Rocco Commisso darts around his office, gnawing a stick of nicotine gum and playing show-and-tell. “Look at the rates,” he says, holding up a plaque celebrating a $2.4 billion financing round from 2001, his cable firm’s largest ever. Up next are some personal keepsakes: a picture with fellow billionaire Charles Dolan, a golden telescope to take in views of the Catskill Mountains, a signed photo of Pelé, the Brazilian footballer. Every few minutes Commisso calls out to his assistant as if this tour is taking place against his will. “Jen, this guy wants to see all of my personal stuff!” he yells. Then he scans the room for another prize to trot out.
Forgive him the braggadocio. Commisso, 68, has risen farther than nearly anyone in America. The son of a penniless carpenter, he immigrated from Italy at age 12 unable to speak a word of English. A quirky talent for playing the accordion got him into Catholic school, the first step on a prosperous path that included stops at Columbia University and the Royal Bank of Canada before he founded his cable company, Mediacom, in 1995.
Mediacom focused on buying cable assets in rural areas, where prices were low and competition scant. The firm has increased its top line every year since its founding; revenue neared $1.9 billion in 2017. Commisso owns the company outright, and its value constitutes virtually his entire fortune. Thanks to a white-hot mergers-and-acquisitions market, the business is worth an estimated $4.3 billion—and Commisso, who makes his debut on Forbes ‘ Billionaires list this year, seems ready to cash out.
He founded Mediacom at a time of industry upheaval, when new federal regulations, which both restricted prices and increased competition, were scaring small cable operators into selling. As others jumped ship, he leveraged about $3 million—most of his small fortune—to start buying the cheapest cable lines available, concentrating on secondary markets in states like Iowa and Georgia. Even his offices are far off the beaten path: Mediacom HQ is in Chester, New York, a verdant speck of 12,000 people, 25 minutes from West Point.
Commisso is as much a financier as he is a cable guy—he has an M.B.A. from Columbia and spent nine years as CFO of Cablevision Industries. Mediacom’s rapid growth was enabled by arbitraging differing perceptions of cable assets in the debt and equity markets. Banks, reassured by the sector’s predictable cash flows, were willing to lend at reasonable rates even as investors, spooked by regulation, were willing to sell cheaply. In his first five years in business, Commisso made more than 20 acquisitions. Mediacom at one point accumulated $3 billion in debt, over eight times operating cash flow.
Commisso admits he borrowed to the precipice of insolvency, but he stayed afloat by keeping an eagle eye on costs and by meticulously managing his debt. “You know, we watch the store,” he says.
But now the core business is changing. The broadband generation is increasingly cutting the cord and relying on online services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to entertain themselves. Over the past ten years, the number of subscribers to Mediacom’s television offerings has plummeted 38% to 821,000. This is a faster rate of decline than the 3% the industry as a whole has suffered.
Mediacom’s woes in television are fueled, in part, by its success in broadband. Commisso has aggressively invested in tech upgrades; customers in places like Cecil, Georgia, enjoy Internet speeds on par with those in Seattle and San Francisco. Mediacom’s broadband subscriber base has increased 84% over the last decade, far outpacing the industry average of 54%—and many customers are using their lightning-fast connections to watch TV and movies online.
Hence the temptation for Commisso to cash out soon. In his mind, there is little left to prove. “In the history of Italian immigration, in the business world, I don’t think there’s another one like me in the last 100 years,” he says.
ROCCO COMMISSO GREW UP in Calabria, Italy, as the country reeled from its defeat in World War II. “We were losers,” he says. “Just like the Americans coming back from Vietnam, we came back as losers.” Commisso’s father, Giuseppe, served in North Africa during the war and was captured in 1942 by the British. He spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Kenya. When he returned home, work was scarce.
In 1956, Giuseppe sailed to the United States to start anew. “What a great country, America,” Rocco says. “Prisoners of war got preferential treatment to come here.” Rocco, meanwhile, stayed back in Italy with his mother and two sisters. In 1962, when he was 12, they joined his older brother and father in Baden, Pennsylvania, 10 miles from Joe Namath’s hometown. The family moved to the Bronx the following year.
