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Ira Rennert is no stranger to controversy

Above: Ira Rennert’s $200 million ocean view.

Ira Leon Rennert is a man who gets what he wants – from a sprawling Long Island mansion complete with a 200-car garage to a smooth escape from environmental fines through a bankruptcy filing.

As founder and owner of The Renco Group (the first three letters of his name plus “company”), the 76-year-old with a leonine mane of white hair is listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s 144th richest person, reportedly worth $5.3 billion.

Pulling himself up from Polish immigrant roots in Brooklyn, he won his wealth by buying distressed or bankrupt companies shunned by others, then making them pay fat dividends to his holding company through long-term ownership.

His good fortune is currently on display on Long Island in Sagaponack where – amid the rich and famous in the fabled Hamptons –  his $170 million oceanfront estate is considered to be largest residential compound in the U.S.

Last week, Rennert followed his trademark formula by buying the Sparrows Point, Warren and Wheeling steel mills from Severstal for just $125 million in cash. (Renco says it will also pay a $100 million note, repay $317 million of third-party debt and assume $650 million in employee-related and environmental liabilities.)

The purchase of Sparrows Point was greeted with high praise by the United Steelworkers union (USW), which hopes that Rennert will invest in the mills and return them to full production.

During a torturous sales process, the union favored Rennert over other potential buyers, including Optima Fund, Aurora Capital and the Argentina-based steelmaker Ternium, whose attempt to buy only the Sparrows Point mill met with high-level USW opposition.

Ira Rennert’s name was not mentioned in last week’s press release announcing the sale of Sparrows Point to RG Steel, a Renco subsidiary. Nor has Renco revealed its plans for the steel mills except to say that Sparrows Point will become the future headquarters for RG Steel.

Ira and Inge Rennert attend the Literacy Partners' 25th Anniversary  gala  at Lincoln Center in 2009.  (Wire Image)

Ira and Inge Rennert attend the Literacy Partners’ 25th Anniversary gala at Lincoln Center in 2009. (Wire Image)

“We See Value and Growth”

Since forming Renco Group in 1975, Rennert has collected a motley group of industrial companies engaged in mining, mineral extraction, automotive assembly, metal fabrication and warehousing.

These include AM General, Baron Drawn Steel, Doe Run Co., Doe Run Peru, U.S. Magnesium, Unarco, and Inteva with combined annual revenues of $5 billion.

As a private company, Renco provides no financials. On its website, Renco describes itself as a family-owned holding company that makes long-term investments in companies “where we see value and growth.”

The website continues: “We provide a permanent home for our family of companies; building value over time by retaining earnings and reinvesting in each business… We operate a decentralized business model with each company’s management team operating independently and with broad autonomy. We enable our operating subsidiaries to experience strong financial returns by retaining highly skilled and experienced management teams with attractive incentives and through capital support.”

Renco Group is headquartered at Rockefeller Center in New York.

Profits and Bankruptcies

One of Rennert’s greatest successes is AM General, maker of the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, for the U.S. Army. He picked up the company for $133 million in 1992 (only $10 million in cash) and hit the jackpot in 2004 when he sold a 70 percent stake to Ron Perelman’s financial group for close to $1 billion.

Renco reports that AM General has built 270,000 Humvees at its U.S. facilities in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio and employs some 2,400 workers.

Other Renco-controlled companies did not fare as well.

Three of them – Lodestar, a Kentucky coal company; U.S. Magnesium, a Utah producer of magnesium and sodium chloride; and the Warren steel mill Renco repurchased last week – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the early 2000s.

The Warren mill, then known as WCI Steel, sank under a load of $300 million in junk bonds issued by Renco Group that came due when the industry was in a steep cyclical decline.

Renco’s management of WCI Steel led to various disputes in bankruptcy court, including accusations by AIG Global Investment Corp. and Carlyle High Yield Partners – who bought WCI bonds – that Renco improperly transferred funds out of the steel company.

Renco denied those claims, but lost control of the company to Harbinger Capital in 2006. Harbinger sold the steel mill to Severstal in 2008.

Battling Environmental Regulators

Besides beating back disgruntled investors, Rennert has fought environmental regulators. In one celebrated battle, Renco avoid a $900 million fine by throwing its magnesium subsidiary in Utah into bankruptcy.

The company was accused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of illegally dumping chromium and other toxic wastes into the Great Salt Lake.

While Rennert avoided the fine and reorganized the company as U.S. Magnesium, he is still locked in disputes with EPA and the Department of Justice over pollution at the site 50 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Last August, a federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision that U.S. Magnesium was not illegally dumping toxic wastes. In January, EPA won a court order to designate the magnesium facility a hazardous waste Superfund site.

