Pet Projects for the Ultra-Rich: Komodo Dragons, Sport, Museums
(Bloomberg) -- Komodo dragons, cheetahs and birds: It’s just the latest project for Asia’s richest family.
The Ambanis are building of one of the world’s biggest zoos in Gujarat, the family’s home state where its conglomerate, Reliance Industries Ltd., operates the largest oil-refining complex. The animal venture, which will also include a rescue center to support the local government, is scheduled to open in 2023, according to Parimal Nathwani, corporate affairs director at Reliance.
A Reliance representative declined to comment on the cost of the project or give further details.
The Ambanis are worth about $80 billion, with an empire that has expanded to tech and e-commerce. On the side, they also own the Mumbai Indians cricket team and started a soccer league in 2014. As the family fortune grew, the clan has increased its focus on public-facing ventures — Mukesh’s wife, Nita, even joined the board of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.
“They have the economic horsepower to turn fantasy into reality,” said Rebecca Gooch, director of research at Campden Wealth, referring to why billionaires might put their cash into quirky ventures. “Investing in public spaces can help both a family’s and its company’s image, in turn aiding profitability and mitigating potentially negative exposure. It can also affirm a wealth holder’s standing in society and publicly cement a family’s legacy well into the future.”
Here’s a look at some unusual investments the ultra-rich have made over the years.
More zoos, crocodiles and parks
Indonesian tycoon Low Tuck Kwong is another one who’s built a zoo, near the coal mining company that’s made his fortune. He said the venture, in which he invested about $4 million, isn’t driven by profit and is out of “passion for animals.” Georgia’s richest man and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, reportedly spent at least $3 million in a dendrological park that drew criticism as phantasmagorical scenes of giant trees floating on the Black Sea circulated online.
Filipino billionaire William Belo got into crocodiles because of a poultry problem. After starting an egg farm in 1989, he had to figure out what to do with the chickens that were no longer able to lay. The solution: feed them to crocodiles. His farm supplies their skins to luxury brands such as LVMH, while the meat goes into food products including Hungarian sausages and a local delicacy called sisig.
Like the Ambanis, other billionaires put their money in sports teams, too. Roman Abramovich, the biggest owner of Russia’s second-largest steelmaker, bought London’s Chelsea soccer club out of near-bankruptcy in 2003 for about $223 million at the time. Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft Corp. chief executive officer, paid $2 billion for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team in 2014. Four years later, hedge-fund titan David Tepper agreed to acquire the Carolina Panthers football team for $2.3 billion.
Fast wealth creation in China led to a boom in sports investments before the nation’s authorities clamped down on “irrational” overseas spreading. Zhang Jindong, the founder of appliance maker Suning Appliance Group Co., purchased a controlling stake in Italian soccer club Inter Milan for $306 million in 2016, while real estate magnate Gao Jisheng acquired the English Premier League’s Southampton Football Club a year later for $257 million.
Some are more into art. France’s third-richest person, Francois Pinault, will soon open a museum to house his contemporary collection at the Bourse de Commerce, an 18th-century grain exchange he renovated just blocks away from the Louvre in Paris. Russian energy billionaire Leonid Mikhelson is building a $130 million center of contemporary art in Moscow, while Viktor Vekselberg spent $40 million to restore the Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg, transforming it into a museum where he displays more than 1,000 Faberge pieces.
In China, Theresa Tse, the chairwoman of Sino Biopharmaceutical Ltd. and the son of Midea Group Co.’s He Xiangjian each opened a museum last year, while the daughter of Red Star Macalline Group Corp. founder Che Jianxing is starting an art space in Beijing to display experimental Chinese pieces.
More famous for his internet empire, China’s Jack Ma spent $16 million in 2016 to buy the Chateau de Sours, a 198-acre, 16th century estate in France’s Bordeaux region. While few of its releases were sold in China, some Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. employees received bottles of the chateau’s famous rose, according to a Decanter report.
In the U.S., Stanley Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams football team and London’s Arsenal Football Club, established the Jonata wineries more than two decades ago, with vines that include the Syrah, Sangiovese and Bordeaux varieties.
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