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Soft drink controversy is vintage Bloomberg
Publication Date : 18-03-2013
Last week, a court in New York City threw out Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-obesity order restricting sales of large servings of soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling called it "capricious", and said it had too many loopholes and overstepped the powers of the New York City Council.
Two days later, lawyers for the city hit back with a five-page notice of appeal saying the judge was wrong in rejecting the public health initiative and that he took too narrow a view of the powers that rest with the city health board.
Both the ruling, and its subsequent challenge, are vintage Bloomberg.
Blunt, practical, driven to do good, hugely generous to his employees and egalitarian to a fault - he doesn't believe in private offices and is comfortable riding the city trains - Michael Rubens Bloomberg, who is among the world's richest men, has never been short of words. Neither does he shy away from a fight.
Before he built his financial information empire, Bloomberg, 71, was a successful trader with Salomon Brothers, which in the 1970s was Wall Street's most hallowed securities trading institution.
Promoted to partner, he nevertheless fell out with Salomon chief executive John Gutfreund, who banished him to run back office computer functions, the financial industry equivalent of a fighter pilot being asked to run the supplies store.
Not a man to be cowed, Bloomberg took it in his stride, turning up for work the next day early, as he always did.
Soon, he could see the large gaps in information technology and market information with which Salomon traders operated.
When Salomon was later sold to Phibro, Bloomberg was fired and given a payout.
Only 39 then, he used the money to start a company that would offer up-to-the-minute information on bonds, with the ability to compare each instrument with similar products in real time, and across markets.
Years later, after his company, Bloomberg, was poised to surpass Reuters as the No. 1 provider of financial information to investors, making Bloomberg a multibillionaire, he bumped into Gutfreund at a party.
"How are you?" asked Gutfreund.
"Fine, and younger than you," Bloomberg responded.
"You always were a wise-ass," Gutfreund said.
With a personal worth of some US$27 billion, Bloomberg's priority in recent years has been public service. Much of his wealth is given to philanthropy. Soon, according to a friend, his foundation will surpass the size of the one run by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda.
While he enjoys luxury, he is not a spendthrift. In November 1997, when this writer met Bloomberg for the first time, he was driving a seven-year-old Lexus.
Enjoying the evident look of surprise this elicited, he said: "Why should I change - car's not given me a day's trouble since I bought it."
Since January 2002, he has been mayor of New York City, accepting a token pay of US$1 a year.
If his predecessor Rudy Giuliani made a name for himself by fighting crime in the city, Bloomberg's personal stamp has been to bring practical, if hard-headed, solutions to the ills facing the city that is the world's grandest melting pot.
He can do so partly because he is not beholden to vested interests and has had the money to back his own campaigns. New Yorkers have responded to this no-nonsense man warmly, electing him to three consecutive terms in office.
It is a safe bet that were he President of the United States, the country would have had effective gun control laws in place by now.
The ban on outsized soft drinks, announced in September, is the latest of the controversies he has gleefully entered.
It fits with his campaign to extend bans on trans fat food additives in restaurants and workplace smoking, all part of the wider fight against the obesity, hypertension and diabetes endemic among New Yorkers.
"When our administration implemented calorie counts and worked to eliminate trans fats in restaurants, we were taken to court but, today, both reforms are recognised as models," Bloomberg said last week as he held a news conference at a Manhattan cafe that had voluntarily adopted his 473ml soft drink limit.
"Already, our proposals have changed the national conversation around obesity and we are confident that the court decision will be reversed on appeal."