Wal-Mart heiress on path to Ebbers’ ranch

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The Canadian ranch seen as the ultimate retreat for WorldCom founder Bernie Ebbers was yesterday thought to have been sold to the richest woman in America.

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Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, is believed to be ready to pay about C$90m (£40m) for the Douglas Lake Ranch, beating rival bidders rumoured to include Galen Weston, of the family that owns Fortnum & Mason.

The ranch in British Columbia is 500,000 acres or 781 square miles, just 45 square miles smaller than Snowdonia national park in Wales. It has 15 fulltime cowboys looking after 22,250 head of cattle, and includes its own town, Douglas Lake, where its workers live. There are also 300 horses thrown in to make sure each cowboy has his own stable.

The ranch came up for sale when Mr Ebbers was sued by the company’s employees. Mr Ebbers, who is no longer with WorldCom, bought the ranch in 1998 for around C$100m. A former milkman from Edmonton, Alberta, Mr Ebbers seldom visited the property.

WorldCom filed for bankruptcy with debts of more than $40 billion last July after the world’s largest accounting fraud. Mr Ebbers has not been charged.

Alice Walton, 53, lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She is worth $16.5 billion (£10 billion), according to Forbes Magazine’s latest list of the richest people in America, just behind Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway’s investment guru, Warren Buffett.

One of the brokers in the deal, Colliers International in Vancouver, refused to confirm that the sale is going through. “We’ll issue a press release when the deal is done,” said Mark Lester, the vice-president at the firm in charge of selling the property. “We’ve shopped it around but we can’t say if anyone has bought it or for how much.”

Other estate agents say it is only a matter of the sale being cleared by a New York City court, which is handling the WorldCom bankruptcy.

The ranch is one of the largest in North America and is described as a trophy property by estate agents. Most of its land is used for grazing cattle, though 5,000 acres are in crops to provide feed and there are 16,000 acres of forest that are harvested for timber.

WorldCom has also sold a luxury yacht building yard for $9.8m that it had seized as part of a move to collect loans it had made to Mr Ebbers.

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