From the outset, New York City brought good luck. Just after Commisso arrived, he spotted an ad for a talent competition. He entered as a solo accordion act and won, which led to a gig playing intermission music at the Wakefield Theatre on East 233rd Street in the Bronx. More important, it drew the attention of the Wakefield’s manager, who wrote a letter to a local Catholic school, Mount Saint Michael Academy, and got Commisso admitted without an entrance exam, which he had arrived too late to take. “I ended up being the only kid that ever got in without taking the test,” he says.
Commisso is now one of the largest benefactors of Mount Saint Michael. But back then he could barely afford to pay his own way. As a teenager he worked long hours at his brother’s diner to come up with the $300 annual tuition.
When college application time rolled around, Commisso again relied on a favor. His gym teacher called the soccer coach at Columbia University and told him about a promising student with good grades. Within a month, Commisso, who hadn’t even played soccer in high school, was accepted to the prestigious college with a full scholarship.
A natural athlete, Commisso had shown a knack for the sport in Italy under starkly different conditions: on cement, with a ball made of rags. That training somehow translated to the Ivy League turf. By his senior year he was co-captain of the varsity squad and was invited to try out for the 1972 Olympic team. The trials went terribly. Commisso arrived out of shape, with the lung strength of a smoker; the other players ran laps around him. Still, his legacy remains strong at Columbia, which named its soccer stadium for him in 2013, in recognition of the millions of dollars he has donated to the university.
After graduating in 1971, Commisso found work at a Pfizer plant in Brooklyn, a job he kept even after beginning an M.B.A. program at Columbia in 1974. Each day he rose at 7 a.m., attended class, then headed to the plant. At midnight, when his shift ended, he spent two hours on the subway getting home to the Bronx.
Commisso graduated with one of Columbia’s top honors, the Business School Service Award, and a plan to go into investment banking. But no offers came in. “There was discrimination,” he says. “I’ll never forget the guy from Kuhn Loeb telling me, ‘Rocco, you know what your problem is? You’re neither Jewish nor Irish. The Italians haven’t arrived on Wall Street.'”
So Commisso took a commercial banking job at Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase). He later moved on to the Royal Bank of Canada, where he led lending to media and communications businesses. “I got attracted in banking to these types of guys and ladies,” he says. “We used to call them ‘the cowboys.’ The cable cowboys. Because they dressed differently than everybody, they talked differently than everybody—and they were entrepreneurs.”
In 1986 Commisso left banking to join one such cowboy—Alan Gerry, the founder of Cablevision—in Liberty, New York, a 50-minute drive from Mediacom’s headquarters. Commisso spent almost a decade as Gerry’s finance chief. “He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known,” says Gerry, now 89 years old.
After the new regulations hit the industry in 1992, Gerry opted out, selling Cablevision to Time Warner for more than $3 billion in 1996. Commisso hated that decision. “This is a phenomenal time to buy as opposed to sell,” he recalls thinking. “And to prove it, I’m going to start my own company.”
COMMISSO’S OPTIMISM WAS NOT shared by his peers. That disparity only widened in 1996 when an additional batch of regulations brought new competition from telecom firms, like SBC Communications and Ameritech, that had previously been barred from the cable television space. “The fear was that the phone companies would enter the cable business and, with their stronger balance sheets and brand names, crush the cable companies,” says Craig Moffett, co-founder of the equity research firm MoffettNathanson.
That anxiety made it possible for Commisso to buy cable assets on the cheap, and he went all in. He bought his first network of cable lines, in rural Ridgecrest, California, for $18.8 million in 1996, using a loan from his old friends at Chase Manhattan.
The risk was extreme, and to outsiders Commisso might have seemed a loose cannon. He can be brash and domineering, his Calabrian accent amplifying heated bursts of profanity. But the banks trusted his background in finance.
After Ridgecrest, Commisso went on an acquisition spree, borrowing millions—then hundreds of millions—to buy up cable systems in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. He closed nine purchases in his first three years. “[I] was viewed as just a crazy buyer who’d buy anything that was for sale,” he says.
Commisso then invested heavily in infrastructure. To date he has spent $2.5 billion upgrading his networks, which has deterred other operators from entering his territory. Historically, Mediacom has instead fought for subscribers against satellite-television firms such as DirecTV. Phone companies, despite the early panic, never posed much of a menace.
