Dirce Navarro de Camargo’s discreet ownership of one of Brazil’s oldest industrial empires makes her the richest woman in the country.
A grandmother whose birth date could not be confirmed, Camargo controls Sao Paulo-based conglomerate Camargo Correa SA, which has interests in cement, electricity and Havaianas flip-flops. Her net worth is $13.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. She is the 60th-richest person in the world, and doesn’t appear on any other international wealth ranking.
Founded by her late husband Sebastiao Camargo in 1939, Camargo Correa is controlled through the Participacoes Morro Vermelho SA holding company. Morro Vermelho’s shares are held in equal proportion under the names of Camargo’s three daughters, Regina, Renata and Rosana. According to incorporation documents published in 2002, some of the shares were issued in lifetime usufruct in favor of Camargo, meaning she is their beneficial owner until her death. The rest can’t be sold, transferred or borrowed against by her daughters.
“You never see them in the society pages,” said David Fleischer, a political analyst at the University of Brasilia, speaking about the Camargo family. “They allow professional administrators to do all the management.”
When Sebastiao Camargo died in 1994, he was one of Brazil’s few billionaires, renowned for his role in building dams and highways across the country after World War II. His widow’s fortune has only grown since then, with Brazil pouring money into infrastructure ahead of the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later. This year, the group spent almost 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) to acquire 95 percent of Cimpor Cimentos de Portugal SGPS, a publicly traded cement maker based in Lisbon.
A spokesman for the company confirmed that Dirce Camargo controls the family fortune, and declined to comment on her net worth. She now ranks as the third-richest person in Brazil, displacing banker Joseph Safra, who has a fortune of $10.3 billion, according to Bloomberg’s daily ranking. Commodities tycoon Eike Batista remains No. 1 with $20.8 billion, followed by Anheuser-Busch InBev NV investor Jorge Paulo Lemann with $17.2 billion.
The Camargo family’s other public holdings include 26 percent of electricity company CPFL Energia SA, a stake worth $2.8 billion; a 17 percent interest in Sao Paulo-based toll-road operator CCR SA, valued at $2.6 billion; and a controlling interest in footwear manufacturer Alpargatas SA worth $1.1 billion. The group’s flagship construction arm, which is helping to build the Belo Monte and Jirau hydroelectric dams in Brazil’s Amazon region, generated about 30 percent of the group’s total revenue of 17.3 billion reais ($8.6 billion) last year.
Born in 1909, Sebastiao Camargo started out carting sand by donkey when he was a teenager. He opened a construction business in 1939 with two partners, whose stakes the Camargo family later bought out. They won government contracts for roads and railways over the decade that followed. In the 1950s, their company participated in the construction of Brazil’s new capital, Brasilia.
Camargo -- who was awarded an honorary diploma from the government’s High College of War in 1967 -- expanded the business into cement during the two-decade military dictatorship that took power in a 1964 coup. It was a “fat cow” period of increased state investment, according to Fleischer. Camargo took on ever-larger infrastructure projects, including subway lines in Sao Paulo, the Trans-Amazonian Highway and the bridge connecting Rio de Janeiro and neighboring Niteroi.
“Brazil’s greatest progress was in the military government,” Camargo told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper in December 1990.
In the 1970s, Camargo pushed deeper into Latin America. General Leonidas Pires Goncalves told the Sao Paulo-based oral-history archive Museu da Pessoa that Camargo once asked him to secure the assistance of the Brazilian government to mediate a labor dispute at a project in Venezuela. Goncalves agreed. When democracy returned in 1985, the general was named minister of the army.
Camargo’s business continued to prosper under civilian rule. During the privatization wave of the 1990s, the conglomerate acquired electricity company CPFL, and won toll-road concessions that were later bundled together into publicly traded CCR. Sebastiao Camargo led the company until his death in 1994, when control passed to his wife, Dirce.
“Sebastian was daring,” former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a December 2002 address at the Tucurui dam, one of Camargo Correa’s many projects. “And the results of his daring are left in concrete in Brazil and abroad.”
Today, Camargo Correa continues to benefit from government projects. Financing from the state development bank, known as the BNDES, accounts for about 24 percent of the company’s debt, according to Jose Vertiz, the director of Latin American corporate finance at Fitch Ratings. The conglomerate operates in 17 countries and employs 58,400 people.
Dirce Camargo briefly acted as chairman after her husband’s death. The company is now led by professional administrators, including Chairman Vitor Hallack. The husbands of two of the founder’s daughters sit on the board: Carlos Pires Oliveira and Luiz Roberto Ortiz Nascimento. The third, Fernando Arruda Botelho, died in an airplane crash in April.
After the conglomerate’s $9.5 billion in public holdings, its construction operation is its largest asset. The unit posted 5.2 billion reais in revenue and 166 million reais in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization last year, according to the company’s annual report. The division is valued at $2.2 billion based on the average enterprise value-to-sales and enterprise value-to-Ebitda multiples of four publicly traded peers: Peru’s Grana & Montero SAA, Chile’s Besalco SA, China State Construction International Holdings Ltd. and Dubai-based Arabtec Holding Co.
Leaving out publicly traded Cimpor, Camargo Correa posted 1.1 billion reais in cement sales last year. Based on the average enterprise value-to-sales multiple of Cimpor and four peers -- Colombia’s Cementos Argos SA, Mexico’s Cemex SAB, PT Holcim Indonesia and Mumbai-based Ultratech Cement Ltd. -- the closely held slice of the cement division is valued at $1.3 billion.
The group’s shipbuilding operations posted 609 million reais in revenue, negative Ebitda of 449 million reais and a loss of 188 million reais last year. The division is valued at $265 million based on the average enterprise value-to-sales multiple of four Singaporean shipyard owners: Nam Cheong Ltd., JES International Holdings Ltd., Yangzijiang Shipbuilding Holdings Ltd. and STX OSV Holdings Ltd.
A 5 percent liquidity discount was applied to each of the company’s closely held units. A liability of $3.2 billion was added to Camargo Correa’s balance sheet to reflect the conglomerate’s closely held net debt, as estimated in a June 2012 report by Fitch’s Vertiz.
Camargo Correa has reported more than $4.2 billion in net income in the past decade, according to its annual reports. Based on the company’s statutory dividend of 15 percent of net income, and adjusting for estimated market performance and lifestyle costs, the family probably holds more than $3 billion in cash, real estate and other outside assets, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Included in those holdings are multiple golf courses near Sao Paulo, as reported by the magazine Veja in July 2002. The family also owns a ranch in sparsely populated Mato Grosso state, near the border with Bolivia.
In the presidential elections of 2010, Camargo Correa was one of the largest campaign donors -- for both sides of the contest. According to data from Brazil’s High Electoral Court, the company’s various units gave at least 15 million reais to the ruling Workers’ Party and PMDB, and 8.5 million reais to the opposition PSDB.
“You split your bets,” said Fleischer, of the University of Brasilia. “All of these governments need construction projects, be it a military regime or a civilian regime. They don’t have any ideology.”