March 21, 2023

The Saturday Profile: A Brazilian Magnate Points to Himself for Inspiration

EIKE BATISTA fidgeted in his chair, bristling at the memory of his former anonymity.

“Brazilians think that I appeared in the year 2000 from scratch,” said Mr. Batista, Brazil’s richest man.

Few Brazilians had heard about his adventures in the Amazon in his early 20s, he said, when he dropped out of college in West Germany to trade gold and bet his winnings on building a clunky-looking machine in the rainforest to process the precious metal without pick-and-shovel miners.

Instead, Mr. Batista surfaced in the gossip magazines only in the 1990s after he married the model and Carnival dancer Luma de Oliveira. Back then, his father, Eliezer Batista, a beloved former government official, told him to keep a low profile, as his son’s rapidly expanding fortune made him a target for kidnappers.

Mr. Batista has done anything but hide. At 55, he is not only considered South America’s wealthiest man, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $30 billion, but he is also one of Brazil’s most public figures, a serial entrepreneur with boundless energy to sell himself and his country.

“My race horse is Brazil,” he said from the sprawling 22nd-floor office of his EBX Corporation headquarters, which has a long deck overlooking Guanabara Bay. “And Brazil today has the wealth that America had at the turn of the century.”

While President Dilma Rousseff has held up Mr. Batista as an example of private-sector execution, rival businessmen have contended that Mr. Batista’s chief skill was as a salesman, persuading investors to bet about $24 billion on his start-up companies in mining, oil, logistics, power generation and shipbuilding.

“They think he sells too many dreams and not enough reality,” said Olavo Monteiro de Carvalho, a former partner in an Amazon gold mine.

Early this year, Mr. Batista has a chance to shed that label when his oil company, OGX, is expected to begin producing crude from an estimated 10 billion barrels of offshore discoveries.

Mr. Batista’s logistics company also plans to open a $2 billion “superport” in Rio next year that he said would be Latin America’s version of Rotterdam. Set on land one and a half times the size of Manhattan, it will handle some 350 million tons of imports and exports a year, including oil and iron ore from Mr. Batista’s companies, he said.

Brazilians remain divided on the man most simply know as Eike. Some view him as showy and a megalomaniac, scoffing at photos of him in pink ties and posing beside his $1 million Mercedes McLaren.

Mr. Batista is unapologetic, saying he is trying to break a cultural conservatism around wealth that his father was a part of, and teach Brazilians to look up to their entrepreneurs the way Americans do.

“I want to help a whole generation of Brazilians to be proud,” he said. “I am rich, yes. I have built it myself. I have not stolen it. Show it. Just brutally show it.”

These days, Mr. Batista is fully unshackled. He travels the world in his $61 million Gulfstream jet, often giving talks, and interacts with his more than 539,600 Twitter followers, to whom he offers “educational phrases” meant to inspire.

In his office, he displays framed photos of his days as a champion powerboat racer and a sword given to him by a grateful Japanese partner in a gold deal.

He peppered his German-accented English — one of five languages he speaks fluently — with French phrases like “Voilà!” and “C’est la vie.” His infectious laugh recalled The Riddler from the 1960s “Batman” television show.

Mr. Batista said his journey began as a “quest towards financial independence” and a burning desire to escape the shadow of his famous father, a Brazilian engineer who helped increase Brazil’s international trade in commodities.

BORN in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Mr. Batista is one of seven children. When he was small he suffered from chronic asthma. His mother, a German, put him in a swimming pool. “It opened up my lungs,” he said. He remains an avid swimmer and runner.

When he was a teenager, his family moved to Europe, living in Geneva, Düsseldorf and Brussels. Mr. Batista’s father, who back in Brazil had been president of the state mining company, decided to go into a “friendly exile” when Brazil’s military government branded him a Communist for his fluency in Russian, one of several languages he speaks. In Europe, Eliezer Batista worked to build the mining company’s international business.

In the 1960s, he recognized Brazil could profit greatly by exporting iron ore to Japan. But the distance was tremendous, so Mr. Batista persuaded shipbuilders to construct huge carriers, and he led the development of a Brazilian port deep enough for the ships to dock.

The younger Mr. Batista said his father “did a lot of incredible things for Brazil,” but he was “never a risk taker.”

His parents returned to Brazil when Mr. Batista was 18. He stayed behind in Brussels and went door to door selling insurance, later trading diamonds and corned beef.

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