By the end of the 1990s, gloomy forecasts for the sector had softened. Commisso seized on that and, with perfect timing, took Mediacom public on Nasdaq at a $2.5 billion valuation in February 2000, just weeks before the dot-com collapse. In all, he raised $380 million to pay down debt, and his Class B shares allowed him to retain majority voting control. “Nobody could kick me out,” he says.
The following July, Mediacom made its largest acquisition ever. After AT&T became strapped for cash, it put some of its cable assets on the market. Commisso snatched up properties in Georgia, Iowa and Missouri for $2.2 billion.
By late 2002, company debt had exploded to $3 billion. The banks wouldn’t lend another dime, and Commisso was forced to end his buying binge. “What saved us was not doing the next deal,” he says. “It was a great decision to buy when we did. It was an even better decision to stop when we did.”
Through shrewd balance-sheet management and frequent refinancing, Mediacom never missed a loan payment, allowing it to stay afloat until 2009, when it finally began producing enough cash to start paying down the principal debt.
Still, stockholders were not impressed. Mediacom’s share price fell nearly 80% in the decade following its IPO. By 2010, Commisso decided he’d had enough of the public markets. He moved to buy the company outright.
After tense negotiations and a shareholder lawsuit, he acquired the business in March 2011 for roughly $600 million, a 64% premium. Borrowing against the company’s assets, he became its sole owner.
Again, his timing could not have been better.
SINCE COMMISSO TOOK Mediacom private, the company’s value has skyrocketed sevenfold. The question now is when Commisso will lock in his gains and walk away.
The company is an attractive acquisition prospect for larger firms like Altice, which has scooped up several operators in the last several years, driving up valuations across the industry. Mediacom is the dominant broadband provider in much of its territory, and its new gigabit-speed service is on par with the fastest in the country. “For a large portion of their footprint, they’ve got a clear product advantage over their competitors,” says James Ratcliffe, managing director at Evercore ISI.
Commisso is coy about plans to sell but admits he’s taken multiple meetings with investment bankers in the past year. A man who made his fortune on the basis of good timing, he seems to concede that his work is largely finished. “Unless I’m here on earth just to become the biggest, the biggest, the biggest buffoon, I’m very happy with what we have accomplished,” he says. “I’m not Warren Buffett. I’m very content.” – Written by ,
Kanye West’s Second Coming: Inside The Billion-Dollar Yeezy Empire
You know when Kanye West is coming. His matte-black Lamborghini SUV rumbles up his gated driveway on the outskirts of Los Angeles like an earthquake, and when he steps out, in a white T-shirt and dark sweats, the obsessiveness kicks in immediately.
First, there’s the house: The lushly landscaped exterior of the property he shares with his wife, Kim Kardashian West, and their four children (North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm) serves as stark contrast to the unadorned alabaster walls within. Nearly every surface is a monastic shade of white. The floors are made of a special Belgian plaster; if scuffed, the delicate material can be repaired only by a crew flown in from Europe. “The house was all him,” Kardashian West later tells me. “I’ve never seen anyone that pays such attention to detail.”
As I step into the foyer, a handler asks me to wrap my black-and-gray Air Jordan high-tops in little cloth booties. To my left is West’s library, its shelves stacked with the likes of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics. He fiddles with the positioning of a few books that seem off-kilter. Settling into an armchair opposite me, he surveys his interviewer closely. “The first shoe I remember sketching was the Jordan One that you’re wearing right now,” says West, 42. “God does have a way of lining things up.”
West’s precision turned him into one of the world’s most popular musicians. “He went and executed it to another level,” says DJ Khaled, who has spent time with West in the studio and joins him on this year’s Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-paid entertainers. But as with Michael Jordan in the 1990s, the key to West’s wealth stems from sneakers. His Yeezy shoe line, which he launched with Nike in 2009 and then brought to Adidas in 2013, has the 34-year-old Jordan empire in its sights, in terms of both cultural clout and commercial prowess. The Jordan line does approximately $3 billion in annual sales; West’s upstart is expected to top $1.5 billion in 2019 and growing.
