Belmiro de Azevedo, Once Portugal's Richest Man, Dies at 79

  • Businessman founded the country’s biggest supermarket chain
  • Azevedo handed over the post of Sonae CEO to son Paulo in 2007

Belmiro de Azevedo, who was formerly Portugal’s richest person after transforming a local wood-panel manufacturer into a global enterprise involved in retailing, telecommunications and shopping-center development, has died. He was 79.

He died Wednesday, according to an emailed statement from Sonae SGPS SA, the holding company for Azevedo’s assets. No additional details were provided.

Belmiro de Azevedo

Photographer: Vanda de Mello/Bloomberg

Sonae expanded to Germany, France and Brazil, among other countries. At home, it became Portugal’s biggest private sector employer, with a workforce that exceeded 50,000 for several years, roughly 1 percent of the country’s workers.

In 2007, Azevedo handed over the post of chief executive officer at Sonae to his son, Paulo, and continued as chairman until 2015. He had two other children: Nuno and Claudia, who is the CEO of Sonae Capital.

Azevedo was known for his criticism of officials who he said interfered with some of his business activities. He clashed with the government in 2003 over its plan to sell shares in what is now called Navigator Company SA, the country’s biggest pulp-and-paper producer. Azevedo owned shares in the enterprise and said the government prevented him from increasing his stake by as much as he desired.

“I’m a little bit irreverent,” Azevedo said in a 2006 interview. “You know, governments -- they don’t like that.” That attitude harmed the company a lot, he said.

Blocked Bid

Azevedo said the government played a role in scuttling Sonae’s 2007 bid for Portugal Telecom, the country’s former phone monopoly. He cited the role of a state-owned bank that voted its shares in the phone company against a rules change needed for Sonae’s 11.9 billion-euro ($14 billion) takeover bid to proceed. He disputed the government’s assertion that the bank made the decision independently. The acquisition would have been Portugal’s largest.

“Belmiro de Azevedo was a very important businessman for Portugal,” Economy Minister Manuel Caldeira Cabral said in comments broadcast by SIC television today. “He was a driver of change in Portugal, who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”

Born in 1938 in Marco de Canaveses, northern Portugal, Azevedo made his career in and around Oporto, the country’s second-biggest city. He graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Oporto in 1964, then worked in a textile company before joining wood-panel manufacturer Sonae in 1965.

Gaining Control

He started as head of research and development and became CEO in 1967 after upgrading the company’s outdated facilities, which helped it begin to make a profit.

After acquiring majority control of Sonae in the 1980s, Azevedo expanded into other industries. Its Modelo Continente SGPS SA unit became the biggest retailer in the Portuguese market, also opening stores in Brazil that it sold to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2005.

Sonae’s investments at various times included a travel agency and a tourist resort south of Lisbon, a construction company and one of Portugal’s leading daily newspapers, Publico.

In 2008, Azevedo was overtaken as Portugal’s richest man by Americo Amorim, the controlling shareholder of cork producer Corticeira Amorim SGPS SA, according to Portuguese magazine Exame. Amorim died in July.

In addition to his children, Azevedo is survived by his wife, Margarida.

— With assistance by Jim Silver

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