It’s easy to overlook Ana Luisa Virginia in the sea of Jeronimo Martins SGPS SA’s almost 87,000 employees. She’s about five feet tall, and her unassuming demeanor can be mistaken for timidity.
For more than two decades, she has risen through the ranks at the retailer on the back of her experience in mergers and acquisitions and her ability to coordinate teams. Thanks in part to her, the tiny Lisbon store that opened in 1792 selling corn and wine and that went through a painful turnaround at the start of this century, is now among the biggest supermarket operators in Portugal and Poland. As Chief Executive Officer Pedro Soares dos Santos’s chief of staff, Virginia ensures that everyone marches to the company’s drumbeat.
“She was indispensable in the team that designed the turnaround of the company,” said Luis Palha da Silva, who joined Jeronimo Martins as chief financial officer in 2001 and served as CEO from 2004 to 2010. “She’s without a doubt one of the persons with the highest technical, professional and human skills at the company.”
With Soares dos Santos devoted to merchandising at the company’s almost 3,500 stores in Portugal, Poland and Colombia based on what most shoppers want, Virginia’s advice has become crucial -- especially since most of their customers are women. While 77 percent of Jeronimo Martins’s employees are female, according to its website, only one woman sits on the company’s 11-member board, and it has never had a female CEO.
“I would say that about 80 percent of the clients in our supermarkets in Portugal are women,” said Virginia, who is married with two daughters and enjoys cooking for friends on weekends. “I like to think that more than leading, I’m quite good at coordinating teams.”
The 44-year-old’s brush with Portugal’s retail industry began as a child when she worked at her grandparents’ grocery store in Lisbon during her summer holidays.
“After I graduated from university I was interviewed by an auditing company and the person who I spoke to asked me to do an interview for a position at Jeronimo Martins,” she said.
Virginia started off as a treasurer for Feira Nova hypermarkets, a Jeronimo Martins unit.
As Jeronimo Martins expanded to Poland, the U.K. and Brazil, she became responsible for the financial planning division. She was involved in most foreign acquisitions, teaching corporate finance at a university in Lisbon during her free time.
In 2001, when Jeronimo Martins posted a loss after running into trouble in Brazil and amassing too much debt, she was part of the turnaround team.
“She’s certainly one of the group’s most complete and committed top managers, balancing strong technical and soft skills,” CEO Soares dos Santos said in an e-mailed statement, adding that he admires her “positive attitude.”
In the years that followed, she helped cut debt, sell assets in Portugal, sports retailer Lillywhites in the U.K. and the Se supermarkets in Brazil.
“I was probably the most visible person doing this because I had to go to the different countries and negotiate the sale of these assets,” Virginia said.
She worked closely with Soares dos Santos, who was then chief operating officer for the food-distribution business and whose family holds 56 percent of the company.
Their work paid off.
Jeronimo Martins last year reached a record 12.7 billion euros in sales. While some competitors like Tesco Plc struggle with deflation and falling sales in Poland, Jeronimo Martins raised revenue by 11.2 percent there in the first quarter, revamping existing hard-discount stores in towns and suburbs and adding smaller Biedronka stores in the city centers.
“They survived the storm,” said Marek Czachor, an analyst at Erste Securities Polska in Warsaw. “If you look at other retailers in Poland, they’re all doing worse than Jeronimo Martins.”
The Portuguese company’s market value has soared, rising nine-fold since 2001 to 7.8 billion euros.
In November, Virginia -- who like Soares dos Santos sits on the 16th floor of the company headquarters in Lisbon -- began representing the CEO in investor meetings. Since then, the stock has risen 75 percent to close at 12.41 euros on Thursday.
“I’m constantly calling people to request information and make sure they’re in tune with the CEO’s thinking,” said Virginia.
The retailer plans to invest as much as 550 million euros this year to expand.
“Virginia definitely knows where the company is headed,” said Czachor, who participated in an earnings call with her in April. “She knows all the details about the company and that’s helpful for our job.”
Asked if she considers herself a potential CEO candidate down the road, Virginia says, “no, I do not.”
As for Jeronimo Martins, Virginia says, “It’s no secret the company will continue to look for new markets. I don’t know if this will happen in five or ten years but I’m sure the group will be looking to grow elsewhere.”