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Manuel (Matty) Moroun

Jeffrey Sauger

Manuel (Matty) Moroun is arguably the most powerful U.S. businessman most Americans and Canadians have never heard of. Ideally, he would like to keep it that way. But in the twilight of his career, the 79-year-old billionaire has decided to lift the veil on his high-stakes battle to maintain control over the most important transportation link between Canada and its largest trading partner.

The sole owner of the Ambassador Bridge at the Detroit-Windsor border since 1979, Mr. Moroun has spent a half-billion dollars building a land portfolio in the region to make possible his dream to add a new link to the corridor. The busiest commercial crossing in North America has become a choke point ever since extra security checks were introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Moroun has accumulated property in Detroit and Windsor, positioning himself to build a new span next to the 77-year-old Ambassador Bridge. But the quest to strengthen his stranglehold on commercial truck traffic is being threatened, and he is in danger of being elbowed aside by a competing proposal backed by governments on both sides of the border. At risk is not only his virtual monopoly, but the viability of his existing business running the old bridge as well.

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In recent years, he has drawn more media attention and it's clearly irritated him. Much of the focus has centred on the bridge being a potential terrorist target - an invaluable link that if attacked, would devastate merchandise trade between Canada and the United States, slamming the economies of Ontario and Michigan.

The coverage has been less than flattering, culminating with a headline published by Forbes in 2004, in which the magazine described him as "the troll under the bridge" after he refused to be interviewed for any stories by national media in Canada and the United States. Through it all, he has maintained his privacy trumps public curiosity, making him Michigan's version of a Howard Hughes-type recluse.

But Mr. Moroun is letting his guard down, at least a little, because he is in the business battle of his life. On a sunny day with traffic backed up on the bridge, two of Mr. Moroun's aides escort me to a squat brick building with tinted windows in suburban Detroit. There are no signs outside to alert passersby of the transportation empire inside, and that's just the way the billionaire bridge owner likes it.

Mr. Moroun has a spacious but spartan office in the former middle school, a 15-minute drive from his beloved toll bridge - or at least that's the driving time when nearby roads aren't congested. My rush-hour trip, with the aides cautioning that Mr. Moroun distrusts the media, takes nearly 30 minutes.

Where there would normally be a basketball court and other school amenities, there's an employee parking lot at the back of Mr. Moroun's Warren, Mich.-based CenTra Inc. The setup is ideal for him, protecting his privacy from a stream of traffic in front of the building.

During the next two hours, the secretive Michigan businessman steps out from the shadows, lashing out at his opponents and serving notice that he intends to effectively twin the 2.3-kilometre Ambassador Bridge, aiming to start construction as early as mid-2008.

It becomes clear that Mr. Moroun is tired of the negative image being painted of him. He intends to win this fight and get construction under way, before easing into retirement in his eighties and handing over the business to his son Matthew, now 33.

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For Matty Moroun, the troll analogy has come to symbolize how he is misunderstood as a greedy bully looking to profit with every toll he collects. "It hurts. I bruise, but I don't cry too loudly about it," he says at the head of a long table in a boardroom at CenTra's head office.

Positions on the battlefield

Mr. Moroun prefers to focus on the fight ahead. His major competition comes from a bridge proposal being developed by a group called the Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC, backed by governments in Canada and the United States. Another rival plan, featuring a tunnel under the Detroit River, is giving him headaches too, but it's DRIC that worries him the most.

He argues that he deserves to keep control over the Detroit-Windsor artery because he has the most expertise unsnarling trucking jam-ups and helping guard against terrorism. His suspension bridge across the Detroit River is a crucial lifeline for continental commerce. Nearly 9,000 commercial trucks and 15,500 other vehicles cross the span every day, often wasting fuel and time due to frequent bottlenecks. Goods worth $150-billion, or one-quarter of the annual merchandise trade between Canada and the United States, flow across the bridge.

