The Mobile Mexican Magnate: How Carlos Slim Helu Got His Start

He has been called the Warren Buffett of Latin America, but on the most recent Forbes list of the world’s richest people, the Mexican born Carlos Slim Helu bumped the great American investor down to third spot. With an estimated net worth of $53 billion, Helu is now the second richest person in the world, and just $3 billion behind Bill Gates. He is known for never cracking a smile, but Helu’s current monopoly over the telecommunications industry in Mexico must surely make him one happy businessman. With his hands now in all of the retail, banking and insurance, technology, and auto parts manufacturing industries, Helu shows no signs of slowing down.

Helu has come a long way from where he started off. Born on January 28, 1940 in Mexico City, Helu was the fifth of six children to Lebanese immigrant parents Julian Slim (née Yusef Salim) Haddad and Linda Helu. In 1902, in an attempt to avoid the military draft, Julian fled the Ottoman Empire and wound up in Mexico. Eight years later, the Mexican Revolution unleashed itself throughout the country, during which time nearly one in every 15 Mexicans would be killed. But, not Julian.

Helu’s father opened a general store in 1911 in Mexico City’s central district. While others were warning him to leave the violence, Julian insisted on staying. He purchased prime real estate at rock bottom prices in the Zocalo district as others quickly and eagerly sold all they could. It was a gamble that paid off in the end, and a lesson his young son would always carry with him.

Helu’s business acumen began to develop at an early age. When he was just 11 years old, he invested in government savings bonds and kept a detailed ledger to track all of his purchases. By the time he was 15, he had become a part shareowner of the largest bank in Mexico.

Helu grew up to study engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico., graduating in 1961. However, he realized that his true calling was business and so a few years later, he set up a stock brokerage. Working 14-hour days, Helu slowly moved into the insurance industry. He was becoming a modest success, but it was not until the 1980s that Helu would make a real name for himself.

In 1982, Mexico found itself in the middle of a massive debt crisis. All the banks were struggling and everyone was trying to get out of the stock market as quickly as they could. Everyone, that is, except Helu, who decided there was no better time to pounce. He had learned the lesson of hunting for bargains from his father, and he was not about to let this opportunity pass him by. Helu quickly snapped up the cigarette distributor Cigatam, as well as a coffee and gift shop at rock bottom prices. However, it was his next acquisition that would become his greatest to date, and the one that would help Helu go down in the history books.

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