As with the floor and the booties and the book positions, West fixates over sneaker details; he idolizes Steve Jobs, preferring a limited, carefully chosen number of products with an endless array of colorways. The iPod in West’s world: the ubiquitous, chunky-bottomed Yeezy Boost 350s, which come in dozens of varieties of the same shoe and account for the bulk of Yeezy’s sales. “I am a product guy at my core,” West says. “To make products that make people feel an immense amount of joy and solve issues and problems in their life, that’s the problem-solving that I love to do.”
The obsessiveness is unrelenting. When Forbes shot West for a possible cover, he insisted on wearing a black hoodie. Urged to return the next day to try again, West obliged—wearing the same hoodie. He’s been known to edit albums days after they’ve already been released. And when he didn’t feel I was properly absorbing the religious influence on his business (coming from the guy who calls himself Yeezus and is working on an album tentatively titled Yandhi), he called my editor impromptu on a Saturday evening to hammer the point some more.
Whatever, it’s working. Mostly because of the shoes, Forbes pegs his pretax income at $150 million over the past 12 months; his team insists the number is even higher, partly due to his Yeezy apparel. In any case, it’s by far the best stretch of his career, good for No. 3 on our Celebrity 100 list.
Rewind to three years ago, when West claimed to be $53 million in debt, just before canceling the back of a lucrative arena tour and checking into a Los Angeles hospital for over a week with symptoms of sleep deprivation and temporary psychosis. West credits his turnaround to religious beliefs (“being in service to Christ, the radical obedience”)—and, on occasion, to being bipolar. Call him creative, call him chaotic—just don’t call him crazy. Like some entrepreneurs with conditions like ADHD and Asperger’s, he sees his diagnosis not as a hindrance but as a “superpower” that unlocks his imagination.
“ ‘Crazy’ is a word that’s not gonna be used loosely in the future,” West says. “Understand that this is actually a condition that people can end up in, be born into, driven into and go in and out. And there’s a lot of people that have been called that ‘C’ word that have ended up on this cover.”
West’s design obsession dates back as far as his passion for music. Born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, he often got in trouble as a middle schooler for sketching sneakers in class. When West’s mother, a college professor, took him to see the Japanese cyberpunk flick Akira, he found inspiration in the film’s shapes and color palettes; he also remembers his father, a former Black Panther, taking him to auto shows, where he became obsessed with the Lamborghini Countach. “There’s a little bit of Lamborghini in everything I do,” West says. “Yeezy is the Lamborghini of shoes.”
Meticulousness served West in his music career, which took off when he caught on as a producer for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records after dropping out of college. He masterminded the sonic skeleton of Jay-Z’s seminal 2001 album, The Blueprint. When West launched as a solo artist two and a half years later, he designed something genre-bending, his early work peppered with Marvin Gaye and Daft Punk samples; West recorded with Coldplay and toured with U2. In contrast to the snarling materialism put forth by the dominant rappers of the day, West presented a more vulnerable sort of protagonist, with three albums featuring higher-education themes. Gone were tales of drug dealing and street skirmishes; in their place were reflections on dental surgery, racial injustice and working at the Gap, punctuated by a witty swagger.
His fame gave him a chance to return to his first love: sneakers. In 2007, he created a shoe for the Japanese apparel company A Bathing Ape, complete with a teddy bear logo that appeared on some of his early covers. (Find one of those shoes today and you’ll net several thousand dollars.) It was a start, and he cultivated a cadre of fashion-industry friends like Hedi Slimane, who has served as creative director at Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent. “You’re going to do something really strong in shoes,” West remembers the designer telling him. That sort of encouragement gave West the confidence to whip out a notepad when he found himself on a plane with Nike CEO Mark Parker shortly thereafter. Says West: “When he saw me sketch, he said, ‘This guy’s interesting, let’s do a shoe with him.’ ”
Yeezy was born (a shortening of the “Kanyeezy” nickname Jay-Z gave him in the intro to a 2003 song). West says Parker put him in the room with Air Jordan designer Tinker Hatfield, and by mid-2008, West was rocking prototypes of his own Air Yeezy high-top onstage, with the genuine article arriving in 2009. Hip-hop has connected with footwear almost since the genre was born, from Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas shell toes in the mid-1980s to Jay-Z and 50 Cent’s Reeboks two decades later. West was the first to do it at Nike on the level of an NBA superstar.
