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Wilbur Ross Sees Future in a SPAC and ‘Trump Condos on the Moon’

Updated on
  • Ex-commerce secretary is back enjoying life in Palm Beach
  • Ross calls Trump impeachment trial a ‘political side show’
Wilbur and Hilary Geary Ross at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach in 2017.
Wilbur and Hilary Geary Ross at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach in 2017. Photographer: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux

Wilbur Ross will miss the rides on Air Force One and the dinners in the White House, but he’s still living a pretty good life these days.

Since mid-January, the former commerce secretary has been back in Palm Beach, Florida, rubbing elbows with Steve Schwarzman, Woody Johnson, Thomas Peterffy, Pepe Fanjul and Donald Trump himself, whom he saw recently at Mar-a-Lago.

“He’s still getting a standing ovation when he walks into the dining room,” Ross said.

As for Ross, when he isn’t socializing over gravlax or steak, he’s plotting his next business moves. On this particular afternoon, he’s sitting in the living room of his 80-year-old home filled with Magrittes and Picassos, sipping a cappuccino, dressed in cashmere sweater, slacks and velvet slippers embroidered with octopuses.

Earthly Delights

Ironically, it’s while ensconced in this paradise of earthly delights that Ross is gearing up to invest in space, among other possibilities. He sees opportunity in extraterrestrial tourism, manufacturing, research and habitation.

Habitation? When asked whether space would be a gold-plated real estate opportunity for Trump, Ross didn’t disagree.

“Why not Trump condos on the moon?” he quipped back.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. His initial “re-entry into the private sector” is a special purpose acquisition company for which a $300 million IPO is planned. Created this month, the SPAC will be located in Palm Beach, though Ross hasn’t taken office space yet. Board members include Larry Kudlow, Ted Snyder and Lord William Astor. He’s hired two people he worked with in his former business, and a pair from government who worked on semiconductors and space.

Before entering the Trump administration, Ross, 83, spent decades as a banker known for acquiring and restructuring failed companies, earning him the moniker “King of Bankruptcy.” He founded a private equity firm, W.L. Ross & Co., which he sold to Invesco Ltd. in 2006, and later sold just about everything else before becoming the 39th secretary of commerce.

‘Always Trumpers’

While Ross will be starting over, the former president doesn’t exactly have to. Trump kept his real estate empire while in office and it remains intact.

“My guess is he will continue to develop properties,” Ross said.

Ross is one of only four cabinet secretaries who stuck with Trump from the start to the end of his administration, even as other loyalists such as Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao quit in disgust after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Ross, for one, sees no great damage done to the Trump brand by the riots or the second impeachment.

“Just as there are many people who are Never Trumpers, there are also many people who are Always Trumpers,” Ross said. “While certainly one has to be very revolted by the riots, the very fact that some people are still so wedded to Trump is a powerful thing. His supporters are really supportive. But also, he’s been through hard times before. He’s a very experienced operator.”

Still, firms such as real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield Plc and PGA of America, are distancing themselves from the Trump empire and Deutsche Bank AG, Trump’s longtime financier, has said it won’t do business any more with the former President.

The debt Trump has coming due shouldn’t pose much of a problem, either, Ross said.

‘Side Show’

“If you’re in the real estate business, you always have debts,” he said. “He has first-class properties, and I don’t think he’ll have great trouble rolling them over. There are plenty of banks, plenty of lenders.”

Ross described the impeachment trial that started Tuesday as a distraction from more pressing issues facing the new administration.

“I wouldn’t call it a trial -- this is a political side show and we know the end result is he will not be convicted,” Ross said, adding that he wasn’t sure if he’d watch it.

Reflecting on his own service, Ross said, “the feeling you’re a little part of history and you’re making a contribution to the well-being of the country is a very nice feeling.”

While he thinks some of Trump’s moves at deregulation will be dismantled, Ross approves of his successor as commerce head, Gina Raimondo.

The Coconuts

“I’ve had good conversations with her,” he said. “It’s unclear whether she’ll be the power in foreign trade or whether it will be the U.S. trade rep or the State Department or Biden himself. But I think she’s very good.”

Ross has been a full-time resident of Palm Beach since 2003 and soon after was tapped as member of the Coconuts, making him part of a century-old tradition of well-connected men throwing a formal party on New Year’s Eve (skipped in 2020 due to Covid, but with plans to resume next year, Ross said). His wife, Hilary Geary Ross, whose society chronicles include the book “Palm Beach People,” has deeper roots in town.

But there’s no need to fawn over the past when there’s so much going on in present Palm Beach.

“Huge amounts of wealthy people” are moving there from New York and California, Ross said. “And it’s not just people being here six months and a day to make the tax thing work. It’s younger families, it’s truly year-round people.”

The effect can already be seen at the tables where Ross dines. “It’s now become an excellent restaurant community,” he said, mentioning some of the New York establishments that have opened outposts here.

Big Upswing

Schwarzman invited him to a party at La Goulue where about 50 guests had to take two Covid tests before attending, and keep their masks on when not eating, Ross said.

“Bilboquet just opened up,” he said of another restaurant that also has a location on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Ah, New York. Ross’s home there is at the River House on East 52nd Street (he also has a home in Southampton, and one in Washington he bought after Trump was elected, which he plans to hold onto).

He’s said he’s not happy with the way New York has handled Covid, or education, crime, taxes, roads or government efficiency, for that matter. The way he sees it, Palm Beach has been the beneficiary.

“Palm Beach was going to be on a big upswing anyway and it’s just compounded by the problems in New York City and California,” he said.

(Updates with turnover in Trump administration in 12th paragraph.)