Texto de matéria: Arrest brings Odebrecht into the spotlight
|(Joe Leahy, John Paul Rathbone and Andres Schipani)
When Marcelo Odebrecht was transferred to prison last week after his company was charged with cheating Petrobras out of R$6.4bn ($1.9bn), he became the latest member of Brazil’s elite to be sucked into the country’s biggest-ever corruption scandal — and also one of the most unusual. The 47-year-old is president and chief executive of Odebrecht — the Brazilian multinational that is Latin America’s largest construction company but also, because it is privately held, one of the world’s biggest companies that most people have never heard of.
Only a few months ago, Mr Odebrecht bestrode the world. With $41bn in revenues, 181,000 employees and businesses that include building football stadiums and nuclear submarines, his company operates in 23 countries, from Angola to the UK and most of Latin America.
Odebrecht’s global reach and diplomatic mystique — it has large operations in Cuba and the US, despite Washington’s embargo which usually makes such dual-country business impossible — stems from the 2000s.
Then it almost acted as the corporate handmaiden of Brazilian foreign policy, managing complex infrastructure projects in strategic locations that had caught the eye of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Now, in the latest sign of how Brazilian business and politics is being reconfigured by the Petrobras scandal, Mr Odebrecht is being held without bail in a sparse cell in the southern city of Curitiba.
There, the billionaire member of a class that traditionally considers itself above the law, reportedly has to sleep on a concrete bunk and share a communal shower. “We are in a kind of different story now,” said Professor Sérgio Lazzarini of São Paulo’s Insper business university. “It [the investigation] is changing the perspective of many businessmen.” Under the so-called Lava Jato, or car wash, investigation, senior Brazilian politicians and former Petrobras executives stand accused of conspiring with construction companies in return for kickbacks and bribes.
Mr Lula da Silva is being investigated on separate allegations that he improperly used his connections to help Odebrecht win international contracts. Mr Lula da Silva and Odebrecht vehemently deny any wrongdoing. The yearlong probe, now aided by the Swiss attorney-general’s office and Portuguese and Latin American prosecutors, promises to illuminate the shadier side of Latin American business practices.
Moody’s, the rating agency, has warned the case could jeopardise some of Odebrecht’s $34bn backlog of construction contracts, including $3bn of Colombian projects. “[If] proven guilty in Brazil, that could generate inabilities [for the company] in Colombia,” Luis Fernando Andrade, head of Colombia’s infrastructure agency, told the Financial Times. Although other Brazilian construction companies have been charged under the probe, Odebrecht is the biggest and enjoys the greatest aura of mystery.
Founded 70 years ago in north-eastern Brazil by Mr Odebrecht’s grandfather, the company is best known for three things: its technical excellence, unique corporate culture, and worldwide reach.
Like AB InBev, another Brazil-based multinational, Odebrecht likes to hire the best engineers out of college. “Their ability to manage complex projects is unrivalled,” said one businessman who has worked with the company. In part that is thanks to Odebrecht’s so-called “entrepreneurialism technology” culture, which helps to inspire and knit together a group that is more a confederation of autonomous businesses than a company.
Employees are “called members” and must read cultural orientation manuals when they join. “Odebrecht is all about its strong culture,” says the board member of a rival construction company who asked not to be named. “It is not for everyone, but it has certainly worked for them. It makes its decentralised structure possible.” Lastly, there is Odebrecht’s ability to operate successfully and manage relationships in countries with “significant levels of political risk”, as it noted in a recent bond prospectus. That includes building Tripoli’s airport — until work was disrupted by the 2011 Libyan military intervention — and Panama, where Odebrecht won $8.5bn of projects under former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently being investigated for corruption. A 2.8km viaduct built around Panama City’s old town for $782m had a cost per kilometre surpassed in the US only by Boston’s infamous “big dig”, according to official US statistics cited by local environmentalists.
As a privately held company, Odebrecht tends to be parsimonious with financial information. The business is capital-light: most of its $61bn in assets are concentrated in petrochemical company Braskem, a joint venture with Petrobras. Other units, particularly its largest, the construction arm, win business at public tenders and then charge host governments a fee to build and manage infrastructure, often funded by multilateral or soft government loans.
Like many construction companies, the emphasis is on volume and keeping costs low, which explains Odebrecht’s wafer-thin margins: in 2014, net profits were just $210m from $41bn of sales. The importance of low costs might also help explain the company’s problems with corruption allegations. “How much of every deal’s transaction costs are embedded or internalised in the costing calculations?” asked the rival. Certainly, that is where Brazilian investigators seem to be focusing. In an indictment released this week, they accused Odebrecht of being so cosy with Petrobras that in 2010 it sent corporate “souvenirs” to top management — allegedly expensive artworks by famous Brazilian artists, including architect Oscar Niemeyer.
“Hand-written annotations [on the present list]?.?.?.?show the high value of the pictures,” the indictment said. Odebrecht’s lawyers last week called the decision to hold Mr Odebrecht in prison “indefensible” and said the formal accusation will now let them construct a defence
Fonte: Financial Times Online – 29/07/2015
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