Says analyst John Kernan of investment bank Cowen, “What he’s done in footwear has been truly transcendent.”
At the same time that West’s business interests were shifting, he began changing too. His mother died in a 2007 cosmetic procedure gone wrong; the following year, he split with his fiancée Alexis Phifer. On his album, 808s and Heartbreak, he ditched rap for heavily autotuned singing.
Then came the bizarre. He hopped onstage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s 2009 acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the MTV VMA ceremony, insisting that Beyoncé should have won the award instead; the episode generated such an intense backlash that he cancelled his planned arena tour with Lady Gaga and moved to Italy to intern for Fendi. When he returned from his European sojourn, his previous praise for the Creator was superseded by an insistence on his own holiness, particularly his 2013 album Yeezus, where he declared flatly, “I am a god.”
West kicked off 2016 by unleashing flurries of Tweets, asserting that he was $53 million in debt before asking Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion to help fund his creative ideas. Then he embarked on his most ambitious tour yet—one that featured him holding forth atop a platform that looked like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, hovering about a dozen feet above the crowd. West’s rants grew more and more unusual as the tour continued. In one performance, he suggested Jay-Z might be trying to have him assassinated. The year ended with West hospitalized after the tour cancelation. His first appearance after? A pilgrimage to Trump Tower, where he posed with the president-elect (and turned off a lot of his core audience).
His career, however, has proved antic-proof. And he has channeled his intensity profitably, particularly when it comes to sneakers. As sales blossomed at Nike, particularly after the Air Yeezy II release in 2012, West felt that the company was treating him like just another celebrity dabbler. “It was the first shoe to have the same level of impact as an Air Jordan, and I wanted to do more,” West says. “And at that time Nike refused to give celebrities royalties on their shoes.” (Nike declined to comment for this story; two other sources familiar with the arrangement also say he wasn’t being paid royalties.)
West, however, had always insisted on maintaining ownership of his brand. And when Adidas executives caught wind of West’s dissatisfaction, they invited him to Germany. With the help of Scooter Braun, who started a stint comanaging West around the same time, they created what appears to be an unprecedented deal: a 15% royalty on wholesale, according to sources familiar with the deal, plus a marketing fee. For comparison, Michael Jordan is thought to get royalties closer to 5%, though he doesn’t own his brand.
In 2015, West debuted his first “Yeezy Season,” a showcase for his clothing and sneakers. The next year he leveraged his new album to create a launch party for both sneakers and song, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. His biggest breakthrough: the 350. Marrying his eye for design with Adidas’ Boost technology, which purports to efficiently return energy to runners, West turned trainers into high fashion and made low-top sneakers cool again. The 350’s aggressive stance, leaning forward as if to challenge any foe to a footrace, suddenly had scores of people willing to cough up $200 for a pair of running shoes. Adidas has never released Yeezy’s numbers, but in 2016 West let it slip that his sneakers were selling out surprise 40,000-pair drops in minutes.
His wife—West and Kardashian married in Florence in 2014—gets an assist here, opening up West to her family’s hundreds of millions of social media followers (they routinely sport his Yeezy shoes and apparel).
The partnership works both ways. Kardashian West seeks out her husband’s opinion on all of her projects, from the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood mobile game to her recent shapewear line. When she brought him mockups for the latter, West wasn’t impressed. He sat down and drafted a new logo before personally redesigning the packaging. In any case, West’s advice isn’t limited to the creative side. “He’s just taught me as a person to never compromise and to really take ownership,” says Kardashian West, who ranks No. 26 on The Celebrity 100. “Before, I was really the opposite. I would throw my name on anything.”
Given their hectic schedules, Kardashian West and West often trade ideas at what he calls “bedtime true-crime story meetings,” where she watches police procedurals while he shows her mockups.
“I’m just blessed through the grace of God to go from tweeting at Mark Zuckerberg” to ask for money, West says, to where he is today. He can laugh at himself a little now. “People wondered, ‘Why did you tweet at Mark Zuckerberg?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, I heard he was looking for aliens.’ ”
Speaking of aliens, if you really want to see how West’s creative process works, then a visit to the Star Wars planet of Tatooine is necessary. Inspired by Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, West has been working with a team to design prefabricated structures that sport the same austere aesthetic, with the goal of deploying them as low-income housing units. Just after midnight he ushers me into his Lamborghini for an impromptu visit, barreling back down the road with Bach blasting on the sound system. After about 15 minutes, we arrive at a bungalow in the woods.
