Gina Rinehart: The Richest Person You've Never Heard Of

ANALYSIS

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With a net worth quickly approaching $30 billion, mining heiress Georgina Gina Rinehart is now the richest woman in the world. But even though Rinehart's fortune is now more than ten times that of Oprah Winfrey, few outside her native Australia have even heard of her.

Rinehart, the 58-year-old head of her family's Hancock Prospecting iron ore empire, was recently embroiled in scandal after accusations that she was trying to use Australia's biggest newspapers for her own interests. Before Friday, Rinehart owned 18.7 percent of Fairfax Media, the parent company of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age newspapers, and tried to take over editorial control of the papers and demanded three seats on the board, which Australian treasurer Wayne Swan warned would have very big implications for our democracy, according to the UK's Independent.

Although she sold 86 million shares of the company in after-hours trading on Thursday, she is still the company's majority shareholder with a 14.9 percent stake and her battle for editorial sway continues, although with less fervor.

Fairfax Media is a recent investment for Rinehart and she has steadily put more money into it since her initial investment in 2010. The timing has corresponded with a personal financial boom. Hancock Prospecting is more than 60 years old, but a mining boom in Western Australia that started in 2009 has grown her portfolio exponentially.

While she still has a long way to go before toppling the richest men -- Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim's assets are valued at an estimated $69 billion -- Rinehart's net worth is quickly climbing. She earned a staggering $18.87 billion in the past year alone, which means $1 million every half hour for the past 12 months, and her current fortune puts her at eighth place on the list of the world's wealthiest people, according to Forbes*.

Much like Christy Walton, the heiress of the Wal-Mart empire who places second on the Richest Women list (her sister-in-law, Alice Walton, is fourth), Rinehart's fortune stems from her deceased father.

Lang Hancock founded Hancock Prospecting in 1955 in the sparsely populated Pilbara region, home of the world's largest iron ore deposit, and Rinehart, whose last name comes from her late husband Frank Rinehart, became a highly valuable member of the company in the 1970s. She inherited the firm in 1992, after a nasty legal battle with her stepmother.

Whether it is the mundaneness of iron mining, her gender, her nationality, her disdain toward journalists or her private nature that has kept Rinehart out of the international spotlight, her relative obscurity may be coming to an end.

BRW, the Australian magazine (owned by Fairfax) that originally named her the world's richest woman in May, suggested that she could eventually become the first person -- man or woman -- to be worth $100 billion.

The increase in her wealth is unparalleled. It is a product of foreign investment in new projects, increased production and a recovery in the iron-ore price over the past six months, BRW's Rich List editor Andrew Heathcote wrote.

If the demand for natural resources remains strong, additional multi-billion-dollar mines are almost inevitable. There is a real possibility that Rinehart will become not just the richest woman in the world but the richest person in the world.

But with her increased wealth and status has come with somewhat predictable troubles. Three of Rinehart's four children are suing to get her name removed from a multi-billion-dollar family trust established by Lang Hancock, and Heathcote noted that there will come a point in time when the valuation of Gina Rinehart will have to take into account a substantial pruning of her wealth in order to cope with what her children's entitlements are.

She's also stoked some institutional ire with her relentless campaign for tax breaks for mining companies. She's paid huge sums to lobbying groups like Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision to follow through on her father's vision of staging a tax revolt.

Now, the battle at Fairfax Media is largely over this issue, with the editorial leadership and the government both worried that Rinehart will turn Australia's most prestigious papers into the Mining Gazette, which would not only be journalistically troubling, but also drive away readers and tank the papers.

*Compared to Forbes' March 2012 estimates.

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