Q&A: Hugo Miller, the Toronto reporter on Bloomberg’s billionaires beat
Toronto-based journalist Hugo Miller spent a decade covering food, transportation and telecoms (not all at the same time) for Bloomberg. About two months ago, though, he was given a new subject: the super-rich. Miller is one of about ten reporters assigned to Bloomberg’s billionaires beat, which focuses on uncovering hidden fortunes and maintaining the news service’s running ranking of all the richest people in the world—all of them except for Michael Bloomberg, whom company policy dictates they avoid covering. Miller has already unearthed two previously unknown Canadian billionaires: Sherry Brydson, an obscure Thomson-family heiress who turned out to be Canada’s richest woman, and Frank Hasenfratz, a self-made auto-parts magnate who founded a Guelph-based company called Linamar. We spoke with him about what it’s like to keep tabs on the global elite.
Why billionaires specifically? Are mere multi-millionaires not interesting enough?
I think there are, what is it, seven billion people in the world? You’ve got to target the most influential, and so you start with the billionaires. To give you a sense of how rich the 0.0001 per cent have gotten, the top 300 only gets you down to around, I think it’s $7 or 8 billion. So there are 300 people in the world with a fortune of around $7 billion. So [with multi-millionaires,] you find yourself saying, “Oh well, they’re interesting but they’re only worth $800 million.” It’s a staggering conversation to be having, but that’s what’s happened in the world.
How do you go about deciding what billionaire-related events are newsworthy? Is there a temptation to trade in gossip?
No. In fact, we do the opposite. Sometimes there’s a temptation to think, “Oh, we’ve got some piece of news about a sudden surge in someone’s wealth.” But we have a lot of people on staff who are not even journalists per se, but who have a background in accounting and banking, who can say, “Well, hold on a second. That’s not right because of X or Y.”
Is there any way in which this information is actionable for investors? Are there people who are, like, constantly refreshing the wealth rankings?
First of all, yes. Knowing how people have made a ton of money, I suppose, is useful for those who aspire to be billionaires. But also, the two-part thrust of the project is to expand the rankings and uncover what we call “hidden billionaires,” where there are fortunes that may not be publicly traded assets. In terms of being actionable, I guess maybe, if there’s any evidence of that, it’s the fact that the day our story [on Frank Hasenfratz and Linamar] ran, the stock went up four or five per cent, and there was no other obvious trigger.
How does it feel to know—or at least strongly suspect—that you’ve moved the market?
It’s interesting when you can show readers something that they haven’t seen before, and you see a reaction.
Frank Hasenfratz’s hidden fortune isn’t the only one you’ve uncovered recently. There’s also Sherry Brydson, this Thomson heiress who has sort of quietly become Canada’s richest woman. We see the end result of these stories, but where do you begin your research? Do you find things on the public record and tease them out, or is it mostly people coming to you and giving you insider intel?
I think it’s all of those things. There is, more than ever, an incredible amount of information in terms of public filings that you can find on the internet. But they’re not always easy to decipher. So you have to be patient and do a lot of digging through public documents. But you might also then get information from people more formally.
Of course, there comes a time in a story when you need to ask whoever you’re writing about for some kind of comment. How do you approach a billionaire for a story, and is it different from approaching any other type of person?
You’d be surprised how some billionaires watch their fortunes and will contact or call us up and say, “Look, I think you actually have the numbers wrong.” You would think that the human nature might be just to not answer our calls, but some people are proud. With Frank Hasenfratz, I said we wanted to profile him. And his first answer was, “I don’t really think about my fortune. I’ve got enough money to live on.” But he has reason to be proud, insofar as he emigrated with nothing [from Hungary, in 1957], and built a fortune here in Canada. And he doesn’t shy away from that. I think everyone has a different reaction, but you’re right: some billionaires can not even pick up the phone, others might tell you to take a hike, and then there’s the third category, which might even say, “You know, I think you’re off by a half billion here or there.” So, you never quite know how people are going to react.
On that note, is it at all frustrating not to be able to approach Michael Bloomberg? Do you wish that’s something you could do?
Bloomberg has this policy: because we don’t write about ourselves, we don’t write about the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which is Michael Bloomberg, despite his considerable fortune. When I was last down in the New York office, I saw him hop out of his limo and put his Bloomberg badge on and walk into the office. So he’s just another guy, in a sense, now that he’s no longer mayor. He comes in and out of the office. But it’s just a policy that Bloomberg has, that we don’t include him in our rankings, and so I respect that.
Has there ever been a time when you were made especially conscious of the fact that your salary is basically pocket money for the person sitting across from you?
I haven’t. Maybe I haven’t been doing the job long enough. But you’re right, it’s pocket change. In the case of some of these people, millions of dollars is pocket change to them.
Is it a concern for you that you’re now on the radar for people who maybe own large gas companies in Russia?
Uh, no. That’s probably a better question to pose to my colleague in Moscow. There are about ten reporters around the world. It’s a small team compared to many of the other news teams at Bloomberg. Before I joined this beat, when I was covering transportation for Bloomberg, I had a very interesting trip out to interview Oleg Deripaska, who is definitely one of the big Russian oligarchs. He was perfectly polite, but when you hear the stories about some of what these guys have gone through, you can’t help but find your mind racing as you’re sitting there interviewing them.
Is Toronto on the radar for the super-wealthy? Do you think there’s enough going on here that you could continue covering Canadians for some time?
There’s kind of a mini-London effect going on in Toronto. I mean, a lot of the people fuelling the condo boom here, from all anecdotal evidence, are from the Gulf, the Middle East, China, India—so there’s a huge influx of capital coming in, and a lot of it seems to be going into real estate. It isn’t nearly on the scale of what’s going on in London, which is kind of the example par excellence of that, but I think there’s certainly a ton of money coming in here from very wealthy people. I think Canada is still kind of an old-school country insofar as the wealthiest Canadians remain drawn from family fortunes. You know, the Irvings, the Westons and of course, at the very top, the Thomson family.
If you covered only Canada, would you pretty much be on the Weston/Thomson beat?
One could try, I just don’t think you’d get very far, given that I don’t think they like to necessarily talk about it.