A team of four is still clattering away on Apple laptops inside, ahead of a meeting the following morning in San Francisco with potential investors. Around them, the walls are plastered with written notes and sketches. West peers over the shoulders of his charges, instructing them to change a font here or brighten a picture there.
“He pushes people to do their best and pushes people even outside of their comfort zone, which really helps people grow,” Kardashian West says, citing West’s relationship with Louis Vuitton designer and Off-White label founder Virgil Abloh.
After a half hour or so, West appears satisfied with the state of the presentation and motions me toward a back door. We stroll out into the chilly, starless night, and I follow him up a dirt path deeper into the woods for several minutes until he stops at a clearing and looks up, wordless. There, with the hazy heft of something enormous and far away, stand a trio of structures that look like the skeletons of wooden spaceships. They’re the physical prototypes of his concept, each oblong and dozens of feet tall, and West leads me inside each one.
He tells me they could be used as living spaces for the homeless, perhaps sunk into the ground with light filtering in through the top. We stand there in silence for several minutes considering the structures before walking back down to his lurking Lamborghini and zooming off into the night.
For a company that makes Lamborghini-inspired sneakers, Yeezy’s headquarters are remarkably nondescript: a blocky blue-and-gray building just off the main drag in Calabasas. It’s not far from where he’s been hosting his recent Sunday Services—gatherings where popular songs are repurposed with Christian themes by gospel choirs and famous guests from Katy Perry to Dave Chappelle.
When I meet up with West after his return from San Francisco, he doesn’t even mention the investor meeting—already fixated on something else enormous out back. In the parking lot behind his office, laid out in concentric circles, is the sum total of West’s creative output at Adidas: a trove of sneaker prototypes baking in the midday sun, variants of his 350s in a rainbow ranging from blood orange to creamy pistachio alongside a few yet-to-be-released gems like the almost triangular Yeezy basketball shoe (which, he adds almost proudly, has yet to be approved by the NBA—echoing the days when the league fined Michael Jordan for wearing his eponymous sneakers because they violated uniform rules).
West scoops up a 1050 Vortex Boot, which debuted in prototype form at Madison Square Garden in 2016. “I just looked at this line right here,” he says, motioning to a thin strip of blue masking tape on the sole. “I’m going to make this part of the boot. The inside of this will be blue. And I just go with the flow.”
There are about 1,000 pairs laid across the lot, it seems, but when I ask West for the exact tally, he seems almost offended at the notion of reducing his creations to numerals. “You can’t calculate love,” he explains. “If you get a surprise cake from your grandmother, and you didn’t know she was in town, do you start asking her about the batter and specifically the frosting?”
“These things are made to bring incalculable joy,” he continues. “So to ask me to somehow translate this to numbers is to ask your grandmother exactly what the recipe of the cake was.”
West claims to not be a “numbers guy,” but he has reached an inflection point where someone in the Yeezy orbit needs to be. His brand built its following through its limited releases and surprise drops, much like Air Jordan. The latter, according to NPD retail analyst Matt Powell, has lost a bit of its cachet in recent years as Nike moved to fill declining volume in other areas of business with its iconic sub-brand. “What makes celebrity products sell so well is scarcity,” he says. “So if they make it too broadly available, I think it crashes the business model.”
Adidas seems to be aware of this. “We are continuing to manage volumes in a very disciplined manner so that for 2019 Yeezy sales will not make up a significant share of Adidas’ overall expected sales growth,” says the company’s chief executive, Kasper Rørsted. “Not because brand heat is decreasing, but because we have a disciplined approach to managing volumes and product lifecycles.”
In other words, he’s not willing to chase sales at the expense of prestige, instead continuing to build buzz with surprise drops. The May release of the glow-in-the-dark 350 v2 sold out immediately, even though it rolled out at 6 a.m. in some countries. In June, customers lined up around blocks in Moscow to get a reflective version of a sneaker that had already debuted in the U.S. There are even more far-out concepts in the works, including a shoe made out of algae that will biodegrade completely over time in landfills—or almost immediately if sprayed with a certain type of bacteria.
