He didn't become one of the world's richest men, and by far its biggest steel baron, by shying away from controversy. Even so, the Indian-born businessman Lakshmi Mittal says he was taken aback by the fury that greeted his announcement in late January that he was bidding to buy European steelmaker Arcelor, formed in 2002 out of what was left of the French, Luxembourgian, Belgian and Spanish steel industries. "We really didn't expect such a violent reaction," Mittal told Time. "A lot of people were obviously not happy at all."
No kidding. Some European governments still see a locally owned steel industry as a sign of economic strength, but even so, the reaction to a company thought of as Indian buying up metalworking assets was extraordinary. It went far beyond any limits of supposed industrial logic and, at times, involved attacks of a distinctly ugly nature. In Luxembourg, where Arcelor is based, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker called for "a reaction that is at least as hostile" as the bid, and parliament considered a new merger law that would block the deal. In Paris, Finance Minister Thierry Breton lambasted Mittal's decision to make an unsolicited bid, accusing him of having "a grammar problem," while President Jacques Chirac searched for ways to stop the takeover. One former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, wrote an angry screed entitled "Europe Should Say No," that advocated the introduction of a blanket ban on acquisitions by non-Europeans. At Arcelor itself, chief executive Guy Dollé slammed Mittal Steel as "a company of Indians" that was offering "monkey money" for his firm, which he described as "perfume" compared to the "eau de cologne" of his rival.
Perhaps predictably, the takeover battle was long-drawn- out. Mittal had to up his offer to shareholders twice, raising the value of the deal by more than 40% to an eye-popping $33.4 billion, and he changed the ownership structure of the firm to reduce his family's dominant stake. But in late July, almost six months after his initial foray, Mittal had his prize. He admits that the personal attacks were wounding. Yet ultimately they came to naught: through sheer obstinacy and financial savvy, Mittal, 56, overcame every sort of political, personal and financial objection to forge a global steel titan, a 120-million-ton-per-year company whose vast size and range, in theory, should enable it to ride out the ups and downs of a notoriously cyclical industry.
The din from that battle has died down, but its significance continues to resound. For, by taking on the European political and business élite and winning Mittal demonstrated in a stunningly audacious way just how much the world has changed. Here was an upstart intruder from a country long classed as part of the developing world, scooping up a European gem that Dollé at one point (though perhaps unwisely, given later history) described as the Airbus of steel. And Mittal, assuredly, is but the first of many. Indians, Brazilians, Chinese, Russians and other entrepreneurs from emerging economies are now jostling for assets all over the world as they seek to become global players. As 2006 was drawing to a close, two other steel titans, one from India, the other from Brazil, were locked in a multibillion-dollar battle for an Anglo-Dutch firm, Corus, while Evraz, a Russian company controlled by billionaire Roman Abramovich, agreed to buy the U.S. firm Oregon Steel Mills for $2.3 billion to create the world's biggest producer of rails.