Warren Buffett Wannabe Bets on Private Jets in Brazil

  • Michael Klein’s father founded retail chain Casas Bahia
  • Now, he’s aiming to build NetJets-like empire of his own

Brazil billionaire Michael Klein is out to prove he’s inherited his father’s knack for making the best of a bad situation.

Klein, 66, whose father founded Casas Bahia, a folksy retail chain that hawks fridges and TVs, is seeking to build an empire of his own, using his cut of the proceeds after he and his siblings sold control of the company. While he still takes lots of cues from his late father’s experience, these days a better-known magnate is also a role model: Warren Buffett.

Michael Klein

Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg

Klein, as chief executive officer of CB Group, the family’s holding company, is seeking to sell fractional stakes in private jets to wealthy Brazilians through his company, Icon Aviation, mimicking a model used by Buffett’s NetJets Inc. It’s one of many new businesses that the billionaire Klein family has pursued in recent years as Brazil’s economy spiraled into depression. 

“I’ve seen worse,” Klein says about down-and-out Brazil. “The past two years have been a good time to invest.”

He isn’t exaggerating. The family has been on a shopping spree, snapping up commercial real estate, planes, helicopters and air-taxi companies as others looked to shed assets amid a crippling credit crunch. It’s a strategy, Klein says, his father would have liked.

Samuel Klein, a Polish Jewish immigrant, survived two concentration camps before moving to Brazil in the 1950s. There, the older Klein peddled blankets door-to-door and by the end of the century built what was then the nation’s biggest retailer. A few years before his death in 2014, the Klein family sold Casas Bahia to Abilio Diniz, the billionaire who built the supermarket chain Pao de Acucar with his father. Today, France’s Casino Guichard-Perrachon SA controls Via Varejo SA, the company that absorbed Casas Bahia.

If bad times are the Kleins’ sweet spot, there’s never been a better time to be in Brazil.

Latin America’s largest economy is emerging -- if only barely -- from a punishing two-year depression that shrank gross domestic product by almost 10 percent. The commodity bust, a sweeping corruption scandal and impeachment added to the nation’s woes. GDP is expected to expand 0.6 percent this year and rebound to grow 2.4 percent in 2018.

The family has spent about 1 billion reais ($320 million) on commercial real estate throughout Brazil in the past two years, including bank branches, stores and land for distribution centers, boosting their total holdings to about 6 billion reais. Michael Klein holds at least $1.36 billion in assets at Icon Aviation, CB Group’s real estate properties and Via Varejo, according to the billionaire.

While the Kleins might have made some good deals, that’s not to say the recession didn’t hurt, too. The family was forced to renegotiate the rents on commercial properties to keep tenants from jumping to cheaper locations, causing rental income to stagnate in 2015 and 2016 at around 410 million reais. Klein expects rental revenue to inch forward this year to 430 million reais.

One of the family’s biggest bets has been on the private-jet industry. It has spent 500 million reais on the business, including on acquisitions such as Global Aviation. It announced that deal in August 2016, buying out the Constantino family, who also control Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, the Brazilian airline that restructured its debt. The Kleins also bought an air taxi service from the heirs of Sebastiao Camargo, founder of Camargo Correa SA, the builder that admitted to corruption and is divesting assets.

“The aviation market has been frozen over the past three years, with commercial airlines cutting service to many destinations, and banks limiting financing for private jet purchases,” said Klein, a father of seven, including two sets of twins. “We had a lot of space to buy cheap planes and helicopters, and rent them to those in need."

Icon Aviation, whose revenue will swell to about 140 million reais this year from 4 million reais two years earlier, now owns a fleet of 24 aircraft valued at about $200 million.

Next up for Klein: Warren Buffett’s NetJets model.

Klein sees a more formal private jet sector as the biggest opportunity in Brazil aviation. A series of private plane crashes in recent years that killed prominent officials, including a former CEO of Vale SA, a Supreme Court judge and a presidential candidate, is pushing passengers to demand higher standards. Political candidates in next year’s election will face pressure to avoid accepting flights from influence-seekers amid the nation’s many corruption probes. Klein argues his service will fit those needs.

“What we have now in Brazil is a group of friends gathering together to buy a plane or a helicopter,” Klein said. “What we want to do is to have shared ownership inside an air-taxi structure with stricter safety rules."

Among many opportunities, Klein was also tempted to acquire back the old family’s retail business when Casino put it up for sale earlier this year. Casino, which wound up not selling the unit, declined to comment.

“For someone to be willing to buy, someone has to be willing to sell,” Klein, who is also a board member at Via Varejo, said. “For the price they were asking, I’d rather sell than buy,” he said.

(A previous version of this story misspelled Buffett’s name in one reference.)

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