Perhaps most impressively, West still owns 100% of Yeezy. This is the reason he became a centimillionaire many times over much earlier in his life than Jordan. Given Yeezy’s success, West should eventually join the NBA legend—alongside sister-in-law Kylie Jenner and mentor Jay-Z—in achieving billionaire status, though the never-modest West would claim he’s there already. And then some. “We’ve yet to see all of the beauty that would be manifested through this partnership,” West says. “We’ve only experienced a small glimmer of light.”
Additional reporting by Monica Mercuri and Natalie Robehmed.
-Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes Staff
Luxury Goods Titan Bernard Arnault Becomes World’s Third $100 Billion Man
One of the world’s ultimate taste-makers, Bernard Arnault entered an ultra-rarefied club this week. As of Thursday June 20, he was worth just over $100 billion, making him one of three people in the world with 12-figure fortunes.
He joins Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, worth an estimated $157.5 billion, and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, worth an estimated $103.1 billion. Bezos, who first passed $100 billion in 2017, will soon give a slice of that fortune away.
He and his wife, MacKenzie, are in the process of finalizing their divorce. The couple announced in early April that she will receive a quarter of his Amazon stake, currently valued at more than $37 billion. Gates reached $100 billion in April, thanks to strong earnings from Microsoft.
Arnault’s luxury goods group, LVMH Moët Hennessy–Louis Vuitton, has been having a great year. In April, it announced record first quarter sales and profits on top of a strong 2018. Its shares are up more than 40% so far in 2019, boosting Arnault’s fortune by more than $20 billion.With his family, he owns 46% of LVMH and serves as both its chairman and CEO.
The growth comes as high-end buyers around the world continue to pick up luxury goods and spirits, despite fears that demand, particularly in China, would slow down. Thirty-five years after Arnault first got into luxury goods with the purchase of Christian Dior, he continues to refresh LVMH by finding ways to appeal to a new generation of customers while retaining the traditional values and high quality that have defined its brands.
That includes innovative partnerships like the two with Rihanna — Fenty Beauty and Fenty fashion house — as well as recent deals such as the acquisition of Belmond, which operates luxury hotels, trains and even safaris.
“People do not understand that success stems from the cohabitation of two contradictory spirits: the artist’s vision and the logic of worldwide marketing,” Arnault told Forbes in 1997. “It’s a very complex process.”
Forbes first wrote about Arnault in 1991 when he was worth $200 million. He has since been featured several times and has appeared on our cover. He made his debut in our Billionaires ranks in 1997. Some readers may know his story well but it’s one worth retelling.
A native of France’s cold, flat industrial north, Arnault was a star student at France’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. The son of a construction tycoon, Arnault spent three years in the U.S. in the early 1980s trying to establish a branch of his family’s real estate business, Ferinel, as a developer of Florida vacation properties.
After three years he returned home. But he learned a valued lesson in America, according to a 1997 Forbes profile on Arnault. Before leaving, he sold his Mediterranean-style home facing Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, N.Y. to American tycoon John Kluge, owner of the mansion next door. Kluge tore it down because it blocked his view.
“It was just incredible!” Arnault told Forbes. “It was a very nice place, but two days after he bought it, he tore my house down! It’s so very…American.” Lesson learned: “When something has to be done,” says Arnault, “do it! In France we are full of good ideas, but we rarely put them into practice.”
He returned back to France ready to make some moves. In 1984, Arnault put up $15 million of his family’s money to rescue bankrupt textile empire Boussac (Lazard put up the rest). Among Boussac’s mixed bag assets was money-losing fashion house Christian Dior.
That became the first of many Arnault acquisitions and the cornerstone of his massive luxury goods empire. Over the years, LVMH snapped up such brands such as Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Sephora. Today LVMH has nearly $53 billion in sales from 70 brands and 4,590 retail stores.
-Luisa Kroll; Forbes Staff
Hip-Hop’s Next Billionaires: Richest Rappers 2019
Back in 2007, Jay-Z made a bold statement in song about both his lyrical prowess and his future financial fortunes: “I’m already the G.O.A.T.–next stop is the billie.”
