x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The speed freak who powers up new Brazil

Building Brics: Meet Eike Batista, Brazil's richest man and the businessman who sold 5.63 per cent of his empire to Mubadala Development for US$2 billion.

Eike Batista heads the EBX group of companies with businesses ranging from energy to shipbuilding. (Jonathan Alcorn / Bloomberg News)
Eike Batista heads the EBX group of companies with businesses ranging from energy to shipbuilding. (Jonathan Alcorn / Bloomberg News)

Known as his country's richest man, the philanthropic Eike Batista has been a prime mover in the Brazilian economy's rise to become the world's sixth-biggest, Andrew Downie writes

Perhaps no one sums up the Brazil's new-found confidence and swagger better than Eike Batista.

The businessman who recently sold 5.63 per cent of his empire to Mubadala Development for US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) is Brazil's richest man, with a net worth of $30bn, according to Forbes. Mubadala Development is a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government.

Mr Batista is also one of Brazil's most interesting businessmen, with a private life every bit as colourful as his professional one.

The son of a German mother and a Brazilian father, Mr Batista was educated in Europe and after studying metallurgy at Aachen University in West Germany, he flew to the Amazon where a gold rush was taking place. He made his first fortune working as an intermediary between rural miners and urban buyers.

In one of the first of many stories that have helped to embellish his remarkable biography, he was shot in the back by an angry miner after an argument.

Mr Batista walked away from that and made further fortunes by mechanising the gold mining that was then carried out by hand in the jungle's steamy pits and creeks. He lost part of that money in various failed business ventures outside Brazil but returned home at the start of the millennium and realised Brazil's big advantage was in commodities. He quickly moved to set up a group of companies dedicated to exploring those assets.

Perhaps aided by his father, who was the boss of Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, Brazil's biggest mining firm, Mr Batista lured some of Brazil's best geologists on board with stock options and charisma.

Today, little more than a decade later, Brazil is the sixth-biggest economy in the world and Mr Batista runs the EBX empire of companies, each of which ends in the letter X, which the superstitious tycoon believes signifies multiplication of wealth.

OGX is dedicated to oil and gas, MPX is energy, LLX is logistics, MMX is mining and OSX is all about shipbuilding and the offshore naval industry.

The biggest, OGX, finally began producing about 11,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) in January and hopes to be pumping as much as 1.38 million bpd by 2019. It claims to have reserves of 10.8 billion barrels.

Mr Batista's always predatory eye is also focused on sectors as diverse as property, hotels, entertainment and sport. The company says it will invest $50bn in Brazil over the next decade, $15.5bn of it last year and this year.

In addition to the Mubadala money, sovereign-wealth funds are discussing injecting $1bn into his companies, Mr Batista told Bloomberg in March. General Electric, IBM, and Petrobras, Brazil's huge state-controlled oil company, are among those to have already invested with his companies, confirming his industrial magnetism.

"He comes from a family of entrepreneurs and when you speak with him it is clear that he knows the businesses he is involved with," says Lucas Brendler, a fund manager at Banco Geração Futuro de Investimentos. "There is an awareness that the areas he works in are promising and that they need attention. These are areas that are growing, often faster than the overall economy. One of his big advantages is that he knows them all."

In one of the world's most unequal nations, Mr Batista also stands out for his philanthropy. Although he was not born in Rio, he made it his home and has invested millions in transforming a city that is known the world over for its favelas and violent crime.

He helped to bankroll Rio's successful bid for the 2016 Olympics and has invested in some of the venues that will host events and competitors. He has also put money into social programmes and public works. Irked by Rio's lack of a good Chinese restaurant, he even hired a Chinese chef he knew from New York and built his own.

"As one of its most treasured adopted sons, Eike Batista, 55, has helped us shape the renaissance," Eduardo Paes, the Rio mayor, wrote in Time magazine last month, where Mr Batista was named one of the World's 100 Most Influential People. "He might be Brazil's richest man and the world's seventh-richest, bringing vital investment to our city from oil and mining, but his most valuable asset is his commitment to Rio's legacy."

Mr Batista has been as much of a godsend to gossip writers as business editors. Most notably he called off his marriage in 1991 on the eve of the wedding ceremony after falling in love with a Playboy model called Luma de Oliveira, whom he married that year. She later took part in Rio's famous samba parade wearing a collar studded with the name "Eike", although they divorced in 1994.

A former powerboat world champion, he is a speed freak and kept a Mercedes McLaren SLR sports car parked in the front room of his spectacular mansion. His son, Thor, 20, was driving the car in March when he was involved in a collision with an impoverished 12-year-old cyclist.

The incident does not seem to have dimmed Mr Batista's lust for the spotlight. A fixture on social media, he was on Twitter defending his son soon afterwards, saying the incident was an accident.

He remains, as always, sanguine and ebullient - and the outstanding example of the new Brazil.

business@thenational.ae

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