– Antonio Ermirio de Moraes, the Brazilian entrepreneur who became a billionaire after expanding his family’s industrial conglomerate, has died. He was 86.
He died yesterday of heart failure at his Sao Paulo home, his company confirmed in an e-mail.
After taking the helm of Votorantim Group, the family company, following his father’s death in 1973, Ermirio de Moraes guided it through Brazil’s hyperinflation era, added new units through the 1980s and a bank in 1991. It is now the nation’s biggest cement maker and has interests in aluminum, pulp and paper, energy, agriculture and finance.
The entrepreneur, who gained notoriety from his failed bid to become Sao Paulo’s governor, was known for an unpretentious lifestyle that belied his wealth. His philanthropic endeavors included overseeing Beneficiencia Portuguesa hospital in Sao Paulo for more than three decades.
“My education was different,” Ermirio de Moraes said in a 1988 interview with Brazilian television personality Jo Soares. “One of those things I never exactly cared for was that phobia of appearing to be rich. To become rich is a natural thing, a result of your work, that which you’ve done.”
Ermirio de Moraes was ranked 273rd on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with an estimated net worth of $5.5 billion. He served as chairman of Votorantim Group until he stepped down in 2001 for health reasons.
“The country lost a pioneer in the creation of the modern Brazilian economy,” Lazaro de Mello Brandao, chairman of the board for Banco Bradesco SA, Latin America’s second-biggest bank by market value, said today in an e-mailed statement.
The businessman’s death triggered reactions from business leaders and politicians. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff released a statement today lauding the life of a “born leader,” while Aecio Neves, the former governor of Minas Gerais, who is running against Rousseff in an October election, lamented the passing of “one of the great examples of Brazilian entrepreneurship.”
Ermirio de Moraes was born on June 4, 1928, in Sao Paulo. He was one of four children of Jose Ermirio de Moraes, and his wife, Helena Pereira de Moraes. Antonio split ownership of Votorantim Participacoes SA with his two siblings and the heirs of his late brother.
Votorantim Group traces its origins to 1918, when Jose Ermirio de Moraes’s father-in-law, Antonio Pereira Ignacio, gained the assets of bankrupt Banco Uniao at an auction. They included a textile factory in rural Sao Paulo state, in the district of Votorantim.
Jose Ermirio de Moraes, the son of wealthy sugar-mill owners in the northeast state of Pernambuco, acquired the business of his father-in-law. After diversifying it, he later became a senator and agriculture minister.
Upon his father’s death in 1971, Antonio Ermirio de Moraes took control as the oldest son. The group continued to diversify under his watch, creating nickel, pulp and orange-juice units in the 1980s. He opened a bank in 1991, expanding even amid hyperinflation that often exceeded 1,000 percent annually. His brothers, Ermirio Pereira and the late Jose Ermirio Jr., and brother-in-law Clovis Scripilliti played supporting roles in the family business.
A revered figure in Brazil’s business world, Ermirio de Moraes made an unsuccessful run for governor of Sao Paulo state in 1986. The experience inspired him to write his first play, “Brazil SA.” He wrote two others --“SOS Brazil” and “Wake up, Brazil!” -- while managing one of the country’s largest conglomerates.
Like his father, Antonio was sent to the U.S. by his family to study at Colorado School of Mines, before returning home to make his fortune.
Ermirio de Moraes told biographer Jose Pastore that when he went to study metallurgic engineering in Colorado, Americans had difficulty pronouncing his last name, Moraes. He asked to be called “more ice.”
“When I met him, he seemed sort of awkward, with a very discreet suit, unbuttoned collar and his tie out of place,” Pastore, who was coordinator of the failed gubernatorial campaign, said in an interview with Brazilian news website uol.com.br. “He had a worn old suitcase in his left hand with many documents. The surprise was to see him let out a torrent of data without looking at the papers he brought. I was very impressed with him.”
Ermirio de Moraes had nine children with his wife, Regina.