CenTra employs a total of 4,000 workers, including 500 at its head office in Warren. Besides the bridge, Mr. Moroun's business empire includes trucking firms, duty-free and currency exchange shops, financial institutions and an array of properties that make him the second-largest owner of Michigan real estate, after the state government.

He doesn't mince words about DRIC's proposal to build a competing span. "It's a frontal attack, no question about it. It's lunacy - just unbelievable. It clogs my thinking. You can't build another bridge that's so close to ours. It's stupid."

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Mr. Moroun insists that his proposal makes the most sense because it carries the lowest cost and he already has a head start with land purchases. If the DRIC bridge forges ahead, both sides will lose, he warns. The Ambassador Bridge would lose business to the new structure and neither could eke out any profit, he argues. "DRIC is almost asking for a bullet in the head. They're slowing things down and confusing people."

Spearheading DRIC on the Canadian side is Sean O'Dell, a veteran Transport Canada civil servant based in Ottawa who was born and raised in Windsor. Mr. O'Dell envisages a public-private partnership to construct a competing span within three kilometres of the Ambassador Bridge.

Mark Butler, a senior policy adviser at Transport Canada, asserts that a new gateway that distances itself from the Ambassador Bridge is essential to Canadian and U.S. economies.

DRIC has "rejected the twinning of the Ambassador Bridge," Mr. Butler says, citing concerns that Mr. Moroun's twinned structure would hurt neighbourhoods and also be vulnerable to a terrorist attack that could wipe out both bridges at once.

"What we do know is that any new crossing must be safe and secure and be managed and maintained for the long-term benefit of both countries," Mr. Butler argues.

Mr. Moroun also plays down efforts by another group, the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership, to use an existing 2.6-kilometre rail tunnel as part of an ambitious venture that would also accommodate trucks. "This rail group has a dead horse in their barn and they don't know what do with it," Mr. Moroun says.

The rail group still likes its chances but because of its complexities, it is seen as a long shot by governments and Mr. Moroun. Still, a majority of municipalities in the Windsor-Essex region prefer the tunnel option, says Michael Hurst, a former Windsor mayor who has attracted support from business and labour leaders for the proposal. He argues that the tunnel won't be an eyesore.

The Ambassador Bridge's critics, including Michigan State Representative Steve Tobocman and Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse, assert that it's plain wrong to let a private businessman have a virtual monopoly over such an important economic artery.

Gregg Ward, who operates a ferry that transports trucks with hazardous waste across the Detroit River, questions whether a private citizen should control such an important bridge of commerce. Mr. Ward welcomes recent Canadian legislation - the International Bridges and Tunnels Act passed in January - that could make it harder for Mr. Moroun to forge ahead.

"Borders should be controlled by government. We need that for economic security," Mr. Ward says.

Mr. Moroun, however, believes that it is his calling to build a new bridge. Since 1992, he estimates that he has spent $500-million (U.S.) to assemble property in Detroit and Windsor, gearing up for the day when he can move forward. the new bridge gets built.

"We've got the land. We have all the preliminary designs."

Humble beginnings

The road to becoming a transport mogul took decades to traverse.

Mr. Moroun (pronounced maroon) was born in 1927 in Detroit. Two weeks after the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929, a U.S. financier named Joseph Bower opened the privately owned Ambassador Bridge. But under the pressures of the Depression, Mr. Bower was forced to restructure and issue stock to shareholders in 1939.

Fast-forward to 1949, when Mr. Moroun graduated with a science degree from the University of Notre Dame. He still wears his Notre Dame ring, and regrets he never gained admittance into the Indiana institution's medical school.

Instead, he returned to help his father run the family's Detroit service station. At a nearby bus depot, he cleaned out buses, back in the days when not only did floors need sweeping, but ashtrays had to be emptied.

His father, Tufick Moroun, bought a fledgling trucking business and gradually expanded the fleet, with his son's help. In the 1970s, they began snapping up whatever small stakes came up for sale in the Ambassador Bridge.

