until we end the hostile corporate takeover of our democracy," Mr Steyer said.

He confirmed he would spend at least $100m on his campaign, a figure that was first reported by The New York Times.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg entered the race in November, also reversing an earlier statement in March that he would not run for president.

"I'm running for president to defeat Donald Trump and rebuild America," Mr Bloomberg, 77, said while launching his campaign.

"We cannot afford four more years of President Trump's reckless and unethical actions."

Ranked by Forbes as the eighth-richest American, Mr Bloomberg has an estimated worth of $53.4bn.

Mr Bloomberg announced in November a $100m online advertisement campaign against Mr Trump in four battleground states.

Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who are competing for the support of liberal voters in the Democratic presidential primary, have decried the influence of billionaires in the 2020 race.

"We do not believe that billionaires have the right to buy elections," Mr Sanders said in a Twitter post shortly after Mr Bloomberg announced his candidacy.

Updated: December 29, 2019 10:40 AM

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