Sure enough, Forbes declared him hip-hop’s first billionaire earlier this month. The news caught the attention of observers around the world—not only due to the breadth of Jay-Z’s financial achievement, but because of what it means for others looking to follow in his footsteps.
“Jay-Z’s entire life is the real blueprint,” says hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, longtime host of the show Yo! MTV Raps. “He’s one of the best examples in our lifetime of one who’s truly achieved the American dream and billionaire status.”
Naturally, Jay-Z tops this year’s ranking of hip-hop’s richest stars. Who will be the next billionaire from the rap world? The answer is almost certainly one of the names below.
The 32-year-old Canadian is the youngest on this list by a decade, but he’s quickly gaining ground on hip-hop’s elder statesmen. Drake’s fortune grew 50% over the past year, boosted by holdings ranging from real estate to his Virginia Black whiskey, as well as a lucrative tour and new residency at the XS Nightclub in Las Vegas.
“Every year, we just want to get more prepared and better at touring and better at things that make money,” he told Forbes in 2013 (his average gross has since surged from $500,000 to more than $2 million per stop). “That’s pretty much my objective every year, other than making good music.”
4. Kanye West
A onetime protégé of Jay-Z, the superproducer has been making headlines recently for his Sunday Service, an invitation-only get-together mostly in Southern California that is reportedly frequented by the likes of Courtney Love and Tyler, the Creator. He took the show on the road in April for a Coachella service on Easter Sunday featuring appearances by Chance the Rapper, DMX and a gospel choir—while hawking socks and “holy spirit” sweatshirts. But selling church clothes alone won’t be enough to push West into ten-figure territory.
Despite declaring himself $53 million in debt and beseeching Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion to fund future creations in 2016, West makes his debut on this list thanks to a another patron: Adidas, which lured West and his Yeezy shoe line from Nike several years ago. Our accounting of West’s wealth is almost entirely predicated on a conservative estimate of that brand’s value. As it continues to scale up, he could one day join his sister-in-law, Kylie Jenner, as a billionaire.
“I started my business career at age 12, delivering newspapers,” Diddy explained two years ago in our centennial issue, where we named him one of the world’s greatest living business minds. “Since then, I’ve always understood that if I give the customers my best and service them differently, whether music, clothing or vodka, I’ll get a return on my hard work.”
The artist formerly known as Puff Daddy dips to No. 3 on this list as industry trends weigh on some of his holdings, including cable network Revolt and clothing line Sean John (though Diddy has sold much of his stake in the latter, he retains a sizeable piece). But Ciroc, the main driver of his fortune, is growing again after case volumes fell from all-time highs in recent years—making the impresario perhaps the most likely candidate to join Jay-Z in the billion-dollar club.
2. Dr. Dre
It’s been five years since Dr. Dre proclaimed himself a billionaire, but Forbes still doesn’t agree with the assessment made in the wake of Apple’s $3 billion 2014 purchase of his Beats By Dr. Dre headphone line. The superproducer owned an estimated 20%-25% of the company at the time; of the $2.6 billion Apple paid upfront in cash, another $295 million was earmarked to cover debt payments, leaving Dre with a little over $500 million.
Even with the vesting of his final slug of Apple stock last summer, Dre hasn’t quite made it into billionaire territory. He has spent heavily over the years on property (he paid $40 million for Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen’s Los Angeles estate) and charitable donations (along with Beats cofounder Jimmy Iovine, he gave $70 million to start a school at USC). And with his formal involvement at Apple seemingly wrapping up, Dre will likely need to get back on the festival circuit—or start a new company—if he’s to make good on his 2014 declaration.
Though he’s hip-hop’s first billionaire, Jay-Z’s lead on the rest of the pack is even larger if his entire family fortune is taken into consideration: He and wife Beyoncé are now worth a combined $1.4 billion. So much for the notion that music is a dying business.
“To convince artists that you can’t be an artist and make money … was the greatest trick in music that people ever pulled off,” Jay-Z told Forbes in 2010. “I think the people that were making the millions said that.”
In order to compile our ranking of the richest rappers, we use the same procedures employed in the calculation of our annual billionaires list: poring over financial documents, valuing major assets, and consulting with analysts, managers, attorneys and other industry insiders.
Cover photographs: Getty Images (Dr. Dre: AP Images)
-Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes Staff
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