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Gates, no longer richest, rarely flaunts wealth

Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, for 13 years also known as the world’s richest man, has dropped to No. 3 on Forbes’ annual list of the world’s wealthiest individuals.
Image: Bill Gates
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at a 2003 appearance in New York City where his foundation was donating $51.2 million to a Bronx High School. Between 1994 and 2006, Gates gave more than $26 billion to the Foundation.Gregory Bull / AP file

Don’t shed any tears for Bill Gates.

The Microsoft Corp. co-founder, for 13 years also known as the world’s richest man, has dropped to No. 3 on Forbes’ annual list of the world’s wealthiest individuals, following his friend, investment mogul Warren Buffett, and Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim Helú.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

While such a demotion might bother most corporate bigwigs, Gates has for years given the impression that his thirst for success is more about competitiveness and computer code, not a lust for the finer things in life.

Michael Cherry, who worked at Microsoft for 11 years before joining the independent analyst firm Directions on Microsoft eight years ago, said he remembers Gates being most passionate about achieving technological goals, such as getting a Microsoft-powered PC into every home.

“I think he was much more interested in the impact the technology had had than the money he had made from it,” Cherry said.

Rick Sherlund, one of the earliest and longest-running Microsoft financial analysts, recalled running into Gates about 15 years ago at La Guardia airport, only to discover that both were taking the same flight — and both had middle seats in coach.

“He really enjoys being studious and that’s where a lot of his focus is. It’s not being pretentious and flashy. That’s not Bill,” said Sherlund, now managing director of Galleon Group in New York.

In 2006, Gates even told an online advertising conference at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters that he actually wished he wasn’t the richest man in the world.

“There’s nothing good that comes out of that,” he said during a session in which he was interviewed by CNBC host Donny Deutsch. “You get more visibility as a result of it.”

A spokeswoman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, his family philanthropy, said Wednesday that Gates was not available for comment.

The magazine said Gates fell to spot No. 3 in part because of the effect Microsoft’s unsolicited bid for search engine giant Yahoo appears to have had on its share price. Shares in Microsoft fell 15 percent between the time the bid was announced and the date the magazine locked in share prices for its list, the magazine said.

Gates is still a major Microsoft shareholder, although he also has considerable investment holdings outside the company he founded as a Harvard dropout with his friend Paul Allen.

Gates’ net worth is now estimated to be about $58 billion, while investment guru Buffett is said to be worth about $62 billion. Helú is estimated to be worth $60 billion, the magazine said.

Gates is famous for being intensely competitive on other fronts, most notably his company’s quest to beat any company that threatens Microsoft’s dominance the software industry. But the Microsoft chairman has not seemed, in public at least, to fret about which technology executive had the biggest bank balance.

A computer geek at heart, Gates also has not used his wealth to invest in high-profile holdings such as sports teams, like Allen. He also is not known for living a lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the likes of Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. Even the co-founders of Google Inc., the upstart that has become a major Microsoft rival, have drawn attention to their wealth through their flashy retrofit of a Boeing 767 jet.

Instead, Gates has made clear that he intends to use his wealth to drive his philanthropic interests, rather than to build a dynasty for his three children. Between 1994 and 2006, Gates gave more than $26 billion to the Gates Foundation, a philanthropy focused on global health, education and other causes. Later this year, Gates plans to start spending more of his energy on the foundation as well, as he moves away from day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft.

Buffett, another strong believer in not leaving vast amounts of wealth to his children, also has pledged billions of dollars to the Gates family foundation.

Still, Gates, 52, and his family have enjoyed some of the fruits of his labor. Unlike his pal Buffett, who still lives in a modest house in Omaha, Neb., Gates did build a lavish waterfront mansion near his company’s headquarters outside of Seattle.  And of course, it’s packed with fancy technology.

But such lavishness does not apparently spread to other parts of his life. He is far from a flashy dresser, preferring button-down shirts and khakis, with maybe the occasional sweater, in public appearances. Sherlund said he has often teased Gates that their barbers must “share the same bowl.”

“He wouldn’t probably notice if his socks didn’t match — although I think he gets help on that these days,” Sherlund said.