In 1979, at the age of 52, Matty Moroun saw a chance to cash in on what he believed would be increased trade between Canada and the United States. He gained full control after acquiring Warren Buffett's 25-per-cent interest in the bridge and smaller stakes from others.

"I knew trucking was growing. It grew from the Second World War to the time that I bought bridge. There were interstate highways being built," he recalls. "I thought there was opportunity."

Mr. Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, paid $20 a share to accumulate a one-quarter stake in the bridge in 1977, but Mr. Moroun was hungrier, snapping up Mr. Buffett's interest in 1979 at $24 a share, or a 20-per-cent premium. That gave Mr. Moroun control over nearly half of the bridge, and he went on to acquire stock from the rest of the shareholders - $30-million in total, a bargain-basement price, in hindsight. In the process, he fended off opposition from the Canadian government over concerns about private foreign investment in such a crucial asset to the economy.

Mr. Moroun said he still keeps in touch with Mr. Buffett, whose right-hand man, Charlie Munger, is widely praised for helping build the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. empire.

Asked whether he thinks Mr. Buffett regrets missing out on the bridge, Mr. Moroun laughs and jokes: "He blames Munger."

All in the family

Leaving a family legacy is vital to the transport tycoon. His son Matthew is CenTra's vice-chairman.He joined his father for part of the interview with The Globe.

But not everyone in the family has bridges in their blood. A dark chapter in the family's history came in the 1990s, when feuding escalated into an all-out war in the courts. Two of Mr. Moroun's sisters, Victoria Baks and Florence McBrien, filed a $53-million lawsuit, claiming their older brother cheated them out of their inheritance after the 1992 death of their father, at age 93.

The eight-year legal battle ended with an out-of-court settlement in 1999, resulting in Mr. Moroun buying his two sisters' CenTra stakes.

Another sister, Agnes, heads CenTra's human resources department. "She just does a terrific job," Mr. Moroun says.

Asked about his relationship with the two sisters that he clashed with in court, he pauses before delivering a careful answer.

"That case with my two sisters? That was a disaster. It was. They're really fine people. When my family and my two sisters' families - their children - grew up and so on, it just wasn't the same. But we took care of them very nicely," Mr. Moroun says, without outlining the settlement details.

"I have mended fences with both my sisters. But do I have their families on side? Not easily. My one sister, Florence, has two lawyers in the family and two doctors. Of course, I couldn't win that battle."

The court fight drained Mr. Moroun emotionally, but he bounced back. He still puts in 10-hour days as chairman and chief executive officer at CenTra, his diversified holding company.

Ed Arditti, a Windsor lawyer who is sympathetic to Mr. Moroun's proposal to build a new bridge, says the billionaire is an easy target for criticism, so it's understandable that he vehemently defends himself against his foes.

"He doesn't want to be Donald Trump and have a TV show. Matty Moroun just wants to blend in. The Ambassador Bridge is his baby."

Increased attention

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the bridge's congestion became alarming. Wait times have improved, but trucks carrying everything from auto parts to food to clothes still sit idle on the span far too often, waiting to be cleared by customs inspectors who verify truckers' paperwork and conduct security checks.

The 9/11 attacks focused attention on the security risk of the Ambassador Bridge, and Mr. Moroun has found that he can no longer quietly carry on his profitable venture.

Industry insiders estimate that the Ambassador Bridge's revenue topped $60-million last year, with user fees charged to truckers and other drivers.

That figure doesn't take into account bridge-related businesses such as his duty-free shops. His transport and financial business empire, with the bridge as a focal point, has annual revenue that easily eclipses $1-billion, according to some estimates.

Mr. Moroun wouldn't comment on CenTra's profit, but dismisses suggestions that he is a villain more concerned about his private gain than the greater public good.

He views himself as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, a man who helps ensure bustling trade between Canada and the United States. "My God, there are no two nations on Earth that are any closer," he says.