Smoke and fumes from the Doe Run lead smelter descend on children in the town of La Oroya, Peru, in 2009. (New York Times)

Smoke and fumes from the Doe Run lead smelter descend on children in the town of La Oroya, Peru, in 2009. (New York Times)

High Lead Levels in the Andes

In Peru, Renco’s Doe Run Co. has been repeatedly accused of polluting the Andes city of La Oroya with its lead smelter and zinc refinery. According to a statement by Renco, “Doe Run Peru is in compliance with its obligations to complete various environmental projects. In fact, Doe Run Peru has exceeded its contractual obligations and has made significant additional investments to improve conditions in the La Oroya community.”

According to a 2009 story in the New York Times, 97 percent of the children six years and under in La Oroya , a town of 35,000 people, “had lead levels that would be considered toxic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.”

“High lead level” warning near Renco Group’s Doe Run smelter in Herculaneum, Mo.

The untreated waters of the Mantaro River are reportedly so contaminated with copper, iron, manganese and zinc from the mine operations that the Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit group that studies toxic sites, has called La Oroya one of the world’s 10 most polluted places.

Renco says the pollution stems not from its present operation, which has been substantially upgraded at a cost of $300 million, but from past contamination of the soil when the Peruvian government operated the smelters.

Renco’s U.S. lead operations have also been involved in major environmental controversies. The company was required to buy and level 160 residential properties and remediate soil contaminated by its smelter at Herculaneum, Mo. The remediation has been completed, and the subsidiary now reportedly meets national ambient air quality standards.

Renco Group says its companies have altogether spent more than $700 million on environmental improvement projects since 1990. “For us,” says the Renco website, a “sense of responsibility [to the environment] and the projects for which our companies devote capital goes far beyond complying with the mere letter of the law. It means constantly striving to achieve higher standards of environmental performance and developing innovative new technologies.

Versailles on the Atlantic

Despite his stated aversion to publicity, the billionaire sparked an uproar in posh Southampton, Long Island, when he filed plans to build a complex of buildings protected by hedgerows and formal English gardens.

The homeowners association sued to stop the town from issuing building permits, arguing that Rennert wanted to use the facility as a religious school or a community center in violation of local zoning laws.

Once again, Rennert prevailed.

The gargantuan Italianate compound, completed in 2004, is billed as the largest private residence in America. Among other attributes, the main house features 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms and a 91-foot-long dining hall. Adjoining buildings contain a 164-seat theater, two indoor tennis courts, bowling alley and squash court. The estate has its own power plant.

Nicknamed “Versailles on the Atlantic” by local wags, it inspired James Brady’s roman-à-clef, The House that Ate the Hamptons.

Main entrance to Rennert's Long Island estate. (Wall Street Journal)

Main entrance to Rennert’s Long Island estate. (Wall Street Journal)

After years of maintaining a stony silence, Rennert recently relaxed his ban on the media, inviting selective reporters to attend a few functions at his estate.

A Wall Street Journal reporter who attended a dinner party last summer described chez Rennert as “a bit like going to Disney World for the rich and kosher.”

Guests were free to take photos of themselves under the tiled ceiling, in front of the fountain and by the “bima” in the sanctuary in the estate’s temple. The reporter was told that 300 mezuzot, or parchments with verses from the Torah, were on display. Outside the main house, a small cluster of Humvees stood at the ready.

Supporting Jewish Causes

A short man whose fluffy waved hair would make him the toast of Hampden at Baltimore’s Hon Festival, Rennert is an observant Orthodox Jew. He and his wife are known to give generously to Jewish causes.

He counts as friends Elie Wiesel, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ira and Inge Rennert with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ira and Inge Rennert with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Here are some more facts on Rennert:

• Besides his Southampton estate, he owns a lavish pied-à-terre on Park Avenue in New York and commutes to another palatial house in Jerusalem on his Gulfstream V jet.

• He does not like to be photographed. There is no image of him on the Renco Group website.

• He reportedly lost about $100 million in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

• The Jerusalem Post reported he was among the U.S. donors who gave $25 million to Jewish settlers in the Arab part of Yerushalayim, where President Barack Obama has urged Israel to stop such construction.

• Rennert’s wife, Inge, is president of the American Friends of the Open University of Israel, founder of the Women’s Institute for Torah and a trustee at New York University Law School.

• The Rennerts have two daughers, Yonina (Nina) Davidson and Tamara Winn, and one son, Ari.

• Rennert recently bought Nina a 14-room apartment on Park Ave. that previously belonged to designer Vera Wang for a reported $33.6 million and Tamara a duplex on Park Avenue worth $32 million.

• Ari, 31, is vice president of Renco and is expected to play a role in RG Steel.

For more newspaper coverage of Rennert’s career, see:

Ira Rennert’s House of Debt (BusinessWeek, 2/17/03)
Rennert Builds $170 Million Hamptons Mansion as Companies Fail (Bloomberg, 7/23/04)
Poisoned City Fights to Save Its Children (U.K. Guardian, 8/12/07)
Ira Rennert (New York Times, 6/12/09)

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