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Own A Mine & Make A Fortune. The Widow Who Became Australia’s Richest Woman

Some 20 years ago, a young Australian widow inherited a debt-ridden mining company from her father. Today, Gina Rinehart, is the richest person in Australia and predicted to become the wealthiest in the world. Thanks to the commodities boom, she has seen her fortune more than double to A$10.3bn in the past year and is now on course to overtake the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim’s $46bn stash.

That calculation – based on what Rinehart would be worth if her interests were publicly listed may well turn out to be just a punt. Even so, the extent of Rinehart ’s wealth has surprised all but her closest peers in the mining industry. In her few public appearances, she resembles a well-heeled rancher’s wife more than a fabulously wealthy businesswoman. Last year, Rinehart turned up at a rally in Perth against prime minister Julia Gillard’s proposed mining tax, clambering on the back of a lorry with a loudspeaker and screaming axe the tax. The only clue she was anything more than a raucous protestor were the huge pearls around her neck.

Rinehart grew up knowing that her future lay underground, says Perth Now. In 1952, her buccaneering father, Lang Hancock, and his business partner and mate Peter Wright, discovered the world’s largest iron ore deposit in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Young Gina spent most of her teenage years being coached on the details of the family’s vast holdings. But Rinehart – who married first a taxi-driver and then a US lawyer and has four children – resents being called an heiress. She insists that, after gaining control of Hancock Holdings in 1992, she masterminded its transformation by turning undeveloped deposits into operating mines.

Rinehart has certainly taken the group’s interests way beyond iron and thermal coal. Witness her tightening grip on two of Australia’s main media outlets. Last November, she splashed out $120m to buy a 10% stake in the youth-oriented broadcaster Ten Network, joining Lachlan Murdoch, eldest son of media mogul Rupert, on the board. She followed that up by doubling her stake in Fairfax, Australia’s second-largest newspaper group. What can explain this new interest? Put it down to her opposition to the government ’s green policies. Having led the rebellion that forced a partial climb-down on the mining tax, Rinehart is now using her iron-ore tinged influence to battle the proposed introduction of a carbon tax.

That ’s not the only battle Rinehart is fighting. Last year, after losing out to Peter Wright ’s descendants in a dispute over ore fields, she exploded with rage in a manner reminiscent of her late father. But she has now buried the hatchet with them to launch a joint action against Rio Tinto, alleging a $136m royalties rip-off. Those who have watched Rinehart ’s legal battles down the decades (including a ferocious 14- year wrangle with her stepmother) say she’s unlikely to back down. It ’s not the money that counts: it is the memory of her father that spurs her to continue the fight. Could she really become the richest person in the world? Well, the three coal and iron ore projects she is developing will eventually catapult her into the lead. If the group were listed and valued at the same 11 times earnings as Rio Tinto, it would be worth $30bn. Throw in annual profits near $10bn, and Gina Rinehart ’s net worth would easily top all rivals. Assuming, of course, the commodities boom doesn’t turn into a ruinous bust.

Rinehart, the “Iron Lady”, runs her empire with an iron fist. Associates speak of her intelligence and drive, but few give her points for charm. She’s renowned for her ruthless streak, her capacity to hold grudges and her sheer obsession with championing the legacy of her father. In 1999, she succeeded in getting a mountain range named after him. Hancock was famed for defending his domain. For the sake of Australian prosperity, he argued, “nothing should be sacred from mining… The question of Aboriginal land rights and things shouldn’t exist.” Rinehart is made of similar stuff. “Dad could have taken his hard-earned money and retired to the good life … away from any destructive media and the jealousy they wrongly inspire,” she said in 2002. “Instead he chose … to explore and develop his beloved Pilbara and attempt to educate his fellow Australians regarding the advantages of free enterprise over central planning and the sound-good, but impractical, socialistic Utopian government policies.” All sentiments that would have gone down well with Britain’s own Iron Lady.

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