The existing bridge is inefficient, Mr. Moroun acknowledges, because it was built at a time when trucks were smaller and there wasn't a North American free-trade agreement to spur traffic.

Originally, the bridge was six lanes wide, but transport trucks became ever larger over the decades, and now the bridge only accommodates four lanes, two in each direction.

Getting to the bridge is an ordeal for truckers. There are 17 stop lights along Windsor's Huron-Church Road, the main street leading to the Ambassador bridge.

Mr. Moroun's new, cable-stayed bridge would be wider - six modern lanes, three in each direction, with shoulders. There would also be improved on and off ramps, instead of the maze of roads around the Ambassador Bridge.

To bring operations into the modern era, Mr. Moroun unveiled plans to raise at least $400-million in a bond issue to finance the construction of his own new bridge, to be located immediately west of the existing span.

Citigroup Global Markets Inc. is the financial adviser to Mr. Moroun's Detroit International Bridge Co., which would float the bonds in the United States and Canada, with a smaller portion set aside for overseas investors. Royal Bank of Canada is among the Canadian financial institutions that have held talks to be part of the bond syndicate, sources say.

Mr. Moroun would like to see the financing get the go-ahead within a year. "I wouldn't do the bond issue unless I felt comfortable that we could handle that credit deal. If we get our environmental approvals, we would move quickly," he says.

He is hedging his bets, however. A confidential document prepared by JPMorgan Chase & Co. shows that one of his other options includes borrowing up to $1-billion through Michigan state. These so-called private activity bonds "can allow private partners access to less expensive funding," JPMorgan states.

Mr. Moroun says maintenance and repair costs for the old bridge are escalating, and a new crossing is important. "It modernizes our facilities. And we'll keep the old bridge."

Covering the bases

When asked his opinion, Matthew Moroun, the son being groomed to inherit the business empire, throws down the gauntlet, challenging DRIC to make an offer for the Ambassador Bridge itself.

"They should come to us and offer to purchase our business," he says. "If they don't want our business, get out of the way and let us do the right thing. Don't try to chop us off with laws or change the rules of the game after the game has already started."

The business of selling the bridge would tricky. The Canadian government would only be able to buy the Canadian half, and the U.S. government isn't interested in buying the American portion, industry observers say.

An Australian powerhouse, Macquarie Infrastructure Group, has taken a preliminary look at the Ambassador Bridge, but so far there have been no serious discussions between Macquarie and Matty Moroun.

If Mr. Moroun were to sell, he could easily fetch $500-million for the aging bridge because of its strategic location, industry insiders say. But if DRIC builds a competing bridge, the Ambassador Bridge's value would plummet.

If he wins his way, the criticisms are sure to persist.

Windsor bakery owner Mary Ann Cuderman encountered Mr. Moroun when he paid a visit to her Olde Towne Bake Shoppe last year, although she didn't realize it was him until he was introduced by an Ambassador Bridge manager.

Ms. Cuderman, whose bakery is two blocks from the bridge, helped start the Windsor West Community Truck Watch Coalition, which is lobbying Transport Canada to thwart Mr. Moroun's plans to build his new privately owned bridge.

"He was trying to tell me that he wasn't a bad person. But to me, his new bridge should be a no go."

Whatever happens, Mr. Moroun will still have his real estate.

He has been sharply criticized for driving down property values as he amasses big land stakes. He has taken heat over accusations he is being a "slumlord" because properties he assembled on the Detroit side have rapidly deteriorated. It's a label he is quick to denounce.

"We amass land. The people who sold to us wanted to sell to us. Not many people want to buy. The home sellers are unhappy when we don't buy. We're paying to 25 per cent to 50 per cent more than what the home is valued at. We pay a premium," he says.

Whether his bridge plans succeed or not, any rival will have to deal with him to get anything done, given his land holdings.

In the Detroit-Windsor area, all roads lead to Mr. Moroun.

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