Billionaire behind Northern Rock buy-out

Wilbur Ross
Image caption Wilbur Ross has put £260m into the Northern Rock deal

Just over two weeks ago the government announced the £750m sale of Northern Rock to Virgin Money.

Sir Richard Branson - as the founder of the Virgin brand - featured large in all the headlines, many portraying him as coming to the rescue of the nationalised Newcastle-based bank.

However, the details of the deal have started to become clearer and the real deal maker has emerged as a 73-year old Wall Street billionaire who is pumping in more than five times the amount of money that Sir Richard is.

Wilbur Ross is an investor in distressed companies and in America is often referred to as a "vulture investor". Fortune magazine called him the "King of Bankruptcy".

'Dead meat'

However, Mr Ross rejects the implications of such descriptions.

He said: "People use these terms. If we had a bird symbol it certainly wouldn't be the vulture, it would be the phoenix.

"A vulture picks dead meat off a carcass. We are more like the phoenix in that we're trying to help the bird recreate itself out of its own ashes."

Mr Ross has struck more than £132bn of corporate deals around the world over the past 30 years. When the Rock deal goes through he will end up as co-owner of the bank.

He will own 44% of the merged Northern Rock and Virgin Money. He has already invested £100m to give him a 21% stake in the latter.

He will now put £260m into the Rock deal. The Virgin group will put in £50m, as will the Abu Dhabi-based Stanhope Investments.

However, that still leaves a shortfall of about £400m of the near-£750m promised to the government.

Internet customers

To close the gap it is believed that Mr Ross wants to take £250m out of Northern Rock's cash reserves - money it is obliged to hold by the Financial Services Authority to absorb losses by defaulting customers.

About £150m of Virgin Money's reserves would also be given to the government.

The Wall Street investor will not comment on the details of the deal, preferring to outline the potential of the new bank for the first time.

He wants to attract 750,000 of Virgin Money's three million internet customers into the rebranded Rock branches and then get 250,000 of the existing one million Rock customers using Virgin Money over the net.

And if that happens, and other new services are introduced, new jobs will be created.

Mr Ross said: "We've said there won't be redundancies. This will be at least neutral and then, as the bank grows, [we] should be positive to the bank because many of the ideas about new products will necessarily involve adding staff."

The Financial Services Authority now has to say yes to all aspects of the deal. If it does, the Rock takeover will go ahead